Jim Toth spent 20 years as a creative director in Chicago’s advertising industry. During the pandemic, however, he was laid off.

While unfortunate, these circumstances afforded him the gift of time, and the self-proclaimed amateur filmmaker bought a camera and began experimenting, largely by filming his son and daughter.

Toth served on the Downers Grove Historical Society’s Board of Directors but stepped away in 2018 due to professional and familial commitments. However, he still wanted to “give back, but in a more interesting way,” he said.

He initially paired his passion for local history with his newfound filmmaking talents by coproducing with the Historical Society a short documentary on Downers Grove’s Main Street Cemetery, one of the only cemeteries in the nation still operating in an active downtown area.

Toth’s next film was the first in the “History Happens Here” docuseries: a nearly 40-minute mini-feature about the Mochel family and the hardware store they ran for multiple generations.

See related story: Making History: A new documentary captures the story of the Tivoli Theatre, Classic Cinemas, and the family behind the scenes

The Tivoli Theatre edition of “History Happens Here” was envisioned as another short documentary, but early in the filming process, Toth knew a “leap to a full-length feature” would be the only way to do justice to the historical theater and Johnson family’s extensive stories.

The project took 10 months and included 10-15 hours of interviews with the Johnsons, through which Toth observed the family members “finishing each other’s sentences.” He quickly determined it necessary to shoot with two cameras to capture the Johnsons’ “reactions to each other.”

Toth said that beyond interviewing the Johnsons, he spent over 200 hours metaphorically “with them” through the editing process. He was still making edits the day before the premiere, and he recounted how – even as he sat next to Wendy, Chris Johnson’s sister, watching the final product the morning of the premiere – he still saw “100 things to change. These things are never done.”

However, Toth was extremely proud of the film and honored to help share “such a beautiful story.” He described viewing the documentary at the Tivoli along with the Johnsons as “almost a transcendental experience.”

Toth is taking a break from local historical filmmaking, but he has many future subjects in mind, including Downers Grove’s Moose Lodge and Denburn Woods. For now, however, he is pursuing his newly discovered passion for chronicling family histories by offering his services to help other families commit their “collective history into an artifact that can be passed down to the next generation.” For more information about Toth’s legacy family films, visit jimtoth.com. ■