Stories of Local Impact: Shirley & Willis Johnson, cinema moguls and community advocates

Leaders & Legacies: Stories of Local Impact is an ongoing series brought to you in partnership with the Daily Herald and DuPage Foundation. It highlights the inspiring stories of local individuals, families, and businesses who have made or are making a lasting impact for our community through their generosity and leadership.

The series continues with Shirley L. Johnson (1936-2024) and Willis G. Johnson (1937-2023) of Downers Grove.

Shirley and Willis Johnson rewrote the script on managing independent movie theaters.

The inseparable business partners spent more than four decades reinvigorating ailing movie theaters to their former glory. In the process, Classic Cinemas, a movie chain empire with 141 screens throughout the Chicago area, was created.

Shirley and Willis Johnson outside Downers Grove’s Tivoli Theatre in 1978. Courtesy of Classic Cinemas

It was 1976 when Willis Johnson purchased the Tivoli building in Downers Grove.

A longtime Downers Grove resident, Willis was interested in owning the historic 1928 building, which housed the second sound-enabled theater built in the country. Intended as a one-stop entertainment venue, it also included a bowling center, game room, residential hotel, stores, and offices.

For Willis, it was simply purchased as a real estate investment. When the Tivoli Theatre tenant walked out on his lease two short years later, plans changed.

With a now-vacant theater, one of the managers, Ed Doherty, offered a proposition: if Willis handled the business responsibilities, Doherty would continue regular theater operations. Willis grabbed the opportunity, and Classic Cinemas was born.

During the 1980s, downtowns were struggling while malls and megaplexes were popping up everywhere. Historic movie theaters were no longer prime real estate and many were closing.

This did not deter Willis and his wife, Shirley, from embarking on the journey of a lifetime. With Willis’ business and property management knowledge and Shirley’s marketing skills, they began rejuvenating underutilized buildings into welcoming cinemas. One theater at a time, the business grew.

The York Theatre in Elmhurst was renovated in 1991. The historic theater building, which first opened in 1924, was bought by Classic Cinemas in 1982. Courtesy of Classic Cinemas

“Working in tandem, Willis and Shirley lovingly restored one community theater after another,” said Mark Mazrimas, marketing manager of Classic Cinemas for nearly 20 years. “They made personal investments into the communities they entered and put endless hours of rehabilitative work into forgotten buildings. Classic Cinemas was a domino effect of success stories.”

The positive reputation of Classic Cinemas’ expanding portfolio made navigating village permits and building requirements run smoothly.

By 1984, they had established such a solid business foundation that local establishments in Freeport guaranteed Classic Cinemas’ loan request for theater renovations.

Fellow business owners understood the impact the Johnsons’ work would have on their town, and, subsequently, their shared success. Willis’ knack for problem solving often benefited more than just his own business plan, like when he championed a Lake Street reopening project in downtown Oak Park to strengthen the commercial district.

The Lake Theatre in Oak Park celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2011. Courtesy of Classic Cinemas

“It’s difficult to overstate what some communities would be without Classic Cinemas,” said Andy Pierce, Chicago-area theater historian and preservation advocate. “Without that theater, you don’t have the shops and restaurants. You don’t have somewhere walkable to go. You don’t have a fun and safe place to be as a kid, as a senior, as a family. And if you don’t have it where you are, you’re going to go somewhere else to find it.”

Despite their best efforts, occasionally locations did not succeed as hoped and were released from the Classic Cinemas group. In these instances, the Johnsons always left the building better than when they had arrived, often bringing the spaces back to life for the next owner.

“My dad had high expectations,” said Chris Johnson, Willis’ son and CEO of Classic Cinemas since 2014. “But he didn’t mind failure as long as you learned from it.”

The Johnsons believed it was the little details that, collectively, created a unique environment for their guests. Ornamental plaster, seat medallions, and murals are just a few of the distinct touches seen at Classic Cinemas’ theaters, installations that often required employing local, passionate artisans.

When incorporating additional screens or adding onto a building, Willis diligently maintained the ambience of the historical theaters, working with designers to keep styles cohesive.

