photograph: anna knott

The critic in 2005

On hearing news today that the legendary Roger Ebert has died, I thought about last November, when I reached out to him to write an essay for Chicago. Ever enamored with the decaying beautiful movie theatres in the midst of our neighborhoods, the magazine had commissioned a series of photographs of places like the Uptown and the Lawndale—but we needed a passionate essay to go with it. Who better to write something on this subject than Ebert? I reached out to him on Friday, November 18, with my plea. That Monday, when I got to work, I had a beautiful story that conjured the fading smell of popcorn boxes in my inbox. You can read Ebert's essay here

His timing was always excellent, a quality singled out in a 2005 profile by Carol Felsenthal, "Roger Ebert: A Life in the Movies."

I had worked with Ebert before, and damn was he snappy. In 2010, my colleague Jeff Ruby asked him to imagine the perfect Chicago movie for a package I was editing in celebration of the magazine's 40th anniversary. He picked native Chicagoan David Mamet to write the screenplay, natch. The rest, in his words. "Actor? Someone with family roots here, like John Cusack. Actress? I’d go with Joan Allen. Supporting actor? John Malkovich. Supporting actress? Why not Joan Cusack? Cinematographer: Haskell Wexler. We’d get Quincy Jones to write the score. Of course the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would perform it, under the baton of the eminent movie composer Richard Kaufman—not born here, but he qualifies because he specializes in conducting movie music for the CSO and many other orchestras."

He continued with one of my favorite lines ever to run in this magazine. "What would it be about? I’m not gonna tell David Mamet what his story is gonna be about. The story is told when the story is sold."

All I can think about now is his last paragraph of the ode to the movie palaces. "The Uptown still stands at Broadway and Lawrence, its decaying interior like a mausoleum," he wrote. "The laughter has faded. The smell of popcorn no longer drifts in from the lobby. Some landmarks have been restored: the Chicago, the Oriental, the Bismarck (now the Cadillac Palace). All over Chicago, the bones and the memories of our other movie palaces linger. For them, the last picture show has closed."

When I wrote him last, to thank him for doing the essay, he told me the assignment came naturally. He told me, "It's about 100 words too long," he said. "I knew exactly what I wanted to write."