photograph: anna knott
In honor of Roger Ebert’s funeral today, beginning at 10 am, it seemed fitting to republish the speech he gave at the awards ceremony when Chicago named him a 2011 Chicagoan of the Year.
On Friday, I told the story of what it was like to work with Ebert on the project—how seriously he took it, how witty he was during the ceremony, and how well the audience received his speech.
It meant a lot to Ebert to be named a Chicagoan of the Year, and it meant a lot to us to hear him accept the award with these words:
“In all honesty I am not the least bit surprised to find myself a Chicagoan of the Year. This was predicted under my photo in my high school yearbook. ‘A legend in his own mind.’ Like everyone else being honored today, I must tell you I am very humble and don’t believe I deserve this honor in the least. I also privately ask myself why it took the magazine this long.
“What I find amazing is that this is, Chicago!, we’re talking about, and me. When I was a child growing up in downstate Urbana, I was given one of those new little transistor radios. Late at night, with the lights out, I listened to a man named Jack Eye Gan on WMAQ Radio, who broadcast from a nightclub named the Shay Paree. Does anybody here remember the Shay Paree? Or WMAQ Radio? Jack sat in the nightclub’s foy-yay. I didn’t know precisely what a foy-yay was, but it must have been magnificent, because night after night Jack’s friends dropped in. These friends included Martin and Lewis, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Buddy Hackett and such baseball stars as Leo Da ro cher.
“Sometimes Irv Kupcinet would come in. He interviewed celebrities too, but he was so big that Jack interviewed him. Now there’s a legend for you. I remember Kup’s first word to me when I came to work at the Chicago Sun-Times. I was a new kid and didn’t know anyone, but Kup looked me straight in the eye and his famous voice boomed out, ‘Copy Boy!’”
“Anyway, all of these famous people lived in Chicago, which I thought was the greatest city on earth. My Aunt Martha brought me here to the famous 1948 Railroad Fair. It was supposed to celebrate the rebirth of rail travel. Can you believe, you could sit on a train and watch a movie?
“What I cannot believe is that a magazine named Chicago would select me as a Chicagoan of the Year. The part I can’t believe is that it means I must be very old.
“But this is a serious honor, and I am grateful. In particular, your photographer took the best photograph of me that has been taken since all of my medical adventures. I don’t like most of the recent photos of me. One of them has been offered a place in the Texas Chainsaw Museum. I am also honored to be included in any group of Chicagoans that includes Jackie Taylor, Gabrielle Lyon, Robert Burke, Leslie Bluhm and Zully Avarado. As the magazine described us, ‘Our honorees include an ambassador to the Americas, a globe-trotting educator, an idealistic impresario, a workaholic do-gooder, a taxman with a heart, and a silenced movie critic.’ Just the kind of movie critic people are always hoping for.
“I haven’t been entirely silenced, as you can hear. Through the voice in my computer I am able to mispronounce a great many names. I also lead an active life on the internet. Computer voices are a wonderful invention, and I like mine, which is called Alex, and comes built into every Macintosh. People are always telling me they know someone who sounds exactly like me. I can be a funny writer, but Alex doesn’t have a very funny delivery, and so I think I’ll become serious for a moment.
“This is a great honor, made especially distinguished by the others who are being celebrated today. I would like thank you all, and I especially want to single out my wife, Chaz Ebert, who is responsible for me being here today. And I would like to close by quoting the greatest Chicagoan I’ve known, Studs Terkel, who said, ‘I always love to quote Albert Einstein because nobody dares contradict me.’”