Roger and me (sort of): Remembering some brief brushes with Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert didn’t know my name, as far as I know. He died today after battling numerous afflictions related to cancer. But when I heard the news, I couldn’t help but think of the few times I managed to be in the same room with him.

I was born in Chicago. When I was 7 years old, my family moved to Northwest Indiana so my dad could take an administrative job with Purdue University. But Chicago always felt more like my home.

A much younger Billy in 1995 at the Chicago International Film Festival screening of a film I edited called "Ruth's Journey".

A much younger Billy in 1995 at the Chicago International Film Festival screening of a film I edited called “Ruth’s Journey”.

In 1989, after college, I managed to move back permanently to the city I loved, getting hired at a post production company called Swell Pictures. As a young assistant film editor, I spent a lot of my free time with the movies. Going to them in the theatre and watching them on my new LaserDisc player.

There was an incredible LaserDisc store on Michigan Avenue, just south of the Chicago River. Unfortunately, the name of the store escapes me. Laser…. um…. something. Damn. It will come to me eventually.

As an assistant editor, my disposable income was negligible. Still, whenever I could, I’d head to that Laser Something store and allow myself the purchase of one movie. Back then, most people were accustomed to watching movies at home on VHS or Beta. But with the arrival of LaserDiscs, young cinephiles such as myself could really dissect our favorite films.

LaserDiscs often contained multiple audio tracks on a film which allowed for something new called the commentary track. If you selected that special track, you could hear an expert, or even the director of the film, talking about the process of making it as you watched it. Extra features sometimes included storyboards and behind the scenes footage. Most DVDs today have these features, but back in 1990, it was mind blowing to a young student of film.

One day, as I was trying to figure out whether I could really afford to spend $125 on the Criterion Collection 3-disc special edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, I noticed a familiar person down the aisle from me. He already had an armful of LaserDiscs cradled in his grasp and didn’t look like he was close to stopping.

It was Roger Ebert.

We quickly made eye contact and I could see his smile as I looked back down to my single North by Northwest box, now looking significantly smaller than his pile of discs. I couldn’t believe I was standing next to the guy I had grown up reading and watching on Siskel & Ebert. (Here’s a great clip of Roger showing off his home LaserDisc set-up in his home in 1988.) I decided that seeing him in the store was a sign that the best thing to do would be to properly continue my film education with the purchase of the Hitchcock film even if it was dangerously close to a week’s pay.

I would see Roger in that store every once in a while, he with his arms full and me trying to decide on the one LaserDisc I could afford that month.

Years later, as I started to meet more people involved in film making, I managed to get on a list where I was invited to early screenings of films days before they opened to the general public. Sometimes, the invites were for an evening screening along with several hundred other lucky people who had also managed to get on the list. It seemed too good to be true until I began to realize that in reality we were just there to create buzz about a film so the opening weekend would be as big as possible. Still, a pretty fair trade.

Once in a while though, the invite was for a more obscure screening time in a much smaller theatre or Chicago screening room. 1:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon, for example. Those were the really secret screenings where only a dozen of us or so would sit together in the darkness. And on more than one occasion, I found myself again in the same room with Roger.

I knew he was working and I never wanted to bother him. However, a few people in the secret screening circuit did seem to know him and exchanged a few bits of conversation before or after the various films. Roger addressed them by name and I figured their familiarity allowed them permission for a brief conversation, more than my managing to simply be on the lucky secret list.

One day though, after a film I don’t now remember, as I was walking up the aisle, I figured I would at least say hello to Roger in the most non-crazed-movie-fan way I could think of. I didn’t even really stop walking, more of a slight pause so he wouldn’t think I was getting ready to settle in for an awkward conversation.

“Hello, Mr. Ebert. I really enjoy reading your reviews.”

He looked up from his notes, holding a pen with a little light in the tip so he could write in the dark, and nodded.

“Thanks for reading,” he said, very pleasantly.

I kept walking up the aisle, satisfied that I had kept the exchange as dignified and non-creepy as possible.

Flash forward to present day and I can say I’ve continue to enjoy Roger all these years later from an appropriate fan distance. His Twitter feed was always full of interesting things. Great fascinating links he would find online after his mobility was so limited. He never shied away from stating his mind, even in the day when celebrities are urged to stay politically neutral so as not to offend. Roger didn’t quite care whether he offended and his point of view was always very well thought out.

I was also a paid subscriber to the Ebert Club. I received the 162nd edition of the Ebert Club Newsletter just two days ago. The password to the club’s website was always the same, with Roger asking subscribers to please keep it to themselves.

Last year I read his autobiography, Life Itself. It was great to hear him talk about his life and so many things he loved about Chicago that I did as well.

I’ll miss Roger and his rich passionate writing.

Oh, and the Criterion Collection 3-LaserDisc set of North by Northwest is now available for $10 on Amazon.

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2 thoughts

  1. I know the Laser disc store of which you speak. We may have gone in there together a few times. I also ran into Ebert there once and he also had a huge stack of discs under his arm. I was a bit taken aback by his physical size as well as the size of his intended purchase. He was one of the few film critics who could evaluate a film on its merits, not just whether he liked it or not. He will be missed!

  2. Ron! Yes, of course you would have known that place. I still can’t remember the name. I remember it being something a little cheesy. The first word was Laser I think and I just can’t remember the second word. A quick Google search revealed nothing.

    They must have loved to see Ebert in there. Ka-ching! Me… not so much.

    Yes, his writing was really from the heart. Even when I didn’t agree, I could see his point of view.

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