It’s been almost two years since the folks at the LaGrange Theater, 80 S. LaGrange Road in LaGrange, switched off the projectors and emptied the popcorn machine.
But the theater’s doors could reopen by Memorial Day 2022 now that the village of LaGrange has reached an agreement with the theater’s owners and the company that will take over its operation.
“On these types of matters, it’s easy to take a position and not be flexible,” said LaGrange Village President Mark Kuchler at the Oct. 11 meeting of the village board where the final deal was presented to the public. “But successful projects or proposals require give and take.”
While the deal isn’t officially sealed, LaGrange trustees voted unanimously to instruct the village’s attorney to craft an ordinance to create an entertainment tax of 50 cents per ticket sold at the LaGrange Theater and that the revenue from that tax be divided equally between the village and the new theater operator, Downers Grove-based Classic Cinemas.
Kuchler illustrated the benefit of the entertainment tax, which will be collected in perpetuity, saying that if Classic Cinemas sells 180,000 tickets per year at the LaGrange Theater, the village and company would equally split the $90,000 in revenue. He likened the arrangement to sales tax rebates routinely given by municipalities to car dealerships they want to convince to stay long-term.
“This tax will provide a substantial amount of money to be used for economic development and funding activities in the downtown,” Kuchler said.
The deal also calls for the village to amend a 2009 agreement with the theater owners, John Rot and Dan Chopp, which placed a lien on the property calling for the owners to repay a $1 million loan given to renovate the theater in 2010 if the theater closed for any reason for more than 30 days.
Although there was act-of-God language in the agreement that would have shielded the owners from the payback provision during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 and early 2021, movie theaters have been allowed to operate since spring.
The amendment to the agreement would remove the lien. While the owners would derive that benefit from the deal, they are not party to the entertainment tax revenue-sharing arrangement.
The LaGrange Village Board met Oct. 25, but the deal with Classic Cinemas was not on the agenda. The board will meet next on Nov. 8.
Chris Johnson, the CEO of Classic Cinemas who attended the Oct. 11 village board meeting, told the Landmark in a phone interview that Memorial Day 2022 was his target for reopening the theater – as a first-run movie house showing the latest releases.
The renovation would expand the number of theaters inside the building from four to five by reconfiguring the space. Classic Cinemas also has requested installing an LED message board in the frame of the existing marquee.
However, Kuchler said that there’s a possibility that the theater’s sign could be in line for another intriguing bit of restoration.
“It’s possible that Chris Johnson’s father [Classic Cinemas founder Willis Johnson] will get personally involved and actually bring back the vertical sign,” Kuchler told those attending the Oct. 11 village board meeting. “It’s even possible that we’ll have a better sign than what’s out there now.”
One LaGrange resident, Jim Longino, wondered whether the village might want to reassure residents skeptical of removing the property lien, which protected the village’s 2009 investment, by seeking some sort of guarantee from the owners that the building remains a movie theater long-term.
“Once you remove that lien you have no control,” Longino said.
Trustee Beth Augustine said there were “no guarantees it stays a theater with the deal or without,” and that the village was engaging in some level of trust and faith by agreeing to the deal.
“But there also have been some good conversations and a fair amount of understanding that this is absolutely their intention, which is to keep it a theater and make it a better theater,” Augustine said.
In response to questions about maintaining the theater’s historic appearance, Chris Johnson sought to reassure officials and members of the public attending the meeting that the company intended to do just that.
“We’re dedicated to preserving the historic look and feel of the theater,” Johnson said. “That’s the spirit of the way we operate, hence the name Classic Cinemas.”
Classic Cinemas operates more than a dozen movie houses in northeast Illinois, including the North Riverside Luxury 6 at North Riverside Park Mall and the Lake Theatre in Oak Park.