“While the physical details mattered, it wasn’t about the buildings,” said Angelique Barthel, executive director of Variety the Children’s Charity of Illinois. “They made the buildings into places where the community could gather. They gave a generous gift to each of the towns they operated in.”

Willis and Shirley Johnson generously and happily supported community events and fundraisers, like this 2014 event at a Downers Grove Museum exhibit. Courtesy of Classic Cinemas

Willis and Shirley’s personal values shone throughout the business. They took care of their employees and created a family-like environment. Many employees have worked with the company for decades.

The mission had always been to provide affordable, first-class amenities and the best moviegoing experience around. Backed by a 30-minute money-back guarantee, a rarity in the movie sector, guest-friendly policies included fewer trailers, free refills, and thank you mints on the way out.

Leading by example

In addition to running a complex business, Willis and Shirley were informed and involved citizens. They were active members of chambers of commerce, downtown business associations, and historical societies. They supported fundraisers, library programs, children’s talent shows, art clubs, theater groups, and local government entities.

In-kind contributions of event space, volunteer time, business expertise, and prizes were donated regularly. If they passed a corner needing a little TLC in Elmhurst, La Grange, or St. Charles — all towns in which Classic Cinemas resided — they wasted no time beautifying the space for others to enjoy.

The Johnsons took pride in their facilities and treated each community as if it were their own. Their countless efforts were acknowledged with numerous community awards and recognitions.

Willis and Shirley Johnson accept the Downers Grove Historical Society’s Historians of the Year award at the Tivoli Theatre on May 3, 2023. Courtesy of Jim Toth

“Anywhere they had a stake in the community, they made it better through selfless acts,” Pierce said. “They led by example and made you want to leave the places that you are in better, too.”

With the resources and the desire to do good things, the Johnsons’ philanthropy flourished. More than giving back, they paid it forward, extending themselves far beyond what was expected in order to develop impactful connections.

Specifically, the Johnsons sought ways to support fellow film organizations both near and far. Willis served as the founding president of the National Association of Theatre Owners of Illinois, networking with executives from companies such as AMC Entertainment and Cinemark USA.

“As a publicist for a rival theater chain at the time, we should’ve been on opposite sides of the table,” Barthel said. “But it was always a friendly competition with the Classic Cinemas team, and I enjoyed openly sharing experiences with them.”

The Johnsons also supported the Theatre Historical Society of America. Now located in Pittsburgh, the society called the York Theatre in Elmhurst its home for 25 years, benefiting from Classic Cinemas’ accommodations and the Johnsons’ volunteer efforts.

For his visionary leadership, Chris Johnson, CEO of Classic Cinemas since 2014, received the 2022 Paul J. Rogers Leadership Award at the Geneva Convention. Courtesy of Classic Cinemas

The After Hours Film Society credits Shirley’s passion for the arts with its success. Established in 1989, the cultural organization provides suburban Chicago with first-class foreign, art, and independent films that would otherwise not be shown locally. Operating out of the Tivoli Theatre, the film society enjoys the loyalty of hundreds of local residents who support the twice a month film showings, which include a discussion and a concert on the Wurlitzer Pipe Organ.

“Foreign films are often a slice of real life, they are not airbrushed or glossy or full of special effects,” said Debbie Venezia, director of Arts DuPage. “They are educational and foster understanding of other cultures. Our post-screening discussions have led to insightful conversations that sparked friendships between our audience members. You’re not going to find that at a mainstream theater.”

All 1,000 seats of the Tivoli Theatre were filled for a 2011 showing of the documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” in 3D. Courtesy of After Hours Film Society

The local cinema chain found another philanthropic partner in the Boy Scouts of America with a shared goal of forming positive, professional relationships with youth. The Johnsons supported BSA’s Exploring, a coed program for teenagers offering hands-on career discovery.

Often featuring careers in the medical field, law enforcement, and the trades, the Johnsons used their expertise to develop a business-focused curriculum. They didn’t stop there.

Familiar with the limited services available to teens in a mobile home neighborhood of Elk Grove Village, the Johnsons provided transportation to community colleges to encourage participation in BSA’s career exploration initiative.

