At 75, Lake Theatre an Oak Park icon

With 7 screens, theater anchors downtown

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By Marty Stempniak

Staff Reporter

It was 30 years ago that Willis and Shirley Johnson started running downtown Oak Park's Lake Theatre. The move gave the upstart little company two movie screens, total, at two different movie theaters, including their home base in Downers Grove.

Fast forward to today, and Classic Cinemas is the largest independent movie theater company in Illinois, with 13 locations and 99 screens. Since buying up the movie theatre property at 1022 Lake St., the Johnsons have transformed the movie house into the anchor of downtown Oak Park — complete with seven screens all showing first-run movies.

"The investment that they have made in the theater has been very important in demonstrating the strength of downtown Oak Park," said Village President David Pope.

April 11 marks the 75th anniversary of the Lake Theatre's opening. They plan to celebrate with a ceremonial tearing of an oversized movie ticket by Pope, along with a birthday cake and two 75-cent screenings of the first movie ever shown at the Lake — a British romantic comedy called "The Ghost Goes West"— at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Lake Theatre is also offering free tours of the theaters, including the projection booth, on April 16 from 10 a.m. to noon. In addition, the Lake will be screening a different classic film from 1936 each month through December.

"We think people will have fun. A little trip back in time," said Willis Johnson, 74.

A lifelong Downers Grove resident, Johnson runs Classic Cinemas with his wife Shirley, 75, and son Chris, 43. They've grown the company steadily over the years, acquiring theaters in Elmhurst, Naperville and, most recently, the six-screen Cineplex at the North Riverside Mall.

When they first started operating the Lake in 1981, it was a completely different downtown Oak Park. Cars couldn't enter, as Lake Street was a pedestrian mall, and the department stores that dominated the stretch were disappearing.

The Johnsons have poured money into the theater, bolstering it from one screen to seven. In 2008, they invested "well into six figures" in the Lake, updating the bathrooms and restoring the downstairs lobby to its 1930s art deco appearance, among other things.

And with the Lake's metamorphosis, Oak Park's downtown has grown, too.

In 2003, Jason Smith and his wife, Rachel Weaver, opened The Book Table across the street, and five years later expanded to meet demand. Smith, 38, said they wouldn't have considered 1045 Lake without the movie theater across the street.

"I can't picture downtown Oak Park without the Lake Theatre," he said. "It is the number-one draw for what brings people here."

Pat Zubak, head of the Downtown Oak Park business association, agreed that the Lake is the engine that drives the village's main shopping district, and its giant neon sign is a visual icon, too, she added.

"No doubt, the Lake Theatre is the economic generator for downtown Oak Park," she said.

Chris Johnson, now the vice president of the company, is gradually taking on more responsibility. Regardless, Willis Johnson said he doesn't plan on retiring anytime soon.

"I enjoy what I'm doing, I'm still having fun and I just see things going right along the way they are," he said. "I don't see any reason to change."

Reader Comments

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Socialists, Not Economists from Oak Park  

Posted: April 3rd, 2011 6:06 AM

@Give Me a Break: Thanks for the laugh. Apparently, being dogmatically Socialist has caused many Oak Parkers to forget basic economics....maybe even basic math?

Seriously? from OP  

Posted: April 3rd, 2011 6:04 AM

One of the many reasons to "buy local" is so that you can create sustainable businesses in your community. The taxes you pay in your ticket price (for example) go to support the community. Whether the Lake Theatre is for or against the Ref, buying a ticket there supports Oak Park and the schools and everything else. Going to a movie in North Riverside supports that community and NOT Oak Park. Buy local and support local businesses. Even if you don't agree with everything the owner believes.

Give me a break.  

Posted: April 1st, 2011 9:35 AM

I would like to live in the fantasy world of many Oak Parkers where business does not need to be profitable and should agree to every wacko far left idea that the extremists who live here have. Yeah, I'm talking to you OP.

j.oak park  

Posted: March 31st, 2011 2:46 PM

@unbelievable: you do realize that the Lake Theater is in Oak Park, and subject to property tax, right? Any increase, no matter what the dollar amount per $1,000 will impact the property taxes on the Lake Theater. Right...that is how it works. God news for the Willis family is that they can make up the extra cost in property tax by charging patrons more for a ticket. Which means people who do live in Oak Park get to pay twice for the tax increase. Oh Joy!


Posted: March 31st, 2011 12:44 AM

Willis Johnson doesn't even live here and opposes the referendum. Well, "six-figures" is not that much of an investment when movie going offers so much more than the Lake does.


Posted: March 30th, 2011 10:00 AM

Lets not forget that Willis was/is NOT in favor of a Living Wage ordinance as well as the District 97 Referendum. Might those take some of his dear profits away?

Anne from Oak Park  

Posted: March 29th, 2011 11:06 PM

As a life long resident of OP I cannot imagine OP without the Lake! I confess to missing the 1.50 movies of my childhood but think all the changes over the years are good too!

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