Suburban man ‘addicted’ to restoring movie theaters


LA GRANGE, Ill. — For more than 40 years, Chris Johnson has been preserving, restoring and operating historic movie theaters throughout the Chicago area and and although the pandemic struck a harsh blow to the movie business, he is back at it, this time, unveiling the historic beauty of the Classic Cinemas La Grange Theatre. 

Johnson is very passionate about his line of work. 

“I have an addiction, it’s not golf, it’s not drinking it’s not anything but opening new theaters,” he said.

This past May, Johnson opened his 16th Classic Cinema location here in the historic La Grange Theatre after signing a lease with the building’s owners.  

“We put a lot of money back into the theater continuously and we keep them clean and updated,” he said.

The theater, which had sat vacant for more than two years, is adorned inside with painted ceilings and ornate designs. His goal is to preserve the history while also providing movie goers with the latest comforts.   

“We like to take the old facilities and we put in new recliners and everything and people really like the old and the new,” Johnson said.

Transformed from a stage to movie theater by previous owners, Johnson’s renovations will offer six movie screens showing first run movies, while surrounded by a bit of history.

“Bringing it front and center I think people really think t’s cool and at this particular moment, nostalgia is cool,” he said.

Johnson said he fell in love with downtown theaters after renovating the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove. The building was a real estate purchase in 1978 by his father and brother and the business became a family affair.   

Soon Classic Cinemas would restore other local suburban theaters including York Theatre in Elmhurst and Lake Theatre in Oak Park.   

“There were a lot of mistakes made in the beginning and a lot of changes over time, and we actually kind of winged it at first, but now we are the experts,” Johnson said.

As the National Association of Theaters president, Johnson has been credited with infusing new life into some suburban downtowns with his Classic Cinemas.

“You’re bringing back the history again,” Johnson said. “One hundred years in the scheme of the world isn’t much but a movie palace like this isn’t going to be built again.”

Classic Cinema’s Lindo Theatre in Freeport, Illinois recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. The La Grange location will turn 100 in 2025.  

Chris Johnson is one of Chicago’s Very Own.  

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