CHAMPAIGN — Roger Ebert knew his wife, Chaz, and Ebertfest director and assistant director Nate Kohn and Mary Susan Britt couldn't carry a tune.
So before he died, Roger Ebert enlisted members of the University of Illinois Black Chorus to lead the Ebertfest audience in a sing-along on the first night of his 15th annual film festival at the Virginia Theatre.
Wearing formal black, four chorus members took the stage to lead the audience in "Those Were the Days," with lyrics "customized" by Roger Ebert:
"Once upon a time there was a theater,
"Where we used to see a film or two
"Remember how we laughed away the hours
"And dreamed of all the great things we would do."
Ebert died April 4, but his presence was felt during the reception earlier Wednesday evening at the UI president's home.
"There is an emptiness in the room today, and we all sense this, but we carry on because we know that's what Roger would want us to do," UI President Bob Easter said.
He said Ebertfest would go on as a celebration of Ebert's life and his career, courage and devotion.
Jan Slater, dean of the UI College of Media, noted this is a bittersweet time, but Ebert's "spirit is everywhere in this room and will be present in the Virginia Theatre."
Chaz Ebert, who also took the podium during the reception, said the long white scarf she was wearing over her black jacket had belonged to her husband.
"I wanted his embrace tonight because he's embracing all of you," she said. "I didn't know how I would get through these five days and as I stand here, I do know all of you will help me."
She said her husband wanted to make sure the festival, a special event of his alma mater, the UI College of Media, would continue.
"He gave me a long list of movies so we could continue this program and a long list of his reviews," she said. "I'm not saying he knew he was leaving. I knew he wanted to make sure this festival would go on."
She struck a similar tone once she took the stage at the newly renovated, nearly glittering Virginia Theatre. She appeared to hold back tears as she greeted the Ebertfest audience — many of the people in it have returned to the festival year after year since it started in 1999.
"I am so happy to be with you this evening," she said. "You know I always called Roger my boyfriend. I was hoping my boyfriend would be with me, but he's not so I wore his scarf tonight."
She said the Ebertfest audience had given her husband "so much joy" and that having the festival in his hometown and organized by his alma mater made him "so happy."
"For the next five days, we're going to celebrate Roger," she said to applause.
She also said her husband, an Urbana native, had begun to write instructions a few weeks ago for her and others. Six weeks ago he thought he could attend the festival. But his cancer had recurred and he began radiation treatments. He asked his doctors to make him strong enough to be able to attend the festival. But two weeks ago, he realized that wouldn't happen, Chaz Ebert said.
So he planned the sing-along to come after the screening of Grace Wang's short, "I Remember," an experimental film in which a young woman remembers, by wearing his long white shirt, a boyfriend who has passed.
Ebert dedicated the 2013 festival to the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler. The tall, lean 91-year-old, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., and grew up in Chicago, attended the reception and was at the Virginia for the opening.
A 35 mm print of "Days of Heaven," the 1978 Terrence Malick film for which Wexler did much of the cinematography, was shown after the audience sing-along. Wexler was to appear on stage afterward for a question-and-answer session.
The Academy Award-winning Wexler also appeared on stage before the sing-along. He said if Oscars were given to great, beautiful and in-touch women, one would go to Chaz Ebert.
Using a small, high-definition video camera, Wexler also appeared to film the audience for a few seconds before saying:
"What Roger stood for is what we all want to stand for — for art and expression and understanding and humanity and communication through film."
Cox not coming to festival. Earlier in the evening, festival director Kohn said Australian director Paul Cox would not be coming to the festival after all. His doctors recommended against it.
It would have been Cox's fifth trip to Ebertfest, where over the years three of his films have been screened. His 1987 movie, "Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh," is to be shown at 1 p.m. today, when the festival resumes.
Last year, Roger Ebert showed at the festival David Bradbury's documentary, "On Borrowed Time," about Cox having had liver cancer and then a life-saving liver transplant.