“Even as seniors, the Johnsons prioritized helping their communities’ youngest residents who had fewer opportunities,” Pierce said. “If they cut a check, or gave their time, or shared their abilities, they were betting on a sure thing, and they were all in.”

Classic Cinemas is the largest regional donor to Variety the Children’s Charity of Illinois. An international organization that helps children with disabilities gain mobility and achieve independence, Variety was founded in 1927 after a baby was abandoned at a movie theater.

A group of men working in the entertainment industry raised money for the baby as well as other children in need. The mission resonates with movie theaters across the world. With significant customer support, Classic Cinemas has contributed more than $250,000 to Variety’s Gold Heart Pin fundraiser over the years, surpassing proceeds from much larger theater chains.

Employees at the Elk Grove Theatre fundraiser for Variety the Children’s Charity of Illinois’ annual Gold Heart Pin initiative in 2014. Courtesy of Variety the Children’s Charity of Illinois

The Johnsons also generously supported entrepreneurial and cancer organizations, SEASPAR, The H Foundation, and Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, among others.

“I can see their smiles,” Barthel said. “Their generous efforts helped so many good things happen, which made them happy.”

What Would Willis Do?’

Willis was a dreamer, always reinvesting profits back into company improvements. Instead of asking how they could live better individually, Willis and Shirley were expanding the number of screens, updating theater seats, and adding historically accurate collectibles to their venue decor.

They never stopped visiting theaters looking for services that Classic Cinemas could emulate (or not) and reminiscing on how other theaters had evolved.

“Theater was in the Johnsons’ blood,” Mazrimas said. “Later in life, they would plan date nights out, which often included eating popcorn and seeing a movie. They never tired of it.”

Prior to Willis’ passing at age 86 in August 2023, the Tivoli Theatre dedicated a small viewing room as the “Willis Theatre.”

People came from miles away to celebrate the couple’s careers and accomplishments. Attendees shared movie theater memories, from first dates to favorite films, many of which were experienced at specific Classic Cinemas’ locations. Shirley died a little more than 6 months later in March 2024 at age 88.

Even during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 when residents were told to distance themselves from others, the Johnsons and their team found ways to support memory making. They offered space on theater marquees for the public to share messages with others.

During the coronavirus pandemic, residents were invited to rent marquee space at the Tivoli and other Classic Cinemas venues to share heartfelt messages and well wishes. Courtesy of Classic Cinemas

“Now more than ever, the need to be together, laughing, crying, experiencing life, is critical to our well-being,” Chris said. “With a loneliness epidemic, Classic Cinemas strives to create an environment that fosters interaction, giving parents, friends, and neighbors an opportunity to spend time together while experiencing a different point of view.”

Described as devoted, untiring theater moguls, Shirley and Willis Johnson were the ultimate recyclers and visionaries. They spent 40 years restoring buildings into the largest theater chain in Illinois, with 16 locations operating today, from Kankakee, Illinois, up to Beloit, Wisconsin. Though neither set out to become cinema entrepreneurs, their passion for film and dedication to history touched countless lives.

When in doubt on a course of action, those working at Classic Cinemas will often ask themselves, “What Would Willis Do?” The answer is always simple: work hard, do what needs to be done, and have fun doing it.

Just as he and Shirley saw potential in underutilized buildings, they saw potential in people and ideas, as well. That is the legacy that friends, family, and colleagues plan to carry on.

Attendees of the 2022 Johnson Christmas Classic bowling tournament, an annual tradition that started in 1983. Courtesy of the Johnson family

“The movie theater business has been written off a hundred different times, but the future is bright,” Chris said. “We owe it all to the unfortunate exit of the 1978 Tivoli Theatre tenant, and I’m proud to be a part of it now.”

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The Leaders & Legacies series is brought to you by the Legacy Society of DuPage Foundation. Suggestions for future stories can be sent to Michael Trench, vice president for advancement, at

Interested in learning more about how you can make an impact or create a legacy for your community and favorite causes? Learn more at or call (630) 665-5556.

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