Shirley Johnson, co-founder of the cinema chain, has died


Shirley L. Johnson founded the Classic Cinemas 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 her theaters were located, and the historic (theaters) in the downtowns of cities were the anchors of the downtowns,” said retired Classic Cinemas marketing director Mark Mazrimas, of 18 years worked for the chain for many years. “Much of her involvement involved participating in special shows such as school plays and charity events.”

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

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

In 1976, her future husband Willis Johnson and his brother Ross purchased the Downers Grove building, which housed the Tivoli Theater, a bowling alley and a hotel. Shirley and Willis Johnson married the following year, and soon after, the Tivoli Theater operator, Oscar Brotman, left in the middle of the night and closed the Tivoli. With that, the Johnsons decided to take over the running of the theater.

When they began running the cinema, the couple stuck to their day jobs – Willis Johnson had run his own printing shop and Shirley continued to work at Miles. By the early 1980s, however, they were devoting all of their time to their growing theater chain, owning and renovating theaters not only 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 smart and sensitive,” Mazrimas said. “Willis was the person in the spotlight, but Shirley was the business partner who was in the background and just knew everything that was going on and had a lot of influence over the company.”

Behind the scenes, Johnson was a vigorous advocate for foreign and independent films.

“She was very committed to art and art films,” Mazrimas said. “It was more difficult for art films to get onto the screen. To appease some of the people who were complaining, Shirley created this film series in Oak Park where there were screenings (of independent films) at 1 p.m., another screening at 7 p.m. (p.m.) and then she increased the screenings. She even had a group of people who were like her art film committee and she met with them and they made suggestions.”

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

Johnson's stepson said she is committed to broadening people's horizons when it comes to film.

“It was just about introducing people to unique and interesting works of art that they might not otherwise see,” Chris Johnson said.

Shirley Johnson also worked with various community organizations and opened Classic Cinemas' theaters to be used as performance spaces for non-profit 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 filmed by documentarian Jim Toth for Downers Grove Historical was produced by society and classic cinemas, “History Happens Here: The Tivoli Theater.”

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

“We partnered with Anderson's Bookshop and they brought their authors here, and the authors would stand on stage and give a little talk about their book or their life or whatever, and then they would sign their books in the lobby,” said 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 statewide summer reading program in collaboration with local libraries.

For their theater renovation work, Johnson, her husband and stepson received the 2011 Landmarks Illinois Award for Stewardship. And last year, Johnson and her husband were named Historian of the Year by the Downers Grove Historical Society.

Johnson retired from her full-time job at the theater chain in 2018 but 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.

Church services were held.

Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.