In the summer of 1981, the Lake Theatre sat on Lake Street atrophying along with the rest of the pedestrian mall that made up Oak Park’s entirely failing downtown.
The theater, with one cavernous auditorium and well over 1,000 uncomfortable seats, was showing second- or third-run movies. And the air conditioning had gone out and was not repairable.
That was the moment when Willis and Shirley Johnson bought the Lake Theatre. Hard to imagine a less promising enterprise, something we recall today as we celebrate the remarkable Mr. Johnson at his death last week at 86. The downtowns of inner ring suburbs across America were emptying out with major department stores decamping, experiments such as the pedestrian mall were expensive flops, and movie theater chains were likewise abandoning older communities as multiplexes rose in large shopping malls in distant suburbs.
But Willis Johnson had stumbled into the movie business in Downers Grove a few years earlier with the Tivoli, and he was game to purchase the once majestic Lake.
The Johnsons continued to grow their unlikely empire as they added theaters in older suburbs across Chicagoland, branding the enterprise as Classic Cinemas. Today there are 16 theatres in the chain, all segmented into multiple screens, nothing but first-run shows, the latest technology and, oh my god, the most comfortable seats. In the process, the Johnsons created an entirely new model of independent, historic movie houses in older towns. Chris Johnson is now the CEO of the family-owned company and he continues to expand and invest.
Over time, Willis Johnson replaced the AC at The Lake, expanded the footprint of the theater and brought it to seven screens. And most notably he spent freely and lovingly to restore The Lake’s interior to its grandeur. He loved old movie houses and it showed.
Meanwhile, Willis Johnson also invested his time, energy and acumen in downtown Oak Park. He served on and led the Downtown Oak Park association’s board. He had major influence in the wide remaking of downtown and was always consulted on economic development issues in the wider Oak Park community.
He was a consequential business leader whose passion and kindness shone through all of his endeavors.
It is not too much to say that the Lake Theatre is the absolute lynchpin of downtown Oak Park. Its marquee is a beacon that draws tens of thousands of people to our community, it is a hub of activity, and the theater’s willingness to partner with dozens of movie loving groups, to open its auditoriums for all sorts of civic purposes, makes it the model citizen.
Wednesday Journal hosted the 25th anniversary showing of The Blues Brothers at The Lake to coincide with our 25th anniversary. And more recently, our posthumous 100th birthday celebration of Oak Park’s own Betty White took place at The Lake. Can’t beat partners like that.
And so we say goodbye to Willis Johnson with fondness and respect for all that he has meant to Oak Park.