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Woodstock wonder: Classic Cinemas cement their commitment with historic remake and expansion

Film Journal International ~ September 22, 2014

Film Journal International
Sept 22, 2014
-By Andreas Fuchs

Woodstock mayor Brian Sager with Willis, Shirley and Chris Johnson

“The Woodstock Theatre project took monumentally long. It was challenging,” admits Willis Johnson. “But it was well worth the entire effort.” The co-founder and president of Downers Grove, Illinois-based Classic Cinemas owns and operates 13 theatres and 104 screens with his wife Shirley and son Chris Johnson. When their latest adventure in Woodstock, Illinois, began two years ago–after another three of planning–it was deemed “the largest multi-faceted construction project to date for Classic Cinemas.” Chris calls the result “the perfect marriage of classic moviegoing with the modern amenities of today.”

The process started with the demolition of neighboring buildings on August 8, 2012, and ended with a big-ticket tearing ceremony in the brand new lobby on May 22, 2014. (“A few odds and ends still needed to be completed,” Johnson amends.) Along the way, led by K. Peterson Associates and chronicled on Facebook, the Classic Cinema in Woodstock expanded to 1,098 high-back rockers from First Class Seating in eight state-of-the-art auditoriums overall–featuring Christie 4K HFR projectors, GDC servers, MasterImage 3D, HPS-4000 sound, Datasat sound processors, BGW amplifiers, Eprad Automation, Harkness screens, and USL’s Accessibility Solution, to name but some of the technology. The work also encompassed the worthwhile restoration of the 85-year-old main auditorium to its former glory–complete with the authentic dome ceiling and other historic touches.

“Although we always knew we wanted to expand,” Johnson explains, “the whole thing” started with that very same dome. During a routine inspection and investigation, Classic Cinemas’ in-house construction superintendent found himself above the ceiling that had been dropped in during twinning-down-the-middle in 1973. “He got off the scaffolding and said, ‘You know, there is a dome up there and it looks pretty good.’ After looking at the photos we felt, ‘There’s a possibility here,’ and we changed our plans. We were going to restore the original auditorium as much as we could.”

Dealing with history can be rewarding, especially in view of the Johnson family’s commitment to classic movie houses and downtown community, but it can also become one of those previously mentioned challenges. “The construction company had not done a historic restoration or any historic building before. And, of course, once you get into a building that dates back that far,” Willis has learned over the years of preserving historic structures, “you don’t really know what’s there. Until you actually start breaking floors or opening walls and when you get into the ceiling, you don’t know what to expect. You can only assume.”

The original owner, John Miller, had built his Miller Theatre on the site of the former Princess Theatre in 1927. Johnson provides further details: “As far as we can tell, he had actually retained the south wall of the Princess. We found remnants of pilasters, paint and wallpaper and a number of other artifacts that told us, this was not an original wall of the Miller Theatre. That was kind of fun, like a historic dig… You didn’t know what you were going to run into and we kept finding things.”

Unfortunately, they were not able to incorporate that wall into the new design, Willis notes. “We did restore the dome, however, and the crown molding” with the help of a local artisan who “does just absolutely wonderful work with decorative plaster. He put it all back together. It is now the highlight of our 256-seat stadium auditorium. At the same time, we enlarged the entrance into a two-story, open and inviting space,” he continues. “The old lobby was very small, where the bathrooms had been cut out of the corners of the historic building.” Instead, the space underneath the stadium rakes in the building addition was used for large bathrooms and additional storage. A party room can now accommodate two smaller or one large group. Tearing down an old storage area where the balcony had once been, he adds, opened up the high ceiling. “It’s really pretty dramatic.”

Additional drama comes from the digital menu boards from CinemaScene that Classic Cinemas installed at Woodstock for the first time and from accent pieces placed throughout. “One of our managers discovered an original chandelier from the Miller lobby while antiquing a few years back.” Other found treasures include the opening-day program that now graces one of the walls, beautifully reproduced and placed alongside the original architectural photographs (some of which we are pleased to reprint here too). “We could have made it modern, but instead opted for a theme and feel similar to 1927,” Johnson acknowledges. “Since we had the historic photos to work from, our decorator Linda Laughter tried to be sympathetic to what it had been like.” Unlike at the Lake Theatre in Oak Park, where the Johnsons had secured remnants of the original carpet and some wall coverings of the 1936 Thomas Lamb-designed Art Deco treasure (for more detail and additional company history, check out our June 2009 issue), nothing indicated any original colors in Woodstock, Willis says. There are also movie posters of classic films on display and a tribute to one film in particular. Groundhog Day was filmed in Woodstock and the Johnsons’ Classic Cinema actually doubled as the Alpine Theatre.

