The weather outside was melancholy — sheets of rain and a thick blanket of fog — but inside the Chicago Theater, the mood was altogether exuberant at Thursday evening’s Roger Ebert memorial tribute. Entitled “Roger J. Ebert: A Celebration of Life,” the three-hour event featured more than two dozen speakers, ranging from local barkeeps to Hollywood luminaries, their heartfelt and often humorous testimonials rarely striking the same notes. A large gospel choir provided several roof-raising musical performances. It was, fittingly, a tribute to a man in full: critic and pundit, crusader and innovator, husband and father.
Even the choice of venue was apropos, not just for the bronzed plaque bearing Ebert’s name that adorns the Chicago’s State Street entrance — dating from a 2005 ceremony commemorating “Roger Ebert Day”— but because of the role Ebert himself played in saving the now-restored 1920s movie palace from potential ruin.
As one of the evening’s speakers, Telluride Film Festival co-director Tom Luddy, recalled, it was Ebert who convinced him, in 1981, to choose the Chicago — then very much in danger of the wrecking ball — for the local premiere of the restored version of Abel Gance’s silent classic “Napoleon,” following its sold-out screenings at Radio City in New York. That, in turn, proved to be the first step on the theater’s road to rehabilitation.
Ebert’s widow, Chaz, opened the show by paraphrasing an oft-quoted line from Ebert’s screenplay for Russ Meyer’s 1970 “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”: “Roger, this is your happening and it’s freaking me out.” She then ceded the stage to another widow, Marlene Siskel, who recounted how the initially frosty relationship between Ebert and her late husband, Gene, eventually gave way to a deep and lasting friendship. Clips from the crosstown newspaper rivals’ long-running TV show punctuated the evening, which also included appearances by series creator Thea Flaum and eventual co-host Richard Roeper.
“He was a newspaper man,” said native Chicagoan John Cusack, in what became one of the night’s frequent refrains, positioning Ebert as the heir to the tradition of storied Chicago writers and columnists like Mike Royko and Studs Terkel. Cusack shared the stage with his sister, Joan, who read a letter from President Barack and Michelle Obama that praised the critic for putting “his heart and soul into bringing the world of cinema into our everyday lives” and for “teaching us to immerse ourselves in the movies.”
“He opened the floodgates that became the independent film movement in this country,” said filmmaker Gregory Nava, who was backstage directing the tribute when he wasn’t onstage speaking. Nava’s Oscar-nominated 1983 feature “El Norte” was one of the many indie films Ebert championed passionately both on TV and in print, particularly those made by filmmakers of color — another of the evening’s recurring themes.
One of the most eloquent speakers, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, went so far as to call Ebert “a member of all races and religion” and “the conscience of the movie business,” before recounting the reaction of director Asghar Farhadi upon learning that Ebert had selected his Oscar-winning “A Separation” to screen at the 2012 edition of the Ebertfest film festival. “Roger Ebert,” Farhadi exclaimed, “is more famous in my country than I am!”
Milos Stehlik, co-founder of Chicago’s legendary video store and distributor Facets Multimedia, celebrated Ebert the liberal thinker, recalling how the critic’s negative review of Jean-Luc Godard’s controversial “Hail Mary” nevertheless managed to chide the Archbishop of Chicago for protesting the film without actually seeing it.
Veteran TV broadcaster Bill Kurtis was one of several guests who spoke to Ebert’s early embrace of new technologies, noting, “Roger jumped into the internet like Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch.”
Disability rights advocate Marca Bristo remembered Roger’s passionate commitment to the disabled community, long before he himself joined their ranks.
Front and center for much of the tribute were the same sentiments that informed many of the print and broadcast Ebert appreciations of the past week: Roger the tireless encourager of young talent; Roger the passionate crusader for social justice; and Roger the philosopher, whose prolonged illness sparked a new, reflective strain in his writing, not just about movies, but about his place in the cosmos.
Late in the night, a touching montage of home movies and vacation videos offered a window on to Ebert’s private life with Chaz (whom he married in 1992) and her large extended family — a life that, in the words of one speaker, “enabled Roger to become a great man.” Stepdaughter Sonia Evans and granddaughter Raven Evans both read passages from Ebert’s work before an emotional Chaz retook the stage, remembering her late husband as “simply one of the finest men I ever met” and noting that, as his cancer had returned in recent weeks, he had told her “I’m tired. You must let me go.” Yet even as Ebert’s illness took its visible toll on his body, she said, “When I looked at him, I saw beauty.”
Among the evening’s other speakers and attendees: actors Dick Gregory, Chris Tucker and Scott Wilson; filmmakers Julie Dash, Andrew Davis and Ava Duvernay; critics Dann Gire and Todd McCarthy; and former Playboy CEO Christie Hefner. An illustrated program featured statements from Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, alongside many reprinted memorial tweets.