All that Chaz: Roger Ebert's memorial at the Chicago Theatre

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

"How do you tell a story about the best storyteller you've ever met?" Richard Roeper asked regarding Roger Ebert during a packed public memorial last night for the beloved film critic who died April 4 at age 70 after a long battle with cancer. The Sun-Times columnist's question was answered emphatically over two and a half hours as Ebert's family, friends, and film industry admirers stood on the Chicago Theatre stage to fondly remember a prolific newspaperman, a champion of independent artists and marginalized voices, and a humanitarian who saw the best in people—and made others recognize their own virtues. For his part, Roeper called the the Pulitzer Prize winner "our George Bailey," saying Ebert's "was truly a wonderful life."

Titled "A Celebration of Life: With Love From Chaz," the event had as its first and final speaker Ebert's widow, who for years was never far from her husband's side, whether during hospital stays or at Lake Street Screening Room. "Roger, this is your happening and it's freaking me out," Chaz said, appropriating a line from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the Russ Meyer–directed film for which Ebert wrote the screenplay.

A gospel choir's celebratory hymn "Lift Him Up" led into clips of Ebert and his Tribune critic frenemy Gene Siskel verbally sparring in the various iterations of their reviews show, from the shaggy early years to some hilarious '80s outtakes of the two men taking personal shots to the pair doing a "Pease Porridge Hot" routine. The series' creator-producer Thea Flam recalled schooling Ebert in writing for television. "Only once did he grumble, 'You know, Thea, I have a Pulitzer Prize.'" Her thoughts then turned to Chaz, "his guardian angel": "He had always been a great guy. She enabled him to become a great man."

Siskel's widow Marlene Iglitzen noted that films used to screen for critics at the Chicago Theatre. A small elevator would take the journalists to one of the upper floors of the building, and she said Gene and Roger made sure they never had to ride together. Inside the theater, Iglitzen recalled, "they sat as far away as possible" from each other. Despite the good-natured rivalry, "Gene was thrilled for Roger to have an epic romance off the screen" when he met Chaz. On the last anniversary of Siskel's death, Iglitzen said Ebert wrote to her to say he had "never felt closer to a man" as he did to Siskel.

Ebert's fellow film critics heaped their praises on the master. Variety critic Scott Foundas called Ebert a "gentle giant," as opposed to the likes of Pauline Kael, who inspired in her disciples a fierce partisanship. The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy concluded his memorial tribute saying, "In film criticism for 46 years, there was Roger Ebert—and then there was the rest of us." Christie Hefner said she was mortified to recall showing Ebert film reviews she had written for her college newspaper while he was interviewing her for a story "on Hugh Hefner's daughter." She later went on to review films for the Boston Phoenix.

Joan Cusack read aloud a heartfelt letter from the Obamas. Brother John remembered a nervous first run-in with Ebert at the Carnegie Deli in New York while on the press tour for The Sure Thing. "Don't worry," Ebert whispered to the young actor. "I liked your movie." "He didn't always love your movie, but he always gave you a fair shake," John Cusack said. "His writing was often better than the writing in the film."

Several filmmakers underscored Ebert's fairness—advocating for small-budget art-house cinema alongside reviews of Hollywood blockbusters. Director Gregory Nava (El Norte) said there was a time when Ebert "was the only major critic in this country who would look at our movies," indie films telling minority stories. Michael Barker, president of Sony Pictures Classics, called Ebert "the conscience of the movie business." Filmmaker Andrew Davis—whom Ebert imagined directing "the perfect Chicago movie"—had fond remembrances of his friend, even taking the chance to read Ebert's glowing review Davis's The Fugitive.

Ebert's boozy past made a brief appearance when Old Town Ale House proprietor Bruce Elliott told a bawdy barroom tale. (Apparently, Rog had a fondness for large-breasted women.) Comedian Dick Gregory did some off-color standup before comparing Ebert to a turtle: "hard on the outside, soft in the middle and always willing to stick his neck out."

Home video clips showing Ebert doting on Chaz's grandchildren shed some light on his family life. Many of the night's remembrances, whether from critics or celebs, ended in praise of Chaz. She was commended as Ebert's true love, his selfless rock who refused to let her husband die after he was first diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and during years of treament, surgeries and the loss of his voice. During that trying time, Chaz explained, angels had whispered in her ear to assure her it wasn't Roger's time. "I knew he had much more important work ahead," she said.

In closing, Chaz took the stage with her family. Pausing a few times to compose herself—creating a charged, resonant silence in the cavernous theater—she was, as always, standing by her man.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)