Son of Classic Cinemas owner recalls father’s work ethic, desire to give back to the community

Willis Johnson co-founded Classic Cinemas, Illinois' largest movie theater chain with 16 locations, including the historic Tivoli Theater in downtown Downers Grove.

Lifelong Downers Grove resident Willis Johnson was a popular figure in the movie industry, but you wouldn’t know him from the big screen.

The Classic Cinemas co-founder was busy behind the curtain, growing the operation from one movie house in 1978 to the largest movie theater chain based in Illinois.

Now, the community and beyond is mourning the loss of Johnson, who died Aug. 16 at the age of 86.

Johnson and his brother, Ross, bought the Tivoli building at 5021 Highland Ave. in 1976. The theater was its largest tenant.

Today, the family-owned company operates 16 theaters with 137 screens in 15 communities in the northern Illinois and Wisconsin area, including theaters in Oswego and St. Charles.

When the theater’s operator abruptly left in 1978, Willis Johnson, who had been a partner in a printing business for more than two decades, and his wife, Shirley, took over.

His son, Chris Johnson, who was named chief executive officer of Classic Cinemas in 2014, called his father’s decision more than four decades ago “a great leap of faith.”

“My dad didn’t know what he was doing when he took on running movie theaters as a full-time profession at age 41,” he said. “He really got into it by accident. But then he kept learning along the way.”

Chris Johnson said his father, a 1955 Downers Grove Community High School alum, had a knack for revamping distressed downtown movie theater buildings.

“Going back to the early 1980s, downtowns were sort of forgotten about because everything was about the mall. So he took all these forgotten theaters and polished them up. Through time, the renovations became better and better,” he said.

It also was important to Willis Johnson to provide his guests with an affordable movie experience.

“The marching orders were to keep it reasonable and provide value,” Chris Johnson said. “But he was also about the community and offering the little things like being one of the first in the industry to give free refills on all sizes of popcorn and drinks and giving you mints when you leave.”

Additionally, it was important to the patriarch to give back by sitting on the boards of a number of business, historic and civic organizations in Downers Grove, Elmhurst, Oak Park and other towns where he owned theaters.

Among countless honors for his service, Johnson was chosen as Downers Grove Citizen of the Year in 2010 and was inducted into the Elmhurst Civic Hall of Fame in 2002, according to his obituary. In 2023, he and his wife were honored by the Downers Grove Historical Society as Historians of the Year and featured in a documentary film titled “History Happens Here: The Tivoli Theater.” Johnson also was a past president of the National Association of Theater Owners of Illinois.

Chris Johnson lauded his father as “always encouraging everybody to do better.”

“But in a positive way. It was, ‘Hey, I think you really have the ability to do this or that and you should go for it.’ I’ve heard a lot of stories like that from people and I certainly have my own where he pushed me to aim higher,” he said.

He also praised his dad’s work ethic.

“He worked seven days a week, but then later when he started having grandkids he spent a lot of time with them and really learning about them,” Johnson said. “He was just a good guy and if anybody had a need or an issue he would try to help them.”

Willis Johnson is survived by his wife of 46 years, his children Stephen (fiancée Penelope) Johnson, Kay Johnson, Christopher (Susan) Johnson, Wendy (John) Leick and Amy (Stanley) Balicki and his stepchildren Mary (Michael) Reichl and Richard (Nancy) Winters and 14 grandchildren. He also is survived by his brother Ross (Barbara) Johnson. He was preceded in death by his sister Sara Homberg and his brother-in-law Robert Griffin.

A Celebration of Life will be at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 2 at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove. Memorial donations in Willis’ name may be made to Variety of Illinois at, a charity near to his heart, according to his obituary.