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At Classic Cinemas, based in Downers Grove, a night out at the movies can transport you to another place in time, where magic and wonderment are showing on all screens.

Classic Cinemas CEO Chris Johnson, son of late founder Willis Johnson, is proud of the work his family has done to build a chain of movie houses unique to their individual communities.

We have accumulated 16 movie theaters over the course of time and renovated them, but each one is individual to that community,” explained Johnson. So a lot of people don’t look at us as Classic Cinemas, this chain of 16 theaters. They look at us as the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove or the York Theater in Elmhurst or the Lake Theater in Oak Park.”

Classic Cinemas originated with the Tivoli, which was on the brink of closing. It is an epic origin story, and perhaps worthy of a Hollywood screenplay on its own.

My dad and uncle owned a printing company across the tracks. They bought the Tivoli building here in Downers Grove in 1977,” Johnson recalled. In 1978, the movie theater operator put a sign on the marquee that said, ‘Closed for Remodeling,’ and he got word from the manager who said, ‘Hey, they are leaving town and they are going to take all the equipment with them as well.

“So, my father came over and stopped them from taking the equipment. But they left. They broke their lease. After interviewing some prospective tenants, he said, ‘You know, I am going to give this a try myself,’” Johnson reminisced.

Classic Cinemas, generally speaking, does not build new theaters. It specializes in rescuing and revitalizing old theaters with a total count of 137 screens scattered across 15 theaters in northern Illinois and one additional theater in southern Wisconsin.

These are community-based buildings that have been around for years. We have had many theaters that are either 100 years old or just about 100 years old. How many businesses last that long?” questioned Johnson.

Chris Johnson got his start learning the theater business on the ground floor, or perhaps better said, one floor below the ground floor.

My first job was cleaning out the basement of the Tivoli. I cleaned out seven dumpsters of junk in the basement. I became an usher in 1980. My first movie was the original Star Trek movie, which came out in 1979,” Johnson recalled with a smile.  I was in seventh grade when I started as an usher. Most of the theaters were single screen movie theaters. So, you would have to watch the movie over and over and over again. I remember watching E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and everybody walking out of the theater crying.”

Johnson said his team values every customer and that the Classic Cinemas experience should be a memorable one.

It is about being seen when you come into the theater,” Johnson explained. So we know who you are. We recognize you. We take care of you. We add value at every step.”

Johnson stressed that if you sit down to think about it, his business, while heavily into entertainment, is very much a retailer. Buying an ICEE frozen slush, soda, or a bucket of popcorn is all part of the experience and essential to ensuring the projectors are rolling at Classic Cinemas.

We might not be a traditional retailer, but we have a lot of components that lead us down that retail path,” Johnson stated. If we did not have the concession stands, we would not be in business, because just the straight up percentage that we have to pay to the film company plus the cost of the lights and the utilities, there is no way that we would be able to maintain business unless we had outrageous ticket prices. Then nobody would come.”

“If I had advice for a new retailer, it would first be to know your numbers inside and out,” Johnson explained. If your numbers don’t work, it is not going to work. You need to do your research. The time you spend upfront being prepared will pay dividends down the road. Retail is tough. Any business is tough. But you need to open your doors ready to go in a meaningful way. So, I would say that preparation is the number one thing.”

In addition to first-run movies, customers can also enjoy special events at Classic Cinemas such as Oscar winning shorts, special film screenings and lectures, as well as classic films from the past. People can also rent the theaters for special events and birthday parties.

I love coming to work every day because what industry could you be in where you can see multi-million dollar movies introduced every week?  How cool is that? We are not selling widgets or the same thing all year round,” Johnson said excitedly. Seeing the emotion on people’s faces when they see a film, and having fun makes this a very happy place.

I think movies are extremely important because it is a meeting place. Even if you do not know everybody who is attending, you are part of something. You get out of the house. A movie theater brings everybody together and they share in this art form. They are just immersed in it, and they feed off the sensation of the person next to them,” Johnsonsaid.

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