It wasn’t exactly a “Hey, baby” moment. In fact, Chaz remembers events unfolding quite smoothly that night in 1989 when Roger spotted her for the first time across the room at Mitchell’s, a popular neighborhood restaurant. His dinner companion, Eppie Lederer, aka advice columnist Ann Landers, caught the drift and obligingly finessed a gravitation to join the other party.
“I thought he was very funny and smart. He was a raconteur,” Chaz remembers of their first meeting. Now Roger’s wife of 15 years, as well as vice president of the Ebert Co., the lawyer and former environmental litigator recalls, “He held the table with his stories.” He also managed to get her number.
Roger details a first impression that comes across more like awe: “A very elegant, collected, beautiful woman, with total self-confidence. She had a presence about her. Was always kind of the star of every group. Old-fashioned values — took me to meet her mom before our third date. Loves movies. Goes by herself when I can’t.”
Chaz “picked up the film festival world overnight,” he says. Her schedule permitting, she accompanies Roger to fests as diverse as Cannes and Karlovy Vary.
Revealing a flamboyantly romantic side, the couple named their lush mini-movie palace of a home-screening room “The Lyric” as a reminder of their first date seeing “Tosca” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera.
Agreeing about movies is not guaranteed to be on the program, however. Although they share a passion for films including “Hoop Dreams” and “Pi,” “She can’t believe I like certain vulgar comedies,” Roger admits. “But we agree on the biggies — Herzog, Schrader.”
“There have been movies that he’s given good reviews to that gave me pause,” Chaz observes. “We enjoy finding out what it is about the movie that the other one doesn’t like.”
Early in their relationship, Roger was slow to reveal that he doesn’t like Chaz’s favorite film, “A Clockwork Orange.” “I didn’t know that Roger had originally given it a thumbs-down,” she remembers. “Gene Siskel made sure he told me.”
“Great choice,” Siskel teased.
“I said to Roger, ‘Why didn’t you tell me? You know it’s one of my favorites.'”
Ebert’s snappy comeback? “Maybe I should see it again.” And he did, although Chaz admits that thumb never really budged.
“One of the things I admire about Roger is that his ego and his intellect enjoy a challenge,” she says. “He likes a woman of substance who is smart and has something to say.”
In addition to her propensity for in-depth research and the well-considered decisions that make her a stalwart business adviser, Chaz also exudes a wife’s spine-of-steel devotion. “I’ve had to be strong, especially in this illness,” she says.
“Talk about ‘in sickness and health’!” adds Ebert. “Without her, I’d be a basket case, or dead. Her encouragement and advocacy has been crucial.”
Longtime friend and fellow critic Dave Kehr, who attended the couple’s 1992 wedding, concurs: “Clearly they are a perfect match. This is the woman Roger had been looking for his whole life.”
Barbara Scharres is the director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a public program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.