19th Ebertfest opens as a gathering of friends

19th Ebertfest opens as a gathering of friends

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Wednesday's photo gallery

Video interview: Robert Jones

Video interview: Casey Ludwig

Radio interview: Chaz Ebert, Nate Kohn

CHAMPAIGN — The 19th Roger Ebert's Film Festival is dedicated to the principles of empathy, compassion, kindness and forgiveness.

But there was another principle, or theme, in evidence at least on the festival's opening night Wednesday: hair.

The five-day event opened at the Virginia Theatre with the 1979 movie "Hair," prompting University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen to say at the reception beforehand: "I just wanted to show you that I used to have it, too."

He held up a 1960s or '70s photograph of himself with a full head of hair and a beard.

That elicited a big laugh from the sponsors, filmmakers and other festival guests at the reception at the UI President's House on what festival director and Urbana native Nate Kohn called a sweltering night.

"I think this is the hottest Ebertfest we've ever had," he said as the early evening temperature hovered around 81 degrees, enhanced — maybe that's the wrong word — by the odor wafting in from the UI's nearby South Farms.

On a more serious note, Killeen cited the creativity represented by the 100 or so guests at the reception, and the sense of legacy left to the campus and community by the late Roger Ebert, an alumnus of the UI College of Media.

"His success also showcased our excellence and the power that a UI degree holds," Killeen said. "This festival continues to draw top names in film and the eyes of the world to our campus and community."

Chancellor Bob Jones took the podium next for his first Ebertfest, saying he was grateful to Chaz Ebert for continuing to bring the "signature event" here.

Like Killeen, Jones said the festival puts the university and Urbana-Champaign on the world map. He also said that unlike others at the reception, he was not fortunate enough to have met Roger Ebert.

"He really did change the way many saw and thought about movies. He made it okay for everybody to be a critic and have a perspective. He taught us the most important opinion is our own."

Jones also quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: "We're inextricably linked whether we like it or not."

Though not quoting King, Chaz Ebert, the festival emcee and executive producer, built on that idea later when taking the Virginia stage to open the festival.

"It's so important in this political world that we find ourselves in that we remember that we are our brother's keeper. We are our sister's salvation. We're all in it together."

She then said she would open the festival in an unusual way, by having festival guest Jimmy Demers sing "God Bless America," one of her late husband's favorite songs. She told everyone to stand as Demers came on stage.

"Wow, a standing ovation before I sing," he joked. "Thank you. I hope I earn it."

He then gave a dramatic, somewhat stylized a cappella rendition of "God Bless America." He earned the appreciative applause and whoops.

Chaz Ebert said the Ebertfest audience is opened-hearted and open-minded, and feels like part of her family. So she said happy birthday from the stage to Nancy Dawson, who in February was married to Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com and the TV critic for New York Magazine. Dawson is the sister of Seitz's late wife, Jennifer, who died in 2006.

Chaz Ebert then got down to the opening film, introducing Michael Hausman, first assistant director on "Hair," directed by Milos Forman. Hausman, a native New Yorker, has enjoyed a nearly four-decade collaboration with Forman, having worked on a number of films with him, among them "Ragtime" and "Amadeus," which won eight Academy awards.

"This is such a nice festival. I want to come back," Hausman told the Ebertfest audience, adding that some of his other films could be shown. "I've been to a lot of festivals, and this is so well-organized."

He said "Hair" was an interesting yet difficult movie to make; it was shot in New York and Los Angeles.

"I think it holds up," he said. "Roger did give it four stars. I think it's contemporary — that's why we made the movie, and it says something about the world today."

Michael Butler, producer of "Hair," was introduced at the reception earlier, but was not on the Virginia stage for the introduction of the film.

"He was the force that brought 'Hair' (in 1968) from the Shakespeare Free Theatre to Broadway," Chaz Ebert said.

Butler, known then as the "hippie millionaire," has produced 31 productions of "Hair," among them the 2007 version in Los Angeles that was voted the best musical in the city that year.

Active in many arenas including politics, Butler became in the mid-'60s the first chancellor of the Lincoln Academy. In 1987, he received the academy's Laureate with the Order of Lincoln, the highest honor given to Illinois residents.

Scene and heard

Here's what caught the eye of Melissa Merli, in her 19th year covering Ebertfest:

— The two police horses that dance along with the hippies to "Age of Aquarius" in New York's Central Park in an opening scene in "Hair."

— Twyla Tharp's blissful and free-spirited choreography for "Hair." It blends ballet, jazz and contemporary styles.

— The friendly, open-hearted Ebertfest guests, among them singer Jimmy Demers and his pianist brother, Donnie. And festival director Nate Kohn's wry humor.

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