Updated: Ebert knew about plans for statue

CHAMPAIGN — During the unveiling of the sculpture depicting her late husband outside the Virginia Theatre, Chaz Ebert revealed a secret:

Before he died last year, Roger Ebert had heard about the sculpture project spearheaded by Champaign's Donna and Scott Anderson.

And he wasn't for it.

"I never told you that, that he didn't want it done, but he left the decision up to me," she told the Andersons on Thursday. "He said, 'I don't want it to be like a carnival attraction. If it's art, that's one thing. If it's a carnival attraction, that's another thing.' "

Then Chaz Ebert, who also was reluctant, met two people who changed her mind: Donna Anderson and sculptor Rick Harney.

Anderson told Chaz Ebert about how, after she had a heart transplant, she began thinking about what Roger Ebert had gone through medically. In her hospital bed, Anderson decided to proceed with her idea to have a bronze sculpture made of Ebert.

"That touched my heart and I knew it would have touched Roger's heart," Chaz Ebert said.

Chaz felt persuaded by Harney, who lives in Normal, because his idea for the sculpture was to make it a work of art.

Harney also told her that he no longer was taking commissions for public sculptures but would accept the Andersons' request — mainly because his autistic son, Ben, relates to life through the movies and Roger Ebert.

With a crowd of 200 or so hanging on her every word before Thursday's unveiling, Chaz Ebert also confessed to being nervous about the ceremony.

"First of all, this is my man, and second, he's a native son of the Champaign-Urbana community," she said. "Third, it's in front of the Virginia Theatre, which is hosting the 16th Ebertfest."

Eventually, Chaz — who had sat and clutched the hands of Harney and Donna Anderson while others took the microphone — quit talking.

"I don't like him being covered up, so I'm going to stop so I can see him," she said.

At that moment, Scott Anderson began the countdown to pull the red fabric off the bronze sculpture. After it was removed, Chaz stood behind the sculpted image of her husband, placing one of her hands on its shoulder.

In the front row, Ebert's cousins — Karol Gaines and her son, Tim Gaines, both of Savoy — watched. Karol wiped her eyes with tissue.

"It's beautiful," she said.

Roger Ebert's father and her grandmother were brother and sister. Karol Gaines and Roger grew up together, she said.

"He was a funny guy in his own way," she said. "He was very respectful of others, and his mother and father and everyone in his family. He liked to do for other people. He was always here when you needed him."

After her husband and her brother died, Ebert visited Gaines each time.

"I was very glad to see him marry Chaz," Gaines said. "She's been quite the lady."

Gaines also remembered the reaction of some people to her cousin's returning to his film festival after having lost his speaking voice in 2006 due to complications following cancer surgery.

"He couldn't talk any more," she said. "Some people thought he shouldn't come and my daughter said, 'Mom, he's coming.' "

As for Harney, he never got to meet Roger Ebert. But he took time off from his part-time job and put in 12- to 14-hour days to finish the sculpture, which was cast in bronze by a foundry in Mount Morris.

Harney described his work and that of the foundry as herculean.

"I knew how important it was to Donna, Scott and Chaz to have it here now," said the 59-year-old artist.

Donna Anderson credited a higher power for the sculpture being done in time for the 16th edition of Ebertfest.

"I think God had something to do with this," she said.

The life-size bronze piece is now on a temporary wooden platform on the west side of the Virginia marquee. The Champaign Park District, which owns the vintage theater, took ownership of the sculpture and will have it installed permanently near the marquee.

Scott Anderson, who was in charge of raising $115,000 for the bronze piece and all the contingencies, was $18,000 short when the week started. After the festival began, a few contributions came in.

During the festival, which runs through Sunday afternoon, the Champaign lawyer will monitor a clear box, placed near the sculpture, into which people can drop donations to help finish paying for its cost.

Chaz Ebert said one particular part of the sculpture stood out to her.



A journalism class from the UI is joining our Melissa Merli and stable of photographers to cover Ebertfest, including today's ceremony outside the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign. Check out their website here

What's your take on the statue or Ebertfest overall? Let our columnist, Tom Kacich, know here

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