Willis Johnson passes away at 86

By Dee Longfellow

It was quite a stunner last week when the residents of Elmhurst learned the news that Willis Johnson, long-time owner of Classic Cinemas, which includes Elmhurst’s York Theatre, had passed away at the age of 86.

Willis Gamble Johnson, 86, was born on January 11, 1937, to Elizabeth Gamble and Willis “Abbott” Johnson, and died on August 16, 2023. He was a lifelong resident of Downers Grove. Willis graduated from Downers Grove Community High School in 1955 and Western Michigan University in 1959. He served as a Sergeant in the Army National Guard. Early in his career he worked at International Harvester as a time study engineer. After founding Johnson Printers with his brother Ross, he became co-founder and president of Classic Cinemas / Tivoli Enterprises, which has 16 theatre locations, including the historic Tivoli in Downtown Downers Grove. Classic Cinemas is now the largest movie theatre chain based in Illinois. Willis had a strong work ethic and dedicated his life to building the company. He loved restoring old buildings and never met a construction project he didn’t enjoy.

“Willis Johnson almost single-handedly revitalized downtown Elmhurst,” said former mayor Thomas D. Marcucci. “He earned all our respect for his calm and considered approach to issues here in town. And he didn’t even live here!”

“Willis was certainly wise and kind, but he was also a visionary,” said Rich Reichert, who currently chairs the Elmhurst Economic Development Committee, a group which was spearheaded by Johnson. “He knew how to revitalize central business districts by restoring historic theatres. These movie houses would become the main draw to these rejuvenated downtowns. His theatres were designed to be the perfect intersection of modern convenience and old-fashioned class. I will miss his friend and his wit.”

“There is a reason that Willis is an Elmhurst Chamber of Commerce & Industry Civic Hall of Fame inductee,” said ECCI president & CEO John R. Quigley. “For some four decades, he was among Elmhurst’s most prominent businessmen and property owners. His investment in revitalizing the York Theatre was the first step in bringing Elmhurst’s downtown back to life.

“And his commitment to Elmhurst City Centre was unwavering.”

Community involvement was a priority for him. He was very active in business, historic and civic organizations in Downers Grove, Elmhurst, Oak Park, and other towns where he owned theaters. Among countless honors for his service, he was chosen as Downers Grove Citizen of the Year in 2010 and was inducted into the Elmhurst Civic Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2023, he and his wife Shirley were honored by the Downers Grove Historical Society as Historians of the Year and were touched to have been featured in a documentary film entitled “History Happens Here: The Tivoli Theater.” He was proud to have his son Chris carry on the legacy of the company they built. Willis was also a past president of National Association of Theater Owners of Illinois.

As a young man, Willis loved cars. During high school, he and his friends started a club called The Pluggers that met at the Triangle Service Station. And he was known around town for his sky blue 1937 Ford with a white leather interior — a car he fixed up and customized. In his later years, Willis came to appreciate the beauty of flowers. Wherever possible he incorporated landscaping along theatre entries and parking lots, and in his own yard. He enjoyed weekends at Lake Holiday with his family. He had an extensive collection of Lego sets that he liked to build in his spare time.

He is survived by his wife of 46 years Shirley (nee Griffin) and his children Stephen (fiancée Penelope) Johnson, Kay Johnson, Christopher (Susan) Johnson, Wendy (John) Leick, and Amy (Stanley) Balicki and by his step-children Mary (Michael) Reichl & Richard (Nancy) Winters and grandchildren Jason (Rebekah) Johnson, Cyrus Johnson, Roxane Johnson, Nalani Johnson, Alexa Johnson, Kyle Johnson, Jocelyn Leick, Nolan Leick, August Balicki, Olivia Balicki, Rose Balicki, Luke Balicki, Sarah (Andy) Wojtanowski and Paul Reichl, in addition to his great-grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

Willis is also 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 held at the Tivoli Theatre, 5021 Highland Ave., in downtown Downers Grove on Saturday, Sept. 2 at 10:30 a.m. There will a private Internment at Chapel Hill Gardens West, Oakbrook Terrace following cremation.

Should friends desire, memorial donations in Willis’ name may be made to Variety of Illinois https://varietyofillinois.org/, a charity near to Willis’ heart.

Arrangements entrusted to Cappetta’s West Suburban Funeral Home, Downers Grove. Info 630-852-8000 or westsuburbanfh.com