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Oak Park’s Lake Theatre still thriving after 75 years

The vertical blue neon sign “Lake” stacked high above the traditional marquee serves as a beacon.

Beneath, moviegoers have lined up outside the doors of Oak Park’s Lake Theatre to spend 120 minutes or more with the likes of Clark Gable, Lauren Bacall, Kate Winslet or Rob Pattinson.

They’ve been doing it for 75 years.

On Monday, the west suburban theater will celebrate its 75th anniversary on Lake Street.

The celebration includes a host of events including a free screening of the first film shown there in 1936, “The Ghost Goes West.”

From that first showing, the Lake Theatre has prospered while serving as an economic and cultural magnet for downtown Oak Park.

Architect Thomas Lamb — one of the foremost American theater and cinema architects of the 20th Century — designed the theater, known for its art deco style. Originally, it had a single screen with a seating capacity of 1,420.

Willis Johnson, owner of the Lake Theatre, took ownership of the movie palace in 1984.

At the time, its decorative elements had been buried in paint, and rain through a leaky roof destroyed much of the theater’s plaster.

While it was modernized into a multiscreen theater, it was also restored with new plasterwork and ceiling lights. The famous blue marquee was renovated with additional neon.

Today the Lake holds pieces of other historic theaters, now gone.

Some ceiling fixtures are from the the old Will Rogers Theater, formerly at 5635 W. Belmont. Plaster musician busts were rescued from the Southtown Theater, 636 W. 63rd.

Other art deco wall fixtures came from the Colonial Theatre in Marengo and two 10-foot neoclassic statues of females were originally in the organ grills at the Marbro Theatre, 4110 W. Madison.

Johnson got into the movie house business in 1976 when he bought the theater he went to as a boy ­ — the Tivoli in downtown Downers Grove. Today, Johnson’s Classic Cinemas operates 13 movie theaters with 99 screens in northern Illinois.

Johnson said his movie business succeeded only because his family provided what the public wanted.

“People want an entertainment environment that is comfortable and affordable. Those are the draws,” he said.

“And we’ve done well because of our customers. Oak Park has been good for us. Not long ago, there was not much going in downtown, but people still supported us.”

The theater is firmly etched in local residents’ happy memories.

“Our children come back as adults 50 years later to see something they remember, while other buildings have gone away over the years,” said Mary Anne Brown, the executive director of Hephzibah Children’s Association, which provides residential orphanage and foster care services.

Brown appreciates the theater as not only an entertainment venue but as a service to the community.

“The theater has had many free events for kids,” she said. “It’s great to have this landmark so close to us as a meeting place.”

In October, the theater was the setting for Hephzibah’s volunteer recognition awards.

“It’s been a generous community patron and always willing to help, which makes Lake Theatre even more fond to the village,” she said.



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