Views: Owners preserve Woodstock Theatre history
By KURT BEGALKA – email@example.com
Classic Cinemas owners Willis and Shirley Johnson do not hesitate when asked why they are renovating yet another in a long line of historic theaters.
“We enjoy it,” Willis Johnson said. “We want to preserve the history of the building and its architecture. We like preserving the past.”
The Woodstock Theater, located at 209 Main St., has quite the pedigree. The location has been home to a movie theater since 1911 –starting with the Princess – located across Main Street from the Gem. The Princess building was torn down and replaced by the Miller, followed by several incarnations of the Woodstock Theatre.
Four partners – Bill Freund, Virgil Smith, former Woodstock Mayor Alan Cornue and Don Peasley – bought and completely remodeled the theater, which reopened May 12, 1980.
In 1988, Classic Cinemas, a division of Tivoli Enterprises Inc. of Downers Grove,bought the Woodstock Theatre, later adding two screens by expanding into the building next door at 211 Main St. During construction in 2002, Willis Johnson said a film canister, reel and handbill from the Beverly Theatre fell from the ceiling. The nickelodeon-type venue was built in 1920.
And the Johnson’s didn’t stop there. After all this is the same company that bought and restored nine other historic theaters around the Chicago area – including the Spanish-style York Theatre in Elmhurst built in 1924; Cinema 12 in Carpentersville; the Elk Grove Theatre, Lake Theatre in Oak Park, Lindo Theatre in Freeport, the Meadowview and Paramount theaters in Kankakee, Ogden 6 Theatre in Naperville and the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove.
Woodstock, however, marks the first time Classic Cinemas have pursued a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Willis Johnson said a tax credit amounting to about $200,000 is part of the reason, but not all of it.
“We are in a for-profit business,” Willis says. “We do some of that for a business perspective and we do some of it for us.”
In 2008 Classic Cinemas presented a plan to renovate the current theater space, as well as construct new theaters north of the existing one. The company bought the city parking lot on Main Street, as well as three additional properties – located at 223, 225 and 229 Main Street with an eye toward re-creating the city’s theater district. The end result will be eight theaters.
The last of the six new theaters at 209 Main St. opened to the public June 7. The remaining two theaters, located in what was the original theater complex, will be restored starting in early August. Work, which includes restoration of the main auditorium and creation of a small theater behind it, is anticipated to wrap up by Dec. 2.
After the summer movie push and before the Christmas rush.
“Why do we do it? We don’t know any better,” joked company vice president Chris Johnson. “Actually, I think there are a few things going on. One, my dad and Shirley love old theaters. They are unique and there is a lot of joy bringing them back to life.
“The other thing is the whole aspect of the downtown. It’s fun to fuel interest and bring life back to that part of town.”
The one caveat is that the process is getting harder and harder, as technological demands, land prices and material costs rise … not to mention expectations.
“You want to make that splash, that difference,” Chris Johnson said.
John C. Miller, a consummate promoter, learned that lesson long ago. In 1927 the Princess Theatre owner tore down an adjoining hardware store to expand the theater – which he renamed thanks to a poll in the Woodstock Sentinel. The new Miller Theatre, which seated 860 people, boasted the Moorish-style architecture still visible today. A domed ceiling covered in aluminum leaf featured an ornamental plaster ventilation grill at its heart.
In a special program issued for the opening week – Nov. 8-12, 1927 – Miller wrote: “Here are installed every convenience for the comfort of our patrons and into the theatre itself we have striven to weave that harmony of arrangement and unity of decoration that will delight the eye and prove restful to the mind.”
Classic Cinemas is spending $4.8 million on construction and about $1 million more on state-of-the-art equipment. Each auditorium will feature stadium seating and rocker seats; state-of-the-art digital sound and projection. Three of the theaters will be able to show movies in 3-D.
There also is a “descriptive audio” option for the blind and captioning system for the hearing impaired.
“It’s a perfect blend of old and new,” Chris Johnson said. “I believe people will be blown away. And the biggest plus is the condition of the dome and what we plan to do with that. There is nothing that screams ‘wow’ more in there.”
While I am disappointed that the original sloped floor will be replaced stadium seating, Chris Johnson said the company had little choice.
“If you want to compete in today’s environment, you need to have a modern amenity,” he said. “You don’t want to put yourself in a hole fright from the start.”
The Johnsons are fabricating five grills, 30 inches wide by 8 feet long, based on an original salvaged by Woodstock Opera House Executive Director John Scharres. The genuine article grill will be display, not all that far from an original chandelier located at a Richmond antique shop.
“We try and take memorabilia that we find and incorporate it in our theaters,” Willis Johnson said. For example, the 4-foot-tall, art deco sconces that once adorned the Colonial Theater on Washington Street in Marengo, now light the Lake Theatre in Oak Park.
The idea is to create a seamless transition from old to new.
“You walk into the theater and you think it’s been like this from the beginning,” Chris Johnson said.
• Kurt Begalka is administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society. For information, call 815-923-2267 or visit www.gothistory.org.