Shirley Johnson, co-founder of movie theater chain, dies

Shirley L. Johnson co-founded the Classic Cinemas movie theater chain with her late husband, Willis, and was a highly visible advocate for the arts.

“Shirley wanted to be so involved in the communities where their theaters were, and the historic (theaters) in towns’ downtowns were the anchors of the downtowns,” said retired Classic Cinemas director of marketing Mark Mazrimas, who worked at the chain for 18 years. “A lot of her involvement was involvement in special shows like doing school shows and doing charity events.”

Johnson, 88, died of pneumonia March 2 at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, said her stepson, Classic Cinemas CEO Chris Johnson. She was a longtime Downers Grove resident.

Born Shirley Griffin at her family’s home in Lombard, Johnson grew up in Villa Park and graduated from York High School in Elmhurst in 1954. She attended Elmhurst College and then worked for 17 years at Miles Laboratories in Naperville as an advertising manager.

In 1976, her future husband, Willis Johnson, and his brother, Ross, bought the Downers Grove building housing the Tivoli Theatre, a bowling alley and a hotel. Shirley and Willis Johnson married the following year, and shortly afterward, the Tivoli Theatre’s operator, Oscar Brotman, departed in the middle of the night, shuttering the Tivoli. With that, the Johnsons decided to take over the theater’s operations.

At the outset of running the cinema, the couple stuck with their day jobs — Willis Johnson had run his own printing business and Shirley continued working at Miles. By the early 1980s, however, they began devoting all their time to their growing theater chain, and they wound up owning and renovating theaters not just in Downers Grove but also in Elmhurst, Oak Park, La Grange and other communities.

The couple eventually expanded Classic Cinemas to 16 locations and 137 screens in Illinois and Wisconsin.

“She was very bright and insightful,” Mazrimas said. “Willis was the person who took the spotlight, but Shirley was the business partner who stood in the background and was just very aware of everything that was going on and had a lot of input to the business.”

Johnson was a forceful advocate behind the scenes for foreign and independent films.

“She was so involved with the arts and art films,” Mazrimas said. “The art films had a tougher time to get on screen, so to appease some of the people that were complaining, Shirley created this film series in Oak Park that would have showings (of independent films) at 1 o’clock and another showing at 7 (o’clock) and then she increased the showings. She even had a group of people who were like her art film committee, and she would meet with them and they would make suggestions.”

Mazrimas joked that with those art film showings, Johnson “created a monster” because residents of other communities with Classic Cinemas theaters soon wanted similar films.

Johnson’s stepson said she was committed to broadening people’s horizons when it came to film.

“It was just exposing people to kind of unique and interesting works of art that they might not catch otherwise,” Chris Johnson said.

Shirley Johnson also collaborated with a variety of community organizations and opened Classic Cinemas’ theaters to be used as performance spaces for nonprofit groups, children’s theater, concerts and even local talent shows.

“The most fun for me was some of the kids’ variety shows, because they’re so excited and happy and it’s just great fun,” she reflected in a 73-minute 2023 documentary produced by documentary maker Jim Toth for the Downers Grove Historical Society and Classic Cinemas, “History Happens Here: The Tivoli Theatre.”

Johnson partnered with a Downers Grove bookstore for author events at the Tivoli.

“We teamed up with Anderson’s Bookshop and they brought their authors here, and the authors would be on the stage and give a little talk about their book or their life or whatever, and then they’d sign their books in the lobby,” Johnson said in the documentary. “We’ve had Julie Andrews here three times, so that’s our big claim to fame.”

Johnson also supported a circuit-wide summer reading program in conjunction with local libraries.

For their theater renovation work, Johnson, her husband and stepson in 2011 were awarded Landmarks Illinois’ Award for Stewardship. And last year, Johnson and her husband were honored as Historians of the Year by the Downers Grove Historical Society.

Johnson retired from full-time work with the theater chain in 2018, but she remained involved in the business.

A first marriage ended in divorce, and Willis Johnson died in August. In addition to her stepson, Johnson is survived by a son, Rich Winters; a daughter, Mary Reichl; four stepchildren, Stephen Johnson, Kay Johnson, Wendy Leick and Amy Balicki; and 14 grandchildren.

Services were held.

Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.


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