Classic Cinemas Lake Theatre plans to put butts in seats by making seats more comfortable for butts. The beloved movie theater in downtown Oak Park is in the process of replacing its seating with heated recliners in all of its auditoriums, beginning with its biggest.

“This is like first, first class,” said Classic Cinemas CEO Chris Johnson. “These will be amazing seats.”

Come this Wednesday, moviegoers can try out the new recliners in Lake Theatre’s largest auditorium. The reopening of the auditorium coincides with the release of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” the hotly anticipated film adaptation of the classic video game starring Chris Pratt and Jack Black.

That auditorium also just got a new laser projector, so audience members will be able to cozily and clearly watch everyone’s favorite Italian plumber bounce from toadstool to toadstool to thwart the evil Bowser’s attempts at world domination. That’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon. 

The theater’s six other auditoriums will be getting the new seat treatment as well. Crews will get started installing the recliners, as well as new carpeting, in the other auditoriums April 11. All the noisy construction will happen before the theater opens, so no movie magic is lost to the sound of drills.

The work will be done on two auditoriums at a time until all the auditoriums have the same high-quality seating, complete with wheelchair-accessible areas. And the recliners are electric, so hands can be occupied with popcorn instead of cranking the chair back. 

Plus, the Lake Theatre serves beer and wine, as well as canned cocktails and alcoholic seltzers. The convenient aluminum vessel means people of legal drinking age won’t have to miss any movie previews waiting while the barkeep shakes and stirs. 

“You don’t have to tip your bartender either,” Johnson said.

The recliners will make the movie viewing experience more enjoyable all around, but it does not come without a little sacrifice. The new seating plan will lower the theater’s overall audience capacity by about half as the recliners take up more space and require larger aisles. The theater’s biggest auditorium had 529 seats before the transition. Now it has exactly 300 fewer, but the lowered quantity makes allows for greater quality. 

An added bonus of having wider aisles means a quicker, quieter exit for moviegoers. No more whispered apologies to strangers as you try to make your way to the concession stand for more of your favorite movie snack. Lake Theatre offers free refills on popcorn, sodas and frozen ICEE drinks.

Photo by Michael Schindler

The fancy recliners come with a pretty high price tag, however. Each chair costs about $1,000 for a total of roughly $700,000, according to Johnson. The investment, however, is worth it for the sake of the customers. 

“I think people will be thrilled,” Johnson said.

Classic Cinemas, which operates the Lake Theatre and 15 other movie theaters, hasn’t fully bounced back from the pandemic shutdown, but it’s getting there. COVID-19 limited and delayed theatrical film releases, as theaters were forced to temporarily cease operations due to the highly contagious nature of the virus. When they were allowed to reopen, audience capacities were limited due to social distancing requirements.

Those restrictions have all been lifted, but production companies are playing catch up. There were only 71 wide releases in 2022, compared to about 110 wide releases in pre-pandemic years, according to Johnson. 

“Now in 2023, there’s going to be like 107,” he said.

The influx of new blockbusters has brought people back into cinemas. Movie attendance for Classic Cinemas is up 40% this year companywide, Johnson said, and while that’s still less than 2019 attendance levels, it’s a lot closer.

“We’re doing much better,” he said.

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