By Maria Schulz
When Roger Ebert passed away last week, it made me stop and think about the ways that a person that you never even knew can touch your life. Roger and I were not pen pals or phone buddies; I never wrote him fan mail and I certainly never had his picture hanging on my wall or in my locker.
But I did look forward to seeing Siskel and Ebert every week and listening to their “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” reviews. I loved how sarcastic and withering they could be when they hated a film, and how passionate and enthusiastic they could be when they liked something.
I felt sorry when Gene Siskel died in 1999, and wondered if that would be the end of “At the Movies.” But it wasn’t the end. Roger Ebert did the show solo for a bit, and then teamed up with other movie critics and continued doing what he loved. He even got his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005.
From time to time, I would catch up with Roger Ebert through articles by him or about him. I always looked for his reviews first when there was a movie I wanted to see, since I felt like he would give me something to think about. Of course, I also read about his devastating cancer and how, after literally losing his voice, he found a new one through his blog and social media.
He talked openly about the fact that many people didn’t want to look him in the eye, as if his illness was too frightening for them or like he was no longer a person. He summed it up perfectly by telling Esquire magazine in 2010: “When I am writing, my problems become invisible, and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.”
I found his need to write and create very inspiring. I also thoroughly enjoyed his blog because I could look up any movie and get an unvarnished opinion about what made the movie work and what made it crash and burn. His Twilight reviews were some of the funniest ones I have ever read.
I guess the thing about Roger Ebert that I remember most was his ability to take something I loved so much and get me to think critically about it. When I was a child, there was nothing I loved more then going to the movies.
By the time I was 12, I was already a veteran bus passenger, and that opened up the world for me. I used to try to go to the movies every week, and I would write the names of the movies on a small journal or notebook that I kept. My goal was to fill up every square inch of space on that notebook with movie titles. I loved talking about the movies I saw and hearing other people’s ideas about them.
So it was about this time that my parents and I discovered a little show called Sneak Previews on PBS. Two nerdy looking men, one tall and bald, the other short and stout, would sit across from one another in overstuffed chairs and get into arguments about the five movies they were reviewing. Their names: Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.
My Mom, Dad, and I would sit and laugh most whenever the pair disagreed on the movie. If one of them gave it a “thumbs up” and the other one hotly disagreed, the barbs would start flying. Siskel would call Ebert fat and addled, and Ebert would call Siskel bald and brainless. There was no such thing as political correctness on this show, and these two were hilarious.
I looked forward to running into these two at 7 pm every Saturday night for ages. It was a big thrill when the two of them were reviewing a movie I just saw that day and they felt the same way I did. Even better was when they reviewed a movie that I wanted to see the following week.
Eventually, these two nerdy movie critics became big celebrities, with appearances on The Johnny Carson Show, The David Letterman Show, and every other late night talk show on television. By the mid-80s, their show became Siskel and Ebert At The Movies, and they trademarked “two thumbs up” because it was a hot property.
I loved that these two guys were just brainy writer types in cardigans and turtlenecks who happened to be the hottest commodity around. It gave me hope as a nerd and as a future writer. The result was lots of really terrible reviews written by yours truly. I kept a journal and wrote reviews. My first review was about Lolita with James Mason (loved it) and the next one was about Darby’s Rangers, a so-so movie that starred James Garner.
I never understood (or wanted to understand) most of what Siskel and Ebert were talking about when it came to the technical side of filmmaking. That didn’t interest me at all. To me, movie making was a lot like sausage making. Don’t show me what goes in the sausage. Just let me eat the sausage and enjoy it.
Life was simple and enjoyable. I had my routine, and it included Saturdays at the movies and Saturday nights with Siskel & Ebert. It would have gone on like that forever except for one thing: my parents sent me to spend a few weeks with my grandmother the summer I was 12.
My grandmother and uncle had moved to a new apartment building where they didn’t know anyone. Nonie hated her new apartment. She was lonely and bored. She missed living in the small town where she could walk to the beach or to her Senior Citizen Center. In her new place, she was isolated.
When Uncle Don went away on vacation, my parents thought I could spend some time with her to keep her company and cheer her up. Of course, now that I was old enough to have some independence, I didn’t want to go. I knew my brothers and their friends would have all sorts of adventures while I was gone, and my grandmother and I would be in our pajamas by about 8 pm every night. On some nights, the sun set after we did.
To make everything worse, I was sure I would miss going to the movies. I knew my brothers would go to at least one movie while I was gone, and I wasn’t wrong. Chris called to tell me how they all went to see the latest James Bond flick.
“But don’t feel too bad,” he said. “We had to sit in the first row and crane our necks.”
“I would kill to sit in the first row and crane my neck!” I said, as Chris laughed at me.
I wanted to go see that movie! I had a fake review to write in my journal! Nonie could see that I was disappointed.
“I would take you to the movies, but there’s no movie theater that we can walk to,” she said. Life was difficult now that she didn’t drive anymore. “How about this? Tonight you can watch anything you want on television.”
“Okay,” I grumbled. This was actually a big thing. Sure, I’d still have to suffer through Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore in the afternoon, but later, I could tune in to SOAP instead of Canon.
Well, that was the game plan, anyway. But every time I put something on, she was appalled. She ended up watching Canon while I read every book on my summer reading list. Later that night while we lay in our twin beds, I tried to turn on “Trilogy of Terror.”
“Do your parents know you watch this junk?” Nonie asked.
“Yes, but they don’t care,” I replied.
“Well, I care,” she replied. “Turn it off. You’ll have nightmares.”
Twelve is a tough age for everyone; my grandmother approached me like I was an alien that resembled her granddaughter; I approached her like everything she did bored me.
When a new Burger King opened up a block away, she was delighted. We trudged over there at 7:00 every morning for the two weeks I was there. I stood there turning fifty shades of red while she ordered.
“Hi there kiddo,” She said to the hapless counter girl. “How are you today? I’m going to give you a very long order, but I know you’ll get it right. Like the commercial says, special orders don’t upset us!”
My grandmother took a breath while the counter girl set her mouth in a grim line. “What can I get you, ma’am?” she said.
“Well, sweetie, I want the egg sandwich, but I want my bread unbuttered. Also, no salt. Do you use powdered eggs? I hate powdered eggs; I don’t like runny eggs either. Make sure they’re not dry OR runny. Also I want my coffee with Sweet & Low. Do you have Sweet & Low? I like bananas with my breakfast. Do you have bananas? Do you have any other fruit? I need fruit. What kind of fruit do you have?”
Of course, there was nothing wrong with being very specific about what you wanted, but the idea that someone would think my grandmother (and by extension, I) was annoying was reason enough to die of embarrassment.
The whole visit went like this. My grandmother kept farmer’s hours, and since we were sharing a bedroom, I was up when she was up. That means that when I wanted to watch a movie on the late show, I couldn’t. And when she wanted to run to Burger King at 6 am, it was all I could do to keep her from dragging me there until 7 am.
I was getting the feeling that we really didn’t like each other anymore or have anything in common. That is, until Saturday night, when Sneak Previews came on.
“You want to watch this show with me?” I asked my grandmother.
“Sure! I love that show.”
So we sat together and watched Siskel and Ebert skewer the movies and each other. When the show was over, my grandmother told me all about the movies she loved.
“The last movie I ever saw with your grandfather was Dr. Zhivago,” she said. “It was so romantic! We loved it. I really miss him.”
“I do too,” I replied.
“When we were young, your grandfather and I used to go to Coney Island. We had so much fun there! We would take photos in the photo booth and walk up and down the boardwalk. Sometimes we would take in a movie. I loved going to the movies!”
We talked and talked about all of our favorite movies. My grandmother stopped looking at me like a slug that liked to sleep past 7 am since she saw I financed all of my movie trips with babysitting money. I stopped looking at her like an old lady who didn’t know how to have fun. I actually began looking forward to seeing my grandmother and spending time with her again.
The years passed. Siskel and Ebert reviewed a movie called Cocoon, and my grandmother called to ask me if I could take her.
“It’s about old people and it got two thumbs up. Can you take me to see it?” my grandmother said.
“Sure!” I replied. Since I had my license by that time, I drove out to her house and picked her up.
As fate would have it, my grandmother moved back to the same apartment she’d shared with my grandfather after she ran into her old landlady in town. It turned out that the landlady wanted my grandmother and uncle back. It took about 2 seconds for my grandmother to say yes.
My grandmother went on to become president of her Senior Citizens Club, got a babysitting job and started taking trips to Atlantic City. She was so busy that seeing her at all was a treat.
She enjoyed a Tab with lemon and only a ¼ cup of ice (I didn’t mind when she gave the counter girl specific instructions) while I munched on popcorn. Then we settled in and watched the movie about old people that Siskel and Ebert enjoyed.
That was a long time ago. I haven’t been to the movies with my grandmother in more than two decades. I guess I have Siskel & Ebert to thank for making my grandmother and me friends again—and for entertaining us both for all of those years.
Now that Roger Ebert has joined his friend, Gene Siskel, in that great theater in the sky, I hope that they’re reviewing some fantastic old movies. And I hope my grandmother and grandfather get to see Dr. Zhivago together again.
A reporter once asked Roger Ebert which movie he thought played in Heaven, and what kind of food would he eat there? He said that in his Heaven, Citizen Kane is always playing and you can eat as much Vanilla Hagen Daz ice cream as you like. Ask me the same question and I’d say that The Great Escape would be playing and I’d have a bowl of Chunky Monkey. Here are two recipes for all of you to make your own ice cream and enjoy while watching your favorite flick:
No ice cream maker? No problem:
So, Hungry Lifers: did you like Siskel & Ebert? What’s your favorite movie? Which movie do you think plays in heaven—and what kind of ice cream would you eat there? Please leave a comment and let us all know. Thanks!