Most Oak Parkers are familiar with our local movie theater, the Lake Theater. But this hometown landmark is much more than your average cinema.
The art deco Lake Theater opened with a single silver screen on April 11, 1936. As Oak Park’s only movie theater, nearly 1,500 residents packed the house opening night for the showing of The Ghost Goes West, a British romantic comedy about the daughter of a rich American businessman who persuades her father to purchase and dismantle a Scottish castle and move it to Florida. Unbeknownst to the family, along with the castle goes its ghost who haunts the castle after dying a coward’s death in the 18th century.
In the 1980s, family-owned Classic Cinemas, based in Downers Grove, became the owners of the local theater and in the 1990s, expanded the Lake Theater to seven screens by extending into a former retail space next door. Originally designed by prolific theatre architect Thomas Lamb, visitors to this day flood the aisles to revel in this theatrical experience.
The Lake Theater is home to many decorative elements rescued from notable theaters that were demolished. The ceiling fixtures in the lobby rotunda are from the Will Rogers Theater and two plaster musician busts are from the demolished Southtown Theater once located on the south side of Chicago. Fixtures in the transition lobby are from a 1930s renovation of one of the Schock houses in the Chicago neighborhood of Austin and were removed when that house was remodeled. In the first theater, the art deco wall fixtures were rescued from the Colonial Theatre formally in Marengo, Illinois, and in the main auditorium, two 10-foot neoclassic ladies were originally in the organ grills at Chicago’s Marbro Theater.
Not only is our local theater a historic gem, but it is also deeply dedicated to our community. The Lake Theater engages with Oak Park by supporting and even hosting community events, bringing everyone together for fun and relaxation, and celebration. Recent community events include the One Earth Film Festival, Oak Park Women’s Guild Fundraiser, the First Tuesday Film Club (ongoing in the afternoon and evening), and so much more. In the summer, the Wednesday Morning Movies Series shows family-friendly movies for only $1. The series will run every Wednesday between June 11 and August 6.
The Lake Theater also supports local groups through sponsorship and advertising upcoming events on its grand marquee. If you’re a part of a local non-profit, you can have your message in lights for all to see.
The Oak Parker Magazine had the pleasure of connecting with Willis Johnson, owner of Classic Cinemas, for an all-access pass to the ever-evolving movie theater business and what led him to owning the Lake Theater.
TOP: What was your career before owning Classic Cinemas?
WJ: I owned a printing business with my brother called Johnson Printers. We expanded after purchasing a poster company in 1961, but I eventually moved on in 1980, which was shortly after acquiring my first theater in 1978.
TOP: What led you to own Classic Cinemas? Why the theater business?
WJ: My wife and I owned the Tivoli building in Downers Grove, which had a small hotel, bowling alley, apartments, and a movie theater. In June of 1978, the owner of the movie theater owner decided to close the theater, but the young man that managed the theater, Ed Dougherty, said that if we ran the business end, he’d like to continue to manage the movie theater. Under our ownership, we reopened the theater in August of 1978.
The Lake Theater was the third theater we purchased, in 1981. The building owners approached us about buying the entire building in ’84, which allowed us to expand the Lake Theater to the storefront next door.
WJ: We are one of the last theater chains in the area that has offices here. We’re very accessible, we work hard to be a hometown theater through supporting the community, and we try to be friendly and welcoming to those of all ages.
TOP: You’ve already started to touch on this, but one thing that residents really enjoy about the Lake Theater is its commitment to the community. What made you decide to be a large supporter of the community?
WJ: Being a part of the community is important to us. We do events with the schools and a number of the various not-for-profit groups in the area. I believe that you need to give back to the community that is supporting you.
TOP: How often do you attend movies at the theater?
WJ: I’m not able to make it to the theater often, but my wife goes a lot. She really enjoys movies and is actually involved in the booking of them at our theaters. She also started the First Tuesday Film Club that shows art films every month.
TOP: What are your three favorite movies?
WJ: My favorite movie is The Way We Were, starring Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand. My second favorite would have to be Shadowlands, which is a more obscure film and number three is Lady Sings the Blues, which is the story of Billie Holiday.
TOP: What do you enjoy most about owning Classic Cinemas?
WJ: What I enjoy most is serving the public and owning a piece of the past that will never be duplicated. We enjoy architecture, so often, we collect pieces and memorabilia that are connected to the theaters. The best example of this is the Lake Theater.
TOP: What is something most people do not know about Classic Cinemas?
WJ: Technologically, we continue to be on the cutting edge. One thing we are proud of is our accessibility for people with disabilities. In addition to our theaters being physically accessible, we have hearing reinforcement for movie watchers who need it and if you’re completely deaf, we provide handheld devices that have movie captions to watch from your seat. We also have headsets with narration of movies for those who are blind. Another accessible update is for those with hearing aids–they can connect with Bluetooth so they can hear the movie through their hearing aid. These services are in all of our theaters, making it the only theater company in the nation that has these capabilities in all of their theaters.
Make plans to visit this Oak Park treasure and you’ll see why it’s not just any movie theater.