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Roger Ebert’s Hometown: The Famous Film Critics' Youth in Champaign-Urbana

By Rachel Mulick


Winner of the 2023 Adele M. Suslick Award for Excellence in Historical Research.


Roger Ebert is best known for his work as a film critic. However, he also has a lesser known history as a Champaign-Urbana resident. Ebert was born June 18th, 1942 in Urbana, Illinois. He grew up on Washington St. as an only child. His father, Walter Harry Ebert, was an electrician for the University of Illinois. Roger grew up on the campus like many other Champaign-Urbana residents, and remembers the pride he felt as a child that his father worked there. He even believed (when he was very young) that his father had personally built Memorial Stadium and installed Altgeld’s bells. His mother Annabel was a bookkeeper and president of the Urbana Business Women’s Association. She was also devoutly Catholic and hoped Ebert would become a priest; luckily for the film world, he threw himself into writing instead.1


Surprisingly for a film critic, Ebert did not spend much of his youth watching movies. He explained that “television came late to Champaign-Urbana, because the News-Gazette and the Courier were fighting for the license”.2 Instead, he would listen to local radio programs like Larry Stewart’s “Penny for Your Thoughts” and the U of I station, or regional broadcasts from Chicago.3 When he did attend films as a child he frequented the Princess Theatre in Urbana; Ebert recalled its frigid cold that would draw in patrons such as himself on hot days.4


"The Princess Theater", Champaign County Historical Archives


Ebert’s first jobs were as a lifeguard 5 and a sales clerk at Johnston’s Sport Shop. He moved on to writing about Urbana High School in the sports column at the Champaign News-Gazette when he was only 15 years old. In the summers he had general assignments with more senior editors, learning the tricks of the trade.6 At the News-Gazette, Ebert gained a reputation as the fastest writer in town.7 He also wrote captions for his colleague Curt Beamer’s photographs of Illinois football players. By 1959 he had been moved to the state desk, reporting on emergencies, hazards, and other relevant stories for the East Central Illinois area.


While working part time for the News-Gazette, Ebert was attending Urbana High School, where he discovered a passion for reading. He also became editor of the school’s newspaper Echo.8 He decided to pursue a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, where his parents had always dreamed of sending him. It was at U of I that he met his mentor and role model Dan Curley. Curley was an English professor from Massachusetts whom Ebert credits with introducing him to some of the most important readings of his life. They became lifelong friends.9


Ebert joined The Daily Illini, and attested that it was the best job he ever had.10 He began as a columnist, then moved up to the position of Editor in Chief. The newspaper was housed in the basement of Illini Hall (now slated for demolition).11 As editor in chief, Ebert prided himself on his ability to scout new talent. He also wrote a few movie reviews in the paper, but did not anticipate a career in film criticism. Despite Ebert’s pride in the Daily Illini, before joining as a columnist he had published his own oppositional newspaper; convinced that the Daily Illini was too “right wing”, Ebert produced the liberal Champaign-Urbana Spectator out of his basement with classmate Si Sheridan. In his sophomore year he sold the paper in order to join the Daily Illini.12


In addition to editing the Daily Illini, Ebert was the president of the US Student Press Association, winner of the 1963 Overseas Press Club award for best writing on world affairs in a college daily, and the Award for Excellence in Collegiate Journalism.13 According to Professor Matthew Ehrlich, Ebert took an active role in the public debates over academic freedom on campus, writing editorials about the controversies surrounding Professors Leo Koch and Revillo P. Oliver that roiled the University of Illinois campus in the early 1960s, his commentary garnered national notice.14


It is no surprise that, after such a successful early career, he was taken on by the Chicago Sun Times while attending the University of Chicago for graduate school. The next year, in 1967, he was named film critic, a position he wrote “fell out of the sky”.15 Ebert’s writing took off and less than ten years later he received a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, the first of its kind. During that time he also wrote a screenplay (“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”) and taught a film course at the University of Chicago. More commonly known, he became one half of the iconic Siskel & Ebert TV duo. In 1975 Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel started their movie review show “Coming Soon to a Theater Near You”. It had many names, but was most commonly referred to as “Siskel & Ebert”. The pair’s heated debates captured the public; their show became a prominent and entertaining source of film criticism. Ebert continued the show with Richard Roeper after Siskel’s death in 1999.16


“Siskel and Ebert at the movies,” Champaign County Historical Archives


By that point Ebert was well known and highly respected in his field. It was then that he returned to Champaign-Urbana to host his first “Overlooked Film Festival” at the University of Illinois. The “Overlooked Film Festival”, also known as Ebertfest, is held annually. It is a five day event with 12 films total, and its mission is to give the chosen films and filmmakers “a well deserved second look”.17 Although Ebert passed away in 2013, his wife Chaz and Festival Director Nate Kohn have kept Ebertfest as strong as ever. They follow his original vision and choose films based on his criteria; some of them are even from Ebert’s own lists of years past. Roger Ebert is no longer with us, but his film festival serves as a reminder of his spirit and enthusiasm, coming to rest once again in Champaign-Urbana.


Citations

  1. Roger Ebert, Life Itself (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2011),11.

  2. Ebert, Life Itself, 56.

  3. Ebert, Life Itself, 11.

  4. Ebert, Life Itself, 56.

  5. Ebert, Life Itself, 58.

  6. Mike Thomas, "The World According to Roger", Chicago Sun-Times, July 18, 2017.

  7. Ebert, Life Itself, 77.

  8. Urbana High School, “Roger Ebert, Editor of "The Echo", 1960,” Champaign County Historical Archives, accessed October 20, 2022, https://urbanafree.omeka.net/items/show/97.

  9. Ebert, Life Itself, 94.

  10. Ebert, Life Itself, 100.

  11. Dave Evensen,"Last Homecoming for Illini Hall," University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, October 25, 2021, https://las.illinois.edu/news/2021-10-25/last-homecoming-illini-hall

  12. Ebert, Life Itself, 97.

  13. "Ebert Awarded Scholarship," Daily Illini, November 5, 1963.

  14. Matthew Ehrlich, Dangerous Ideas on Campus (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2021), 138

  15. Thomas, "The World."

  16. "A Short History of Ebert and Siskel on Television," roberebert.com, October 4, 2013, https://www.rogerebert.com/chazs-blog/a-short-history-of-ebert-and-siskel-on-television

  17. "History and Mission," ebertfest.com, https://www.ebertfest.com/history-mission.

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