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A ‘Classic’ Act

Woodstock Theatre’s longevity is due in no small part to a family with a passion for keeping downtown theaters alive and well.

Many defining features of modern and cultural America emerged during the early 1900s, and a primary standout then, and today, is the movies. The single most significant new instrument of mass entertainment back then was moving pictures, and three-fourths of Americans were flocking to a movie house every week.

Woodstock, with its long history of movie theaters, was no exception. There was the Star, and 1910 brought the Gem and the Vaudette. The Princess opened in 1911, the Palace in 1913 and the Beverly in 1920. Finally, the Miller, known today as the Woodstock Theatre, opened its doors in 1927.

By 1927, movie revenues were exploding and proprietors were racing to build the most lavish, elaborate and attractive theaters. This unique architectural genre is reflected in the Woodstock Theatre, which thrives at 209 Main St. just off the square.

Flanked by two small French balconies, and standing out above the sidewalk is an “electric tiara,” as theater historian Ben M. Hall coined it in the 1930s: the all-informative marquee with its mesmerizing chasing lights. Step up to the vintage ticket booth and step into the meticulously restored 1927 lobby with its gold leaf, warm colors, textured walls, ornate copings, ceiling medallions and many plaster enrichments all in classical movie-palace style. None of this is complete without that bewitching aroma of fresh popcorn! Whatever your concession allegiances,  you’ll find it in the lobby.

‘The Balcony is Closed’

Gone is the giant screen with a thousand seats, the vaudeville stage, the Bartolo theater organ, and yes, even the balcony.

Well, the balcony is there. Look up, you can still see its curved projection, but in order to go from a 1920’s “talkie”  to the new millennium in movie viewing, room had to be made for upgrades like digital and surround sound, enhanced digital projection, comfort seating, air-conditioning and a greater selection of movies.

Behind the Scenes

Behind the 1927 movie theater façade is a state-of-the-art theater showing first-run movies at affordable prices. Who’s behind all this? The Johnson family: Willis, Shirley and Chris. In 1978, Willis had been a partner in a printing business for more than 20 years and Shirley had been a marketing professional for 17.

They were ready for a change and change came with the closing of their local movie theater, the Tivoli of Downers Grove. They bought the Tivoli, and along with their son Chris, painstakingly restored it. From the dust of the Tivoli, their family-owned company, Classic Cinemas, emerged, which today operates 13 theaters in 12 communities, lighting up the darkened downtowns of communities in northern Illinois by restoring older theaters. The family also owns and operates the Tivoli Bowling Center, just around the corner from their first theater.

In 1988, they bought and restored the Woodstock Theatre and added a larger screen and the HPS-4000 sound system.

In 1979, former owners renovated the Woodstock Theater into twin theaters.  Today, they are honorably named the Gem and the Princess. Willis pointed out that the highly ornate, original plaster ceiling still exists, preserved above the newer acoustical dropped ceiling.

In 1992, the Woodstock Theatre became part of a moviemaking history when it was used as a location of the beloved Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day.” Like a star of the big screen, Woodstock Theatre’s name was tem-porarily changed to “The Alpine” while the movie was filmed. Each year, the theater helps the city of Woodstock celebrate its annual Groundhog Days celebration with free screenings of the film.

In 2002, the theater opened two additional screens by expanding into the building next door. Upon research, it turned out this building had been the Beverly Theatre from 1920. So in a way, these old silver screens of Woodstock, the Gem, Princess and Beverly — still shine today thanks to the Willis family and the many loyal moviegoers.

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