Whereas that name came down after shooting was completed, one of the features in the 1970s split job was retained. Instead of building back the walled-up proscenium arch, “we created a mini-theatre in the former stage area,” Willis explains. “It’s all stadium, with 32 big and very cushy recliner chairs.” “People seem to like that a lot,” notes his fellow classicist Shirley Johnson. “When we bought the building next door,” she says of another archeological stroke of luck, “workmen found an old program flyer from the Beverly Theatre. Doing some research, we found out that there had to have been a Nickelodeon there.” Even the people in Woodstock were not aware of that fact. “And Woodstock is pretty good on their historic information,” Willis assures. “Built in 1912, the Beverly building had also housed a printing company, been home to a butcher, tire store and, before we bought it, a recording studio.” On May 23, 2002, it became the home of two additional screens for the Woodstock Theatre.

Ever since buying the twin-screened property in 1988, “we knew we wanted to expand the theatre,” Willis explains. “Over the years, we purchased additional buildings as they became available. The last piece was persuading the City of Woodstock to sell us their parking lot.” As things go in real estate, that very lot sat in the middle of the buildings that the Johnsons had already acquired. But the city was always supportive, he assures. “By law, they had to advertise it for sale. Thankfully, that came with the caveat that you could only build a movie theatre on it. Since we owned the sides to the parking lot,” Willis ventures, “you could say that’s stacking the deck.” Or building on well-deserved support, we might add.

Although it began quite heavily, with setting in place 60 DuKane Precast concrete panels, each measuring 12 by 40 feet and weighing 40,000 pounds, “building the six new screens was the easy part,” Johnson declares. “So that we could continue to operate the business, we started constructing these auditoriums first with a temporary entrance, box-office and concession area.” And indeed, “everything went reasonably well” leading up to their successive openings throughout May 2013. “The only real snafu was finding an old oil tank that wasn’t supposed to be there. In Illinois, at least, that’s good for a six-week delay. We also found some utility lines under a building which necessitated an easement. We got through all that before starting with phase two in the Miller building on August 12, 2013.” (We spoke with Willis and Shirley 360 days later, and they were still beaming with pride. And without any hint of exhaustion.)

As you can imagine, Willis Johnson continues, “It’s a big building for downtown Woodstock and the City did not want this to look like one. Understandably, they wanted to keep up the character of what was there before. So Kevin Peterson designed different storefronts and we even assigned the addresses that had been on the old buildings that we tore down. We used different materials and various types of bricks,” including several glazed white ones from the Beverly building that Willis had saved. “We included set-backs so that it really looks like five different buildings in a smaller community. Some have storefronts, others have awnings… It really fits in very well.” Working with Poblocki Sign Co., Willis designed the vertical sign that now graces the end of the building. Replete with light chasers and made to look like the real thing from the golden age, it also marks the pedestrian walkway to the new parking lot that the city provides. Did the good working relationship also lead to naming a nearby street Johnson Street? “We’d like to think so, but that was there long before us,” Shirley laughs.

Taking all this good care and showing their love and passion, not just for the Woodstock Theatre but also for all of their Classic Cinemas, might be viewed by some as expensive and unnecessary. What do the Johnsons say to those people? “There are things that we do for the public, and because it’s what you should do in a renovation,” Willis says, setting the priorities. “And there are things that we do for our company because we believe in them. And then there are those that we do for Shirley and I. Just because we like it or we want to do it. That’s one of the advantages of being private owners.”

Judging by the success of Classic Cinemas, the public very much appreciates all that Shirley and Willis do.

Award Winners
The League of Historic American Theatres recently presented Willis and Shirley Johnson with the “Outstanding Historic Theatre Award” for their York Theatre in Elmhurst, Illinois. Built in 1924 and expanded over the years, reaching ten screens in 2006, it is their second-oldest Classic Cinema. The building also houses the museum and archives of the Theatre Historical Society of America (THS) that contain information on over 16,000 theatres worldwide, as well as historical artifacts and resources documenting the social and cultural heritage of movie theatres and performing-arts venues in America. In recognition of their full-out support, the THS Research & Education Center has been named in honor of Willis & Shirley Johnson and Classic Cinemas.

Presented during LHAT’s 2014 Conference at the City Center in New York, the Award “recognizes a theatre that demonstrates excellence through its community spirit, quality of programs and services and quality of the restoration or rehabilitation of its historic structure.” The organization further states, “An award-winning theatre demonstrates excellence through significant achievement, the impact of its services and breadth of populations served and the length of time and/or intensity of its activities.”

“We are very proud of our historic restoration of this Spanish-style theatre and our partnership with the community has been instrumental in achieving great success,” Willis Johnson noted. “When we renovated and expanded the York Theatre, it afforded us the opportunity to create a space for THS,” he proudly tells Film Journal International. In Woodstock, another reward is on the horizon, which is perhaps the greatest for Willis and Shirley as dedicated preservationists. “The renovation of the original Miller Theatre portion will be a National Registry-listed building with the Department of the Interior.” While it was not yet finalized at press time, “there is only one more inspection involved,” Willis beams with joy.

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