Willis and Shirley Johnson during a ribbon cutting ceremony for the 75th anniversary of the Lake Theatre in April 2011. | FILE
Willis Johnson | Courtesy of Classic Cinemas

Willis Johnson never set out to restore historic movie theaters; neither did he intend to own one at all, but by chance he would become the founder of the largest cinema chain in the state. 

The Classic Cinemas founder died Aug. 16 at 86, leaving a legacy of 16 movie theater locations across Cook County and a galvanized downtown Oak Park, without ever having planned to join the movie business. 

“It was purely by accident,” said his son, Chris Johnson, CEO of Classic Cinemas.

That accident turned into a long career. So great was his love for what he did and the people he served, Johnson never actually stopped working, even in old age. He kept engaged as much as he could, dedicated to providing the best possible movie theater experience across the company.

“My dad, well, he never retired officially, but his health wasn’t great,” Chris Johnson said. “He would still be checking in.”

In 1977, Johnson bought his first cinema — the Tivoli Theatre — with his brother as an investment property. At the time, he was 41 and staying at the Tivoli Hotel in Downers Grove, right by the movie theatre, where operators had a lease on the property extending until 1992. Johnson would have been happy enough to serve as landlord, but he never got the chance. 

“The theater operator put a sign on the marquee that said, ‘Closed for remodeling,’ but the tenant was skipping town,” Chris Johnson said.

Faced with an empty theater and no tenant, Johnson was offered a proposition from one of the Tivoli Theater managers: If he could handle the business side of things, the manager would tackle regular operations. Johnson grabbed that opportunity, which became the genesis of Classic Cinemas.

Chris Johnson, Shirley Johnson, and Willis Johnson at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove. | Courtesy of Classic Cinemas

On vacations, he, his wife Shirley and their family would always hit up a local movie theater no matter where they were or what was playing. The family even turned down a trip to Disneyland in favor of seeing a movie while visiting California. 

“That’s what we did,” Chris Johnson said. “He loved movies.”

While Johnson’s brother continued the printing business the two had started, Johnson turned his focus entirely to movie theaters. He became known for acquiring old theaters in need of some love and care, renovating them to their previous splendor while adding modern amenities, and boosting the local economies — not least of which Oak Park’s.

“He loved Oak Park,” said Chris Johnson. 

And Oak Park loved him. Johnson revitalized downtown Oak Park, purchasing the Lake Theatre, 1022 Lake St., in 1981 and then painstakingly renovated it over the next three years. He noticed even the smaller features, right down to the seats, to which he affixed specially made art deco plaques.

Willis Johnson and Shirley Johnson | Courtesy of Uptown Theatre – Chicago/Classic Cinemas

“He spent thousands of dollars on this little thing that most people probably didn’t see, but that’s the kind of detail that he loved,” his son said.

Lake Theatre became a symbol of downtown Oak Park, bringing in people from other communities to see movies, driving up business for neighboring shops. And it still does. When people think of downtown Oak Park, they immediately envision the theater’s marquee, Shanon Williams, DTOP executive director, told Wednesday Journal.

“Lake Theatre is downtown Oak Park,” Williams said. “It’s vital to the recognition of what we are.”

Johnson’s motto, according to Chris Johnson, was: “It’s the details that matter.” And he gave that same level of care to the Oak Park community, spending roughly 20 years on the board of the Downtown Oak Park business association, even serving as its board president. 

One of his most notable contributions through DTOP was the reopening of Lake Street in 1989. The street, which anchors downtown, had been converted into the Oak Park Pedestrian Mall since 1974. The mall blocked traffic on both Lake and Marion streets, limiting access to the area. Johnson campaigned on behalf of DTOP to see those streets reopened to vehicular traffic. Marion Street finally officially reopened in 2008.

“He was really instrumental to the revitalization of downtown,” said Williams, who added she was “heartbroken” by the loss and got choked up while speaking to Wednesday Journal. She worked closely with Johnson, who served one of several terms on the DTOP board when Williams started with the corporation in 2008 as a part-time marketing assistant. 

She said Johnson made her feel instantly supported and he championed her throughout her career, even writing a letter of recommendation on her behalf when she applied for the executive director position that she now holds. 

“He was very open-minded to change and listening to different ideas and thoughts,” she said. “He wasn’t stuck in one way.”

Later in his life, Johnson served on DTOP’s merchant advisory committee, one of the corporation’s longest standing commissions, and he and Williams stayed in touch until the end. She described him as “stern but with a big heart.” 

Within that big heart was a soft spot dedicated to movies. Even in the last few months of his life, Johnson cared about movies, attending screenings and sharing his thoughts, according to his son. His work never really stopped because he never really stopped enjoying it, Williams said.

He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Shirley (nee Griffin), and his children, Stephen (fiancée Penelope) Johnson, Kay Johnson, Christopher (Susan) Johnson, Wendy (John) Leick, & Amy (Stanley) Balicki and by his step-children Mary (Michael) Reichl & Richard (Nancy) Winters and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

A celebration of life will be held in Johnson’s honor at Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove at 10:30 a.m., Sept. 2.