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What Roger Ebert Meant to Us

An atmosphere of joy and celebration permeated the crowd of almost 500 people on a chilly evening at the Hammer-schmidt Memorial Chapel at Elmhurst College. “What Roger Ebert Meant to Us” was the subject of a panel discussion moderated by Rick Kogan, veteran Chicago journalist, along with Neil Steinberg, author and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times; Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune film critic; and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, film critic and founder of Cine-File.info. Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow, was in the audience with family and friends. All knew and admired Roger, both for his “common touch” as a scholarly film devotee and incisively forthright critic and as a man of notable kindness, friendly exuberance, and dedicated cultural sensitivity.
The panel shared fond stories which spun off intelligent, lively, and rewarding discussions of film, criticism and writing, and how Roger Ebert contributed profoundly to those realms both, in print and on TV. “At the Movies” was long aired with his companion critic, Gene Siskel until the time of Siskel’s illness and passing. 
Each of the panelists had stories of Ebert nurturing people’s ambitions and more fundamental concerns, even those not directly involved in the realm of journalism or film criticism. His dedication to civil liberties went back to the very early days of the 60s, before those efforts became a vast cause célèbre. 
In the world of criticism, Ebert left very big shoes: Neil Steinberg said, “He’s got this wonderful, common touch.... He had this relationship with the reader when he was so excited about these movies.... A thousand years from now, he will be read by those who want to know what movies were like in our time.” Michael Phillips added, “Ebert didn’t try to write for everybody. Despite his common touch, he had the air of someone who was trying to get it right for himself.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky commented, “It’s easy to write in a simple style; what’s difficult is to still write in a simple style and be completely accurate...that you’re not oversimplifying what you’re talking about. I think that’s what he did, that’s really difficult to do.”
Rick Kogan had the longest history with Ebert; in fact, his father helped Ebert get hired at the Chicago Sun-Times. He shared, “I had the ugly duty of reviewing that television program...when I was a colleague of Roger’s... when those two guys (the other being the late Gene Siskel) in the strangest clothes you’ve ever seen...and they were both, frankly, a little awkward around the edges.... If you had seen that first show, you could never imagine that it would go on, yet it did......”
Kogan asked what the panelists thought made their TV program work for 31 years. Michael Phillips responded, “That they stayed where it started...they really didn’t muck with the formula.” He added, “People trusted them, they weren’t the kind of guys who had the demeanor of the huckster who says, ‘trust me.’ They simply were.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky opined, “What’s really interesting about his newspaper copy is that...it works very well read aloud.... I think he wrote in a way that was very conversational...which I think contributed to his appeal. He was the same in print as he was on the television.”
The evening closed on thoughtful questions from the audience to which the panel and Chaz Ebert responded. Roger Ebert, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005 used to say, in his waning days with progressive cancer, that he was, “taking a leave of presence.” While remaining a star here, one left the chapel with the conviction that Roger Ebert likely remained a star in the hereafter, his presence renewed in Eternity. Indeed, the evening was one of immense appreciation for a presence gone but legacy-rooted giant.

Published: February 22, 2014
Issue: Winter 2014 Issue