Willis Gamble Johnson

August 18, 2023

Willis Gamble Johnson, 86, was born on January 11, 1937, to Elizabeth Gamble and Willis “Abbott” Johnson, and died on August 16, 2023. He was a lifelong resident of Downers Grove. Willis graduated from Downers Grove Community High School in 1955 and Western Michigan University in 1959. He served as a Sergeant in the Army National Guard. Early in his career he worked at International Harvester as a time study engineer. After founding Johnson Printers with his brother Ross, he became co-founder and president of Classic Cinemas / Tivoli Enterprises, which has 16 theatre locations, including the historic Tivoli in Downtown Downers Grove. Classic Cinemas is now the largest movie theatre chain based in Illinois. Willis had a strong work ethic and dedicated his life to building the company. He loved restoring old buildings and never met a construction project he didn’t enjoy.

Community involvement was a priority for him. He was very active in business, historic and civic organizations in Downers Grove, Elmhurst, Oak Park, and other towns where he owned theaters. Among countless honors for his service, he was chosen as Downers Grove Citizen of the Year in 2010 and was inducted into the Elmhurst Civic Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2023, he and his wife Shirley were honored by the Downers Grove Historical Society as Historians of the Year and were touched to have been featured in a documentary film entitled “History Happens Here: The Tivoli Theater.” He was proud to have his son Chris carry on the legacy of the company they built. Willis was also a past president of National Association of Theater Owners of Illinois.

As a young man, Willis loved cars. During high school, he and his friends started a club called The Pluggers that met at the Triangle Service Station. And he was known around town for his sky blue 1937 Ford with a white leather interior — a car he fixed up and customized. In his later years, Willis came to appreciate the beauty of flowers. Wherever possible he incorporated landscaping along theatre entries and parking lots, and in his own yard. He enjoyed weekends at Lake Holiday with his family. He had an extensive collection of Lego sets that he liked to build in his spare time.

He is survived by his wife of 46 years Shirley (nee Griffin) and his children Stephen (fiancée Penelope) Johnson, Kay Johnson, Christopher (Susan) Johnson, Wendy (John) Leick, & Amy (Stanley) Balicki and by his step-children Mary (Michael) Reichl & Richard (Nancy) Winters and grandchildren Jason (Rebekah) Johnson, Cyrus Johnson, Roxane Johnson, Nalani Johnson, Alexa Johnson, Kyle Johnson, Jocelyn Leick, Nolan Leick, August Balicki, Olivia Balicki, Rose Balicki, Luke Balicki, Sarah (Andy) Wojtanowski & Paul Reichl in addition to his great grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

He is also survived by his brother Ross (Barbara) Johnson. He was preceded in death by his sister Sara Homberg and his brother-in-law Robert Griffin.

Should friends desire, memorial donations in Willis’s name may be made to Variety of Illinois https://varietyofillinois.org/, a charity near to Willis’s heart.

There will a private Internment at Chapel Hill Gardens West, Oakbrook Terrace following cremation. A Celebration of Life will be held at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove on Saturday, September 2 at 10:30 am. Doors will open at 9:30 A.M.

Arrangements entrusted to Cappetta’s West Suburban Funeral Home, Downers Grove. Info 630-852-8000 or westsuburbanfh.com