John Foreman: C-U sees return of two great ladies

Two remarkable ladies played host at last week's Ebertfest. One was old Virginia herself, of course, resplendent in a way she has not appeared in decades. The other was Chaz, present by virtue of her last name but universally known in the hometown that has adopted her by first name alone — like Cher or Madonna or Beyonce.

First, the venue. This year's Ebertfest marked the Virginia's first real public appearance after years of painstaking restoration. She did not disappoint. Everyone knew there was magnificence even where the eye could once see only peeling plaster and faded paint. No one — literally — knew all that was hidden.

Beneath decades of dust and paint and ancient cigarette smoke, she hid masterpieces no one imagined, and she now rightfully holds a place among Champaign-Urbana's greatest beauties. The old theater is a destination in her own right, regardless of what appears upon her stage. If you haven't yet seen her in this new light, buy a ticket to anything that gets you in the door and come early to take it all in.

That she exists at all is a credit to the determination of the few. Not all that long ago, she lingered dangerously near the wrecking ball. The theater was in disrepair even before she was abandoned as a movie house — cast aside in 1992 as too big and too expensive to compete with popular multiplexes.

Well-intentioned private efforts by David Wyper and the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company kept her in use and bought time. But the 1921 structure ate money faster than any ticket booth could bring it in, and restoration never went beyond what ever was demanded to keep the doors open. The faded glory was evident, of course. But far too many obstacles, far too many bills, stood in the way of anything that could be called a renewal.

There is a reason no one builds buildings like the Virginia anymore. It's exactly the same reason so few have been brought back.

Fitting it is that she made her big comeback at Ebertfest. The festival's namesake provided a considerable lift in the Virginia's fight against the odds when he made the unlikely declaration that his little hometown — and the Virginia — would be the permanent venue for a film festival to rival anything in Hollywood or New York or any of a dozen more fashionable places.

It is one of several gracious gestures Roger Ebert made to his hometown and alma mater, the University of Illinois. As favorite sons go, it's hard to top our newspaperman-turned-film-industry-mover-and-shaker.

But the real heroes of the Virginia restoration lacked any Hollywood glitter and glamour. Like most heroes, they overcame those shortcomings with sweat.

Former Champaign Mayor Dannel McCollum would have chained himself to the ticket booth if it had been required to keep the Virginia alive — and it very nearly was. He personally negotiated its purchase from the Kerasotes family, bargaining the patriarch from an asking price of $1 million all the way down to $500,000 and only then persuading his colleagues on the city council to back his play.

It was no bargain. The city lacked the expertise or the wherewithal to either operate the theater or restore it. But it was a good friend to have. You didn't hear it from me, but it's said that McCollum at one point hatched an unholy deal to keep the fire department from chaining shut the doors for code violations. It also was McCollum who engineered the plan to transfer ownership of the theater into the more appropriate hands of the Champaign Park District, where it fit logically amid its growing cultural programs.

There, the champion became then-director Bob Toalson, a leader of immense energy, vision and sincerity.

It was Toalson who brought aboard a skeptical board of park commissioners more often praised for its sharp fiscal practicality than its dreamy visions.

A citizen committee endorsed Toalson's idea that private fundraising, ticket revenues and the park district's bonding authority could restore the structure. The cost estimates of what would be required were off by millions.

But through Toalson and his successor, the park board stayed the course, year after year, revised estimate after revised estimate. Through its foundation board, fundraising finally kicked in, led by a million-dollar gift from the late Michael Carragher and the slow arrival of innumerable 20s and 50s.

There's still work to be done, but the Virginia will be a glory for decades to come. Thanks go to many, but credit rests heavily with a few. The same can be said of Ebertfest. One of them, perhaps the most important one now, is Roger's widow Chaz. She first became familiar to filmgoers when Roger's vitality and finally his voice were sapped by his lengthy struggle with cancer, standing in as a bit of an apologetic hostess when the Pulitzer Prize-winning hometown boy was pushed to the sidelines by repeated illness.

She is, I think, a most remarkable woman — sweet of spirit and strong of heart. I say this without knowing her. We've exchanged perhaps a dozