Thoughts on the city that said good-bye to Roger Ebert

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The marquee for Roger Eberts memorial celebration
  • Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images
  • The marquee for Roger Ebert's memorial celebration
When I was starting out as a journalist in Saint Louis, a friend there whose career had already clicked into high gear said to me one night, "If I wanted to I could own this town." But since he could, he didn't want to. He was soon in Chicago, and then in New York. The point of being young and ambitious is to find the place you can't own and then throw yourself at it, fattening on its juices until it finally tires of you and chews you up.

Chicago isn't Saint Louis, but it isn't New York either. Its poets celebrate its greed and indifference, but when it wants to it can act proud as punch of the local kid and tuck him under its wing forever. (Local pols who come home from prison and find a yellow ribbon tied around the old oak tree and the light left on know what I mean.) Roger Ebert owned Chicago, and the memorial celebration last Thursday night at the grandiose Chicago Theatre was a little ridiculous in that regard. Tickets. Reserved seats. Ushers. Programs—it was like opening night at the opera. And when, after a few words from Chaz Ebert, the show got under way with the galvanic exuberance of Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago, I sat in my balcony seat giddy and dumbfounded. They've got to be taping this, I thought. (They were.) This could be the first tearful farewell I've ever experienced that winds up as a WTTW pledge-week premium.

There was nothing tearful about it. One speech followed another, most of the speakers local luminaries who had big names here (Bill Kurtis) or beyond here (John and Joan Cusack). They got off plenty of good ones, and they made Roger and Chaz, his widow, out to be such paragons of the highest virtues that I doubt if he could have abided the praise alive. And between the speeches there were edifying and hilarious film clips, particularly the early ones of Ebert and Gene Siskel barely putting up with each other. Under Chaz's direction, this had all been pulled together, I was later told, in the week after Ebert died by director Gregory Nava and Kartemquin Films in what has to be called a labor of love since I don't know how else they could have managed it. The night ended on the same note as it began. Now we were listening to the Fellowship Chicago Choir of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. The foot-stomping spirituals they sang and swayed to and had us clapping our hands along with were such full-blooded music it puzzled me why our cultural arbiters don't simply do what their ears tell them to and call this the finest music in the world.

Here's the first half hour of the show.

Ebert made it in Chicago, but he could have moved on and continued to write about movies and be a TV personality. But he stayed here—happy to remain a Sun-Times byline, a Newspaper Guildsman, a native son. The odd time I saw him was usually when someone we knew from the Sun-Times in the 70s died, and the survivors gathered. This evening was the thanks Ebert got for staying put. At some point in the program my mind wandered, and I began to think about the city capable of staging such a farewell. If I said I envied Ebert for it that would probably be true; but it's more true that I felt I was sharing it with him. This is some place! I thought. I've never regretted moving to Chicago, and the evening showed me why I haven't.

Dick Gregory was very funny, another Saint Louisan who decided Chicago was a better place to be. And later, members of the family Ebert married into spoke. His granddaughter Raven Evans read from Walt Whitman—the other one.

These were lines from Song of Myself that Ebert turned to in his memoir, Life Itself, to describe the state of his soul. "I am sixty-nine, have had cancer, will die sooner than most of those reading this," he wrote. "That is in the nature of things. In my plans for life after death I say, again with Whitman:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles
."

The poem goes on.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, says Whitman,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

I almost think I know these lines by heart. There is a party we attend each November called Whitmanstide. The Reader's Tony Adler gives it, and for a couple of hours many of us disappear to the basement to read "Song of Myself" aloud. It takes about two hours. With the above lines the poem ends and we stand up and cheer.

And that is something else that has come from living in Chicago.

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