At the beginning of 2014, The Theatre Historical Society of America (THS) unveiled the Willis & Shirley Johnson and Classic Cinemas Research & Education Center, named after Elmhurst’s very own local theater owners. “We have the largest collection of theatre architecture-related materials in North America and we wanted to make sure our space was best suited for researchers coming to visit Elmhurst and our collections,” said Richard Fosbrink, Executive Director about the renovation.
While the research component is the main purpose of the space, the permanent displays are open to the public and located on the second floor of the York Theatre building in Elmhurst, with free admission, although donations are welcome. You won’t find ruby slippers or Mary Poppin’s umbrella, but you will see lots of photos of elaborate movie palaces, pictures of gilded chandeliers, examples of movie usher’s uniforms and pictures of the orchestra pits where live musicians were led by real conductors during the era of silent films.
The museum is sponsored by the Theatre Historical Society, which is a non-profit organization that boasts over 1,000 members. The Society was founded in 1969 by Ben M Hall, author of the first book celebrating America’s movie theaters, The Best Remaining Seats. After Mr. Hall’s death, the founding members of the society worked towards making the THS’s collection the most extensive in existence. Once displayed in private homes, the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana agreed to house the collection. Eventually the items made their way to the basement of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Chicago. In this modest space on North Avenue, volunteers began the enormous task of cataloging and organizing thousands of pieces. By 1986, THS was providing research services to a growing number of clients while continuing to add to their collection. In 1991, the THS moved to its present location in the York Theatre building, right over our own York Theatre.
Currently housed in the archives are over 50 collections telling the story of over 16,000 American and International theaters covering nearly every style of architecture. The collections have photographs, negatives, slides, artist renderings, blueprints, as well as, artifacts, theatre furnishings, textiles, scrapbooks, business records, trade catalogs and miscellaneous items showcasing cultural and social movie theatre history. The Chicago Architectural Photographing Co. Collection includes over 1,400 images of nearly 300 iconic theatres taken near the original opening date of the theatre. Loew’s Theatres donated over 2,000 photographs of their theatres and Balaban & Katz Records has donated ledgers, board minutes and other legal documents of the Midwest theatre chain from the 1930s.
Access to the archives is free to researchers who come in person. The THS is currently digitizing its collection so that researchers can search remotely. Over 31,000 text records and 1,800 images have been bought online so far. If a student doesn’t find what they want, they are free to contact the THS for further research assistance.
The Theatre Historical Society is one of Elmhurst’s hidden gems that deserves wider recognition. Next time you find yourself in downtown Elmhurst on a Tuesday or Thursday with a little time on your hands, take a stroll up to the second floor of the York Theatre Building. You will soon find yourself lost in a time of magic and wonder without seeing a single frame of film.