Classic Cinemas, based in Downers Grove, Illinois, is a family-owned business, run by Willis, Shirley and Chris Johnson. It was started in 1978 with the operation of the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove. Willis always says he got in the movie business by default when the largest tenant in the Tivoli Building closed the theatre for “remodeling”. He had been a partner in a printing business for over 20 years and was ready for a new challenge — the rest, as they say, is history. The company today operates 14 theatres in 13 communities.
Shirley did her share of theatre cleaning and painting and can still shovel popcorn almost as fast as some of the kids. After 17 years in marketing with Miles Laboratories, she became a part of the Classic Cinemas team responsible for advertising. Today she handles special events and together with Chris and their film booker selects films each week.
Chris will readily admit he started at the bottom, clearing out the Tivoli basement — seven dumpsters full! But he was only a kid and eager to make some spending money. He was an usher, assistant manager, manager, concessions manager, and operations manager, all while going to school and obtaining a BA (with highest honors) from the University of Illinois and an MBA (again with honors) from the University of Chicago. He is now CEO with responsibility for finance, theatre operation, and human resources.
The Johnsons gain a real sense of satisfaction in giving new life to an old downtown theatre and even trying to develop a personality for a bland shopping center theatre. Willis and his wife, Shirley, are members of a number of preservation societies, as well as Theatre Historical Society. Along with the Tivoli, the company has restored such older downtown movie theatres as the Lindo in Freeport, the York in Elmhurst, the Lake in Oak Park, the Woodstock in Woodstock and the Paramount in Kankakee. It has also modernized existing theatres and builds exciting contemporary theatres, such as the Elk Grove in Elk Grove Village and its most recent project, Cinema 7 Theatre in Sandwich.
In the world of sterile, cookie-cutter multiplex theatres it’s refreshing to find a company that cares about the past. A company that understands the importance of history and preserving our landmarks. A company that looks at the moviegoing experience as more than just ticket sales but as an experience to be remembered and treasured.
At Classic Cinemas, we are that company. Our theatres occupy historical buildings throughout the Chicago area. When these buildings were acquired by Classic Cinemas many were in states of disrepair. We’ve spent countless hours restoring them to their original splendor, preserving as much of the original architecture as possible. The results are unique movie theatres unlike any you will find. Theatres that echo of the golden age of moviegoing and invoke memories of days gone past. But don’t let the package fool you. All of our theatres are equipped with the very latest in sound and projection technology. The result is a comfortable, modern movie going experience that is truly unique.
Classic Cinemas received the Landmark Illinois Richard H. Driehaus Foundation 2011 Preservation Award for“Stewardship”. Presented to Willis, Shirley and Chris Johnson owners, on October 29, 2011.
On March 12, 2012 all auditoriums were updated with Enhanced 4K Digital Projection and Datasat Sound Processor.