Roger Ebert, R.I.P.: My encounter with the Boulder-loving film critic

When he died of cancer yesterday, Roger Ebert was the best-known practitioner of a dying art: newspaper film criticism. Few papers can afford to have a movie reviewer of their own these days, choosing instead to run syndicated pieces by folks like Ebert, who became the unlikeliest of TV personalities. Ebert had a local connection, participating in CU-Boulder's Conference on World Affairs for decades. But my encounter with him happened in another place, after he'd already helped enrich my life in ways that seem odd in this Internet age.

As I wrote in 2008, when a debilitated Ebert severed ties with the syndicated At the Movies program, which soon sank without him, I grew up in Grand Junction during the '60s and '70s, where screenings of independent or foreign films were more rare than steak tartare, Ebert's original review programs, Opening Soon at a Theater Near You and Sneak Previews, which succeeded each other on PBS outlets, offered a window onto a different world. Sure, Ebert, who wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, and his original partner, the Chicago Tribune's Gene Siskel, critiqued the blockbusters, and listening to them bicker about their quality, or lack thereof, was a lot of fun. But they also championed lesser-known flicks that would probably never make it to my Western Slope home -- and I felt better knowing that they existed.

When the pair jumped into syndication in the early '80s, first with At the Movies and latter in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, I followed, occasionally grousing that Ebert was getting soft or that Siskel was off his bean but never abandoning them completely.

Theirs was an odd dynamic -- even odder than most viewers realized, as I learned firsthand when I got a chance to attend a critics' screening of Disney's The Little Mermaid with them in 1989 while attending the journalism school at Chicago's Northwestern University. They sat rows apart in the smallish room and seemed to go out of their way not to acknowledge each other. If I recall correctly, Siskel was accompanied by one or more kids -- he fathered three. But I couldn't tear my eyes away from Ebert, who left a seat open next to him for snacks -- boxes and boxes of them. I saw no concession stand -- the screening didn't take place in a standard theater -- so I can only assume Ebert brought the goodies himself, and he certainly enjoyed them. Indeed, he went through the popcorn and candy with so much gusto that I feared those sitting around him might be sucked into the vortex created by his hand rapidly moving toward his mouth.

At that point, Ebert appeared to be eating his way into an early grave, but he survived his partner -- Siskel died in 1999. In the years that followed, however, he struggled with thyroid cancer, which played havoc on his voice, forcing him to sit on the sidelines while Richard Roeper, Siskel's glib but still worthy replacement, soldiered on with a series of sidekicks. But in 2008, Ebert and Roeper exited, replaced by Ben Mankiewicz, the grandson of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, and Ben Lyons, the son of critic Jeffrey Lyons, whose prior claim to fame was guessing box office grosses on the E Channel.

That the two Bens failed to keep the program going for much longer isn't entirely their fault. By then, the online revolution had made access to movies -- and movie reviews -- easier than ever before. The idea that a couple of guys on TV should serve as cinematic gatekeepers seemed as antiquated as the economics of traditional media outlets amid the web revolution.

Still, Ebert soldiered on, reviewing for the Sun Times and even making a couple more appearances at the Conference on World Affairs, which, according to the Boulder Daily Camera, he first attended in 1970.

As our Alan Prendergast wrote in a 1994 feature about the conference, whose latest edition gets underway next week, Ebert received an honorary degree from CU after a quarter century of CWA participation, which included week-long film seminars highlighted by "Cinema Interruptus" -- screenings of classic movies that were paused whenever anyone wanted to comment. (The concept is like the flip side -- and sometimes the same side -- of Mystery Science Theater 3000.) Prendergast added that Ebert also participated in panel discussions on topics as wide-ranging as national security and masturbation.

Ebert was comfortable talking about either of these topics: He was a progressive thinker on current events, as well as the scenarist of the busty 1970 Russ Meyer cult classic Valley of the Dolls. But I'll remember him as a guy who opened up the film galaxy to kids everywhere -- even Grand Junction, Colorado.

More from our Media archive circa 2008: "Roger Ebert Will Be Sticking His Thumb Elsewhere."