J. GEIL/Staff Photographer

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.”

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