Willis Johnson, co-founder of largest Illinois-based theaters, dies at 86. He loved ‘being part of the fun’ with moviegoers

The co-founder of Classic Cinemas was a lifelong Downers Grove resident. Mr. Johnson spent his life finding historic, pushed aside buildings and turning them into downtown movie theaters and community hubs.

SHARE Willis Johnson, co-founder of largest Illinois-based theaters, dies at 86. He loved ‘being part of the fun’ with moviegoers
Downers Grove resident Willis Johnson died on Aug. 16, 2023 at the age of 86. He dedicated his life to the movie theater industry, and worked to revitalize historic buildings.

Downers Grove resident Willis Johnson died on Aug. 16, 2023, at 86. He dedicated his life to the movie theater industry and worked to revitalize historic buildings in communities.

Courtesy of Classic Cinemas

Willis Johnson loved fixing things. The lifelong Downers Grove resident dedicated his life to it — between working on cars, volunteering, landscaping and building Legos with his grandchildren, there weren’t enough hours in the day.

But he’s more well known for finding and restoring historic buildings and turning them into movie theaters, which morphed into the largest Illinois-based movie chain and helped revitalize the local movie theater industry.

Mr. Johnson died on Aug. 16 at the age of 86, just over 45 years to the day of his first theater’s first movie showing.

Willis Johnson founded a printing company with his brother, but after a stay at the Tivoli Hotel, the attached theater caught his eye.

Willis Johnson founded a printing company with his brother, but after a stay at the Tivoli Hotel, the attached theater caught his eye.

Courtesy of Chris Johnson

As the co-founder and president of Classic Cinemas and Tivoli Enterprises, he loved to be part of the moviegoing experience and have a connection with those flocking to his theaters.

“He loved seeing the smiles on everybody’s faces,” said Chris Johnson, his son and the current CEO of Classic Cinemas. “He liked to be part of the fun … it was 100% about the people and the emotion.”

There are now 16 Classic Cinema movie theaters in Illinois and Wisconsin. The company has been run by Mr. Johnson, his wife Shirley and his son, who took over as CEO in 2014.

The journey to becoming a beloved moviegoing experience wasn’t a lifelong dream and didn’t begin until he was 41. But he became “everything” to him, his son said.

He worked seven days a week for most of his life, squeezing everything he could into his full life.

It began as a one-off with the residential Tivoli Hotel — Mr. Johnson began living in the historic location after splitting from his first wife. Unexpectedly, a difficult time in his life led to a life-changing new career path.

The Downers Grove building included a theater and a bowling alley. But when the theater closed for remodeling, Mr. Johnson got the idea to buy the building.

At the time, he owned a printing company with his brother, Ross, and movie theaters weren’t exactly where the money was, his son said. But “dumb luck” led to success.

“It was making something good out of a bad situation,” his son said. “He figured it out and then would just go and be in search of these old theaters.”

Mr. Willis soon expanded to surrounding Illinois cities and refurbished buildings that needed love. He loved movies but seeing “the fruits of his labor” was fulfilling.

“The part of the movie theaters that he just loved and adored was taking old, sort of rundown locations, some that were just on their last legs and taking them over … and making them a great value and part of the community,” Chris Johnson said.

Mr. Johnson had a tough exterior but was a “marshmallow” inside. He was direct, with no filter, for better or for worse. But he also believed in people, also for better or for worse.

“He’d loan people money, and sometimes it didn’t work out so well,” Chris Johnson said with a laugh.

It made him a perfectionist at work but an empathetic and optimistic person. He filled his days with volunteer work and sitting on the boards of local organizations.

While work left less time for his seven children and stepchildren, he made an effort to be there for his grandchildren. Past mistakes only encouraged him to move forward, better than before.

“There’s a saying ‘95% of people know what to do, and 5% do it,’” his son said. “He was definitely in the 5% doing it.”

Although he stepped down as CEO, Mr. Willis made clear he had no plans to retire. He still was heavily involved in day-to-day operations.

The pandemic was difficult for Classic Cinemas, but Mr. Johnson was “bullish” that things would return to normal, and people would return to the movies.

Of course, he was right.

“That’s the thing about the industry,” Chris Johnson said. “It’s just like the movies — there’s a lot of tears, and there’s a lot of laughter. At the end of the day, it’s all about emotion.”

This year, the family was featured in the documentary “History Happens Here: The Tivoli Theater” and were named historians of the year by the Downers Grove Historical Society.

“His legacy was taking things that were kind of pushed aside,” his son said, “and maybe they weren’t in the best shape, but he really brought them back to life.”

Mr. Johnson is survived by his wife; children Stephen Johnson, Kay Johnson, Chris Johnson, Wendy Leick and Amy Balicki and step-children Mary Reichl and Richard Winters; and 14 grandchildren.

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

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