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Cinema restores original Woodstock theater

Workers restore a dome and other features in the Woodstock Theatre’s original movie theater, which was split into two screens in 1979. | Independent Photo by Ken FarverIn 1979, a wall split the 900-seat auditorium of the Woodstock Theatre to offer two screens for its moviegoers, and a dropped ceiling hid the theater’s ornamental red and gold dome. On Aug. 5, 2013, Classic Cinemas closed the two main auditoriums, and construction workers began tearing the wall down and removing the ceiling to restore the dome and auditorium to their previous grandeur.

“There are a lot of mysteries being uncovered at the Woodstock Theatre,” said Mark Mazrimas, Classic Cinemas marketing manager.

Mazrimas said Willis Johnson, his wife, Shirley, and their son, Chris, owners of Classic Cinemas, have been recovering artifacts, restoring historical theaters and creating a classic movie theater atmosphere with state-of-the-art modern conveniences for more than three decades. Aug. 11 marked Classic Cinemas’ 35th anniversary.

As one of Classic Cinemas’ “most ambitious” projects, Mazrimas said the Woodstock Theatre project should be a nice Christmas present to the city. The completion date is expected in December. He said restoring the original auditorium, while keeping the same ambiance of the whole building, has taken careful planning and construction. 

While Mazrimas said “it would have been easier to construct a whole new building,”  he said the end result will be worth the effort and wait because of the unique historical preservation. Aside from the Tivoli theatre in Downers Grove, the first theater restored and opened by the Johnsons in 1978, Mazrimas said, “I’m sure we’ll be the only theater for a lot of miles that has a dome in one of our auditoriums.”

The domed theater, at 209 Main St., was first constructed in 1927 by John C. Miller. It was designed by architect Elmer Behrens, who designed the Raue Center in Crystal Lake. The Miller Theatre was built on the site of the former Princess Theatre, constructed in 1911, across the street from the Gem, another former movie auditorium. 

The first movie to show at the Miller was “Figures Don’t Lie,” a 1927 silent production. The theater was converted to sound in 1929, playing the film “Syncopation.” Aside from showing movies, the Miller had a stage and dressing rooms for plays, Miss Woodstock pageants and other events. The theater also had a Barton organ and a balcony.

In 1973, a group of four partners, former Woodstock Mayor Alan Cornue, Bill Freund, Don Peasley and Virgil Smith, bought the theater, renaming it the Woodstock Theatre. By 1980, the group divided the large auditorium and dropped the ceiling to operate as a twin theater.

Eight years later, the Johnsons purchased the theater to add to their Classic Cinemas family. In 2002, the Johnsons purchased the vacant building next door at 211 Main St. with intent to expand the theater. Willis Johnson said he learned the building was once the Beverly Theatre, a nickelodeon with a small screen, flat floor and moveable chairs from 1920 to 1922. Johnson said he saved some of the original white bricks from the Beverly, which are now incorporated into the Woodstock Theatre’s new exterior facade.

After final renovations, Johnson said the main auditorium will have a restored dome and replicate the original style and design of the Miller. He said 10 ornamental metal ventilation grills have been manufactured based off of one existing original. Johnson said John Scharres, managing director of the Woodstock Opera House, had salvaged an original grill from the Miller. The original will be on display at a faux exit door in the front of the auditorium.

Johnson said a chandelier belonging to the theater was discovered at an antique store in Richmond. He said he also found an original program from the Miller’s opening Nov. 8, 1927, at the McHenry County Historical Society in Union. The fully finished theater will have a history wall with reproductions of one-sheet posters of some of the first movies played at the Miller.

“We’re learning bits and pieces all the time,” Johnson said. “We always hope to find out more, which we do.”

A theater that began showing short silents on film reel, Classic Cinemas in Woodstock is now operating with state-of-the-art digital projectors and sound. Instead of transporting heavy film on platters from one projector room to the next, the movies are obtained via satellite in any room, simply by pressing of a button or two. 

Mazrimas said a lighting ceremony will take place once the exterior facade and the city’s pedway north of the theater are complete. The ceremony will include lighting a new vertical sign on the side of the building, replicating the sign that hung outside the Miller in the 1950s.