Willis and Shirley Johnson during a ribbon cutting ceremony for the 75th anniversary of the Lake Theater in April 2011.

We celebrate the life of Willis Johnson, and mourn his death.

Willis and his family were friends and members of the Oak Park community since their purchase of the Lake Theatre in the early 1980’s. Willis never thought twice about joining — whether it was Downtown Oak Park, the Business and Civic Council (BCC), or local charities. He was thoughtful, always business-like, but still a gentle soul who never forgot family and friends when he was assisting with decision-making, working at the theater, or the other organizations he was involved with.

He was a powerful engine of economic development and growth in Downtown Oak Park.

As the story goes, Shirley and he never set out to be the owners of classic theaters and cinemas around Chicagoland. Opportunities presented themselves to the Johnsons and they took advantage of them to become one of the largest cinema owners of their kind in the country.

He supported the reopening of Lake Street after it had been closed by the village and became a pedestrian mall in the early 1980s. Traffic was diverted, as were purchasing opportunities and power. Willis wanted the street reopened and he worked as hard as anyone to change Lake Street.

His rehabilitation of the Lake Theatre is also testament to the fact that he always wanted whatever he was involved with to be better. Its early start was not exciting, but he saw the need to refashion it and did so over the years. It now rivals any large, multiscreen theater in the area.

To have known Willis was to like being with him. He was quiet (usually), thoughtful, as mentioned, but also so involved. He was up early, attended meetings in Oak Park, having traveled from Downers Grove, and was on his way to another community to address issues to make the community and his theaters better attended and more profitable. Willis was a part of Oak Park for over 40 years. His acumen and smile will be missed by all of us.

Rest in peace, Willis.

Bill Planek, Frank Pellegrini, Tom Gallagher, Marty Noll, Mike Fox, David Pope, Michael Williams, Athena Williams, John Hedges, Gary Collins, Everett Ward, Steve Strahler

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