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Local News

Downers Grove Museum exhibit traces history of Tivoli Theatre

DOWNERS GROVE – A new exhibit at the Downers Grove Museum aims to take visitors on a trip through movie history via the Tivoli Theatre.

The free exhibit – which opened July 11 and closes Dec. 20 – collects artifacts and photographs spanning from when the theatre opened in 1928, to its renovation by Willis Johnson in the '70s and today.

When the French Renaissance-style Tivoli was built in Downers Grove, it had, and still has, no match in town, Johnson said.

"The Tivoli was larger, far more ornate," Johnson said. "It had the latest and greatest in sound. There's a lot of decorative plaster. When you walk into the average movie theater today, you've got four walls covered with cloth and a screen. Not taking anything away, but there's nothing you sit and say 'oh, ah, look at that.'"

One of the more curious items on display in the exhibit are dishes from the York Theatre, also owned by Johnson's Classic Cinemas chain. The china comes from the Depression era when theaters would host give-away nights to lure customers, and china was one of the most popular.

"If you came on a Wednesday, you would get a free piece of china," said museum supervisor Ashlee Craig, who curated the exhibit. "If you kept coming for a few weeks you could acquire a complete set."

Among other items, the exhibit also has reprints of the posters from the first film shown at the Tivoli, the 1928 Howard Hawks romance "Fazil."

The Tivoli was built to show talking pictures, but it had an organ as well for the silent films like "Fazil" that were still prominent, but beginning to fade in popularity. By about 1931, the organ was gone. The theater stayed organless until 1995, when Johnson brought a 1920's replacement from a theater in Champaign.

When he bought the theater in '76, it wasn't in bad shape, Johnson said, but it had lost its original sparkle. Everything had been painted one solid color. He returned gold to the color scheme, replaced the seat and otherwise spruced it back to its original luster.

Classic Cinemas has kept the theatre up with current times, as well. It's equipped with 7.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and can show 3D movies. The theater also has a headphone system that will narrate the onscreen action for those with visual impairments.

The Tivoli and all other Classic Cinemas theaters made the transition from film projectors to digital in 2011, to the tune of $70,000 each. The Tivoli still has its film projector, but it hasn't been used in more than a year, he said. Hollywood films only arrived in the digital format now, and he said the film projector is only used for the occasional re-run of classic, foreign or art films.

"Some of those are only available in 35mm," he said. "That's the only (film projector) we have left and I have a feeling in another year or so, it will be gone."


WHAT: "Movie Magic: Celebrating 86 Years of the Tivoli Theatre"

WHERE: Downers Grove Park District Museum, 831 Maple Ave.

WHEN: 1 to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

COST: Free


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