URBANA — Roger Ebert may have lost his speaking voice, but he certainly hasn't lost his sense of humor.
After Champaign Mayor Don Gerard on Wednesday gave the movie critic the key to the city, Ebert said through his wife, Chaz, "When you get a key to the city, where is the lock?"
At the reception at the University of Illinois president's house that opened the 14th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival, Ebert also received from Jim Flaniken, senior vice president of marketing for Steak 'n Shake, a titanium black card that enables the critic to treat his friends, for free, at his favorite restaurant chain. Flaniken said only four of the titanium cards exist.
Gerard, Flaniken and Chaz Ebert were among UI and festival officials and other dignitaries who spoke at the reception, which welcomed 150 or so guests to Ebertfest — described by UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise as "the Cannes festival of the Midwest."
UI President-delegate Robert Easter, the first to speak from the podium, said the festival, a special event of the UI College of Media, is a time for "old friends and new friends who come to meet and talk with Roger and each other.
"What a legacy this is and what a story it is as to how far we've come with this event," he said.
Jan Slater, dean of the UI College of Media, thanked the Champaign-Urbana community for embracing the festival, which attracts industry and movie fans from throughout the world. She called it one of the best events in the region and the state.
Gerard, while reading a proclamation declaring Wednesday Roger Ebert Day, said the annual five-day festival brings an estimated $1.1 million to the community each year.
Festival director Nate Kohn, who like Ebert is a UI alumnus and Urbana native, went to the podium to thank festival sponsors, among them two new ones — Steak 'n Shake and Fandor, an on-demand service for hard-to-find — Ebert says must-see — narrative and documentary movies.
Chaz Ebert, who emcees the festival, took the podium to introduce the filmmakers, producers and actors at the reception, and others as well, among them Urbana native Nina Paley, who brought her award-winning animated movie "Sita Sings the Blues" to the 2009 Ebertfest. Paley's now an open-source advocate.
Among the first-time Ebertfest guests at the reception were a few who represent The Demanders, a group of critics who review new video-on-demand movies on TV, cable and the Web. They will speak at the Ebertfest panel discussion, "On Demand: Movies Without Theaters," at 10:30 a.m. Friday at the Illini Union.
"Essentially we're going to suss out where it stands at this point, how movie-going has been changed by these new chances on the Internet for filmmakers to present their work," said Steve Boone, a filmmaker and one of The Demanders. "I expect there will be a lot of curve balls thrown by the various panelists. It should be interesting."
The 39-year-old Boone said he still prefers to see movies on a big screen in a theater "because of the communal experience, watching movies with strangers in the dark."
"On-demand and at-home — it's still crucial to one's film appreciation," he added. "It's our cheat sheet, a way to see a lot of films."
Among other notable Ebertfest first-timers at the reception was Ali LeRoi, a former standup comedian who is interviewed in "Phunny Business: A Black Comedy," a documentary about the Chicago comedy club All Jokes Aside. It was to be shown Wednesday night: LeRoi and others with the documentary were to appear on stage after the screening.
"I was really excited and honored that of the people available to ask, I was one of them," said LeRoi, now a fulltime TV writer and producer in Los Angeles. "I look forward to meeting Roger. I've been a big fan for so long."