When we started brainstorming for the Year 25 series, Roger Ebert was one of the first names that came to mind. What was the life of a to-be Pulitzer prize-winning film critic like during the intense twenty-something years? We had to find out.
I reached out to Roger Ebert via email in January, before the series even started, asking if he’d pen an essay for our website. He responded immediately, saying thanks for thinking of him but, “Only time to write for myself.”
This was right around the time, as we’ve recently learned, that Ebert was in and out of the hospital for radiation treatments to tackle the return of his cancer. He wrote Wednesday in his online blog that he’d be taking a “leave of presence” — essentially cutting back on writing reviews, working on a bigger and better website, and possibly writing about his illness.
Sadly, Roger Ebert lost his battle with cancer Thursday at the age of 70.
In his email to me in January, he graciously allowed WBEZ to excerpt from his memoir, Life Itself and gave us insight into his life at 25.
“My 25th year was the beginning of my 1967 term as film critic here,” he wrote in the email.
How about that.
A little context: Before he turned 25 in June of 1967, Ebert was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Chicago and needed a job. He ended up getting an interview with the city editor of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Ebert’s description of the Sun-Times in those days is epic.
“I arrived in Chicago one morning on the Panama and walked up Wabash Avenue to the Sun-Times/Daily News Building, which looked like a snub-nosed ship on the banks of the Chicago River. A boat was moored at its dock, and a crane was offloading huge rolls of newsprint.”
He got a job on the spot - he’d start working under the Sunday magazine editor.
Ebert writes of the newsroom camaraderie and the ways he tried to work his 25-year-old-cub reporter self into the fabric of the newsroom.
“I knew I lacked authenticity in this company. I was young and unseasoned, but I discovered there’s nothing like drinking with the crowd to make you a member. I copied the idealism and cynicism of the reporters I met at Riccardo’s and around the corner at the downscale but equally famous Billy Goat’s.”
[See my chat with Rick Kogan for more on that subject...]
Now remember: The year was 1967. That Sun-Times/Daily News building was full of experienced journalists, including Mike Royko. Ebert writes of one memorable moment where he and Royko shared a drink on New Year’s Day in an “eye-opener” bar by the L tracks.
“I sipped the brandy, and a warm glow filled my stomach. It may have been the first straight shot of anything I’d ever tasted. I’d been in Chicago four months and I was sitting under the L tracks with Mike Royko in the eye-opener place. I was a newspaperman.”
Then in March of 1967, the feature editor at the time told Ebert he’d be Sun-Times' film critic. Ebert writes that this “came without warning,” though he’d written a few pieces on the movies here and there. He decided to drop his classes at the University of Chicago and focus solely on writing.
Interesting fact about 20-something Roger Ebert: Being a movie critic was not his career goal at the time.
“If I had one at all, it was to become a columnist like Royko,” he writes. “Now I had a title, my photo in the paper, and a twenty-five dollar a week raise.”
And that’s where it all began.
Ebert says he got a lot of attention from the start for being such a young film critic. You can read some of the reviews he wrote here - Ebert keeps an archive of his writings on his website RogerEbert.com.
In his memoir, Ebert writes at length about the movie scene in Chicago at the time: How it was centered in the Loop, how new movies opened on Fridays...
Here’s my favorite detail: “The Clark [Theatre] offered a $2.95 special: a double feature, a three-course meal at the Chinese restaurant next door, and free parking.”
Not a bad deal.
He also mentions the movie stars who would come through town, and what it was like to be interviewing them.
“I was by then twenty-five years old, naive for my age, inexperienced, but representing an important newspaper, so the stars and directors were kind to me. It was so new to me that I took it very seriously indeed—not just my job, but their fame and glamour.”
There’s all sorts of great anecdotes in Life Itself from Roger Ebert’s 25th year and beyond, but I’ll leave you with this excerpt, which seems to sum up his 25th year pretty well.
“It was a honey of a job to have at that age. I had no office hours; it was understood that I would see the movies and meet the deadlines. I loved getting up from my desk and announcing, “I’m going to the movies.”