Arts & Entertainment

Two Thumbs Up at Lindo Theatre in Freeport

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Explore Freeport’s beautifully-restored Lindo Theatre, and meet the family behind Classic Cinemas, a company that revels in transforming vintage theaters into viable downtown assets.

The Lindo Theatre in Freeport, Ill., has been beautifully restored to its original 1922 movie palace glory by Classic Cinemas.

“Watch the eyes of a child as he enters the portals of our great theatres and treads the pathway into fairyland. Watch the bright light in the eyes of the tired shop girl who hurries noiselessly over carpets and sighs with satisfaction as she walks amid furnishings that once delighted the hearts of queens. See the toil-worn father whose dreams have never come true, and look inside his heart as he finds strength and rest within the theatre. There you have the answer to why motion picture theatres are so palatial.”
—Theater designer George Rapp

This was the philosophy shared by Rapp and his brother, C.W., two of the most prolific movie theater designers of the early 1900s. The Rapps, from Chicago, were responsible for hundreds of movie palaces across the country, including the Tivoli, Riviera, Uptown, Chicago, Palace and Oriental in Chicago; the Paramount in Manhattan and Brooklyn; Loew’s Jersey in Jersey City, N.J; Loew’s Penn in Pittsburgh; the Ambassador in St. Louis; the Palace in Cleveland; the Fox in Washington, D.C.; the Michigan in Detroit  – and the Lindo Theatre in Freeport, Ill.

The Lindo Theatre is grand a piece of history, tucked away in the heart of this Stephenson County city. The anchor of the downtown district, it’s surrounded by smaller businesses, including a floral shop, hobby store and ice cream shop, with a hotel and a couple of restaurants nearby. With an average of 600 moviegoers visiting the nine-screen theater on a daily basis, its presence means everything to Freeport’s downtown businesses.

“It’s the main draw,” says Mayor George Gaulrapp, a frequent visitor to the Lindo. “It has all the amenities other theaters have. I can’t say enough good things about the Lindo. It’s a place that takes you back in time.”

The Lindo first opened on April 17, 1922, with seating for 1,200, all on one floor; a stage for vaudeville acts with dressing rooms stationed below; and a Bennett pipe organ, used to complement the films. The opening night was memorable: It featured a performance by an orchestra, which consisted of the best musicians in Freeport, as well as an organist adept at playing for silent films. The name Lindo, a tribute to the second Lincoln/Douglas debate held in Freeport in 1858, was selected in a pick-the-name contest.

The theater was competitive throughout the years, despite the addition in the 1930s of several new venues to the local movie lineup, including the Patio, the State and the new State. In 1939, Steve Bennis of Lincoln, Ill., leased the Lindo, renamed it the Freeport Theater and started a three-generation family operation. It stayed open until 1983, when it became a casualty of dwindling box office numbers.

Classic Cinemas, the family-owned movie chain, was started in the 1970s by Willis and Shirley Johnson, pictured at right with son Chris in the renovated lobby.

Today, the theater, with all its rich history, is fully restored. It plays all first-run features, and is one of 13 theaters under the banner of Classic Cinemas, the largest independent movie theater company in Illinois. Based in Downers Grove, Classic Cinemas is owned by Willis, Shirley and Chris Johnson, who purchased the Freeport Theater from Anthony and David Bennis in 1984, after a deal to purchase a theater in Marengo fell through. One of Shirleys’ first decisions was to return the theater’s original name.

With 99 screens in 12 communities, Classic Cinemas is a family affair. Willis, 74, oversees the business, while wife Shirley, 75, handles special events. Their son, Chris, 43, has been with the company for 30 years. His first task was cleaning out the basement of their first theater, the Tivoli, in Downers Grove. Since then, he’s risen through the ranks, working as usher, then manager and, now, as vice president in charge of operations.

Kim Grimes, president of the Freeport Chamber of Commerce for the past eight years, knows the importance of the theater, and not just for movie fans. The Chamber has held numerous community events at the Lindo, with more planned for the future.

“I don’t know what we’d do without our beautiful downtown theater,” says Grimes. “I don’t even want to think about it. It’s the backbone of the downtown. We’d be lost without it.

“The Johnsons are vital to the community. They understand the importance of supporting the communities they do business in. The investment they made in the theater means they want to stay around for a long time. That’s music to our ears at the Chamber. It’s just a great story.”

Willis Johnson grew up two blocks away from the Tivoli Theatre, a 1,392-seat, single-screen motion-picture palace in Downers Grove. He spent a fair amount of time at the movies, but never dreamed he would one day own his own movie theater company. During the 1960s and ’70s, he owned a printing business with his brother. Seeking a new opportunity, Willis found it when he bought the 1928 Tivoli Building in 1976, which included the historic movie theater, a residential hotel, a bowling alley, a billiards parlor and several storefronts. He and Shirley handled the business end of operations, while the theater’s former manager, Ed Doherty, agreed to stay on to manage it and book the films. The Tivoli reopened on Aug. 8, 1978, with a Disney comedy western called “Hot Lead and Cold Feet,” starring Don Knotts.

“It played one week,” Willis says, “and the rest is history.”

The Lindo Theatre is typical of most in the Classic Cinemas family; each combines the ambience of old-time movie houses with state-of-the-art technology.

“It’s a wonderful marriage,” Willis says. “I enjoy the renovation and expansion of these theaters, which has significantly contributed to the vitality of the downtowns that we’re in. Other merchants feed off that. By restoring the buildings, we’re finding historic elements. And people enjoy the theaters. They spark memories – memories of a first job, first date or first kiss. Back then, going to the movies was one of the few options people had, socially.”

While entertainment opportunities are plentiful these days, going to the movies remains a viable option. In the Freeport area, going to the Lindo continues to be a popular choice, thanks to a series of improvements Classic Cinemas has made over the years. Upgrades include a lobby remodeling. The original ceiling and chandeliers were restored, and a new concession stand was added. Colorful wall treatments were installed to absorb the sound and add a decorative touch, and a new box office was built in the outer lobby.

The Lindo Theatre’s latest renovations were completed in the spring of 2008, and the theater is managed by Freeport resident Jami Spelman. The Lindo now has nine screens, including six with stadium seating, plus an 18-person party room, ideal for those who wish to celebrate a birthday or other special occasion with a movie. The Lindo was the first complex to have two 3D screens, with plans to add a third in the near future.

One of the most symbolic changes hangs over the theater entrance. A vertical sign, a replica of the original sign that disappeared long ago, is back, thanks to some old photographs. A reproduction was created and affixed to the original 1922 building facade. The new sign is 14 feet long, with dark blue and yellow lettering, adorned with 670 neon chasing lights. “I lusted after this sign,” Willis says. “A vertical sign makes it a theater.”

And so does popcorn. The Lindo offers $1 popcorn on Tuesdays, as well as bite-size pretzels in honor of the local high school’s nickname, and a Wednesday morning summer movie series, featuring popular titles for young viewers. Movies sometimes include pre-movie games and meet-and-greet sessions with costumed characters.

The upgrades were made solely with the customer in mind. “We’re not trying to be the biggest,” says Chris. “We just want to be the theater of choice in hometown communities – communities like Freeport.”

Quentin Davis is the executive director of the Freeport Downtown Development Foundation. He knows the importance of the Lindo Theatre, on both a personal and professional level.

“I can’t say enough good things about the Lindo Theatre,” he says. “My family and I are moviegoers and enjoy going there. The hospitality is wonderful – the staff does a great job of taking care of you and making you feel comfortable. With the recent expansion, it’s a great atmosphere for watching a movie, and it’s reasonably priced. It’s a great entertainment value for the Freeport area.” ❚

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