Ebertfest gets off to grand start, Esquire writer here in spirit only

 

Pre-opening party for volunteers

The first-ever Ebertfest party for festival volunteers drew about 100 folks, from UI students to senior citizens, among them Norma Kite of St. Joseph, who said she was a few years ahead of Roger Ebert when they both attended St. Mary’s Catholic Grade School in Urbana.

She didn’t know Ebert then.

Kite is a volunteer year-round at the Virginia Theatre, where Ebertfest takes place. She admitted she prefers live productions and only does duty for movies when they’re part of Ebertfest.

"They’re different, a little bit special, because they’re not shown at every theater," she said.

I assume Kite was not among the guests at the volunteer party at the Cowboy Monkey who ravaged a dozen or so large pizzas from nearby Jupiter’s within the first half hour of the two-hour party. Festival organizers had to order more.

The atmosphere of the party started out subdued but  picked up when the Eberts entered, trailed by a crew from Entertainment Tonight, which is doing a story on the festival.

Among the guests were a few people who are not festival volunteers. Among those was Chicago landmark Vincent P. Falk, who wore one of his trademark colorful suits, this one with a knee-length royal blue jacket and royal-blue pants.

After the Eberts arrived, Falk took off his jacket and gave it to Ebert to try on. He offered it to me as well but I demurred.

"You’re going to see a lot of suits on me through this week," Falk said. "I plan to do a little wardrobe tweaking between movies."

Falk also brought with him a couple of sheets of paper, on which he had written jokes full of puns. To read them aloud to his host and me, he peered closely at the print.

He is blind in one eye and has tunnel vision in the other.

Many people who attended the UI in the early ‘70s remember Falk for perhaps violating personal space to more closely inspect and admire the jackets they wore.

After my story on Falk and Jennifer Burns, who directed "Vincent: A Life in Color," was published on Monday, I heard from a former colleague and townie who remembers Vincent.

"I cracked up when I saw your story about Vince," he said via e-mail. "When we were kids, junior-high hippy kids hanging out at the Illini Union in the late ‘60s, Vince was constantly wanting to trade coats with us.

"He would hover over you, mumble ‘Trade coats? Nice coat,’ and, of course, being adolescents, we were unforgivingly ornery and teased him endlessly. We were all regulars in there and I think he got a kick out of us.

"Funny, I hadn’t thought of him in decades and it was very cool to read about someone figuring out a way to celebrate this wacky life of his. He could easily have been a sad and tragic figure but somehow prevailed."

Falk, who is 60, retired in December from his job as a computer programmer for Cook County. He worked on property tax documents and told me he would "inch up" the taxes every year.

Virtual festival

Recently a former Ebertfest volunteer told me that the annual festival "has become so popular no one goes anymore."

People who don’t want to wait in line for a seat or fear they won’t get a good one can now participate virtually.

The Illini Film & Video Club, which has videotaped the festival the past 12 years, will stream the introductions and post-screening discussions live over the Internet.

Conceivably, if you had planned earlier, you could have downloaded or ordered from Netflix the available Ebertfest movies. Then you could listen to the introductions online, watch the movie, and then listen virtually to the post-screen talk.

Of course, you would miss the collective, communal experience that is Ebertfest.

This year, the Illini Film & Video Club also will create a backstage documentary on the Ebertfest guests.

UI sophomore Beanz Ramirez, who wore a snappy fedora to the party, is a member of the Illini Film & Video Club. This will be his second year volunteering at Ebertfest.

"It’s a lot of fun. It’s energetic because of all the status around, all the celebrities and whatever," the aspiring filmmaker from Monticello said. "It’s a pretty well-known event, and with Roger Ebert there, it’s very exciting and I feel honored to be part of it."

Esquire writer not here

You’ve probably all read that fabulous Esquire article on Roger Ebert that was written by Chris Jones.

While in Chicago interviewing the Eberts, Jones took the time to come downstate to check out the Ebert-related sites in C-U. I drove him around for a few hours and we had lunch together at Steak ‘N’ Shake, Roger’s favorite restaurant.

I invited Jones, who lives in Canada, to come down for Ebertfest. I heard from him today (April 21) that he couldn’t make it because he has to attend a magazine award ceremony Thursday evening.

I asked whether he was nominated for his narrative story on Roger.

"I’m not nominated this year, but the Ebert story wouldn’t be eligible till next year," Jones replied. "I’m hopeful it will get nominated when the time comes, but it’s such a crapshoot. Anyway, this year, I just get to watch other people win. Yay."

During her recent segment on Roger, Oprah had called Jones's story "amazing" but hadn’t identified its author.

"The Oprah thing was funny," Jones said. "I had a bet with my wife that she wouldn’t mention the story at all, so I was surprised she did. If you pause it at one point, you can see my name in very small print. That’s about right, I think."

After Jones story was published earlier this year, it went viral on the Internet.

"The story did incredibly well online, which I’m happy about," he said. "It was shared more than 5,000 times on Facebook, and there were 2,500 tweets about it. (That’s such a stupid sentence.) And yes, it ended up with more than 2 million page views, which is the most of any feature story we’ve run on the site. Once Roger wrote about it on his blog, it just kind of took off. And then with Oprah, it really went. I’ve never had anything like that happen to me before. It was really, really fun.

"All credit goes to Roger and Chaz — they were so generous with their time, and they have such a loyal following, I was just along for the ride."

Jones said he will try to make Ebertfest next year.

"Hit Steak N’ Shake for me," he said, signing off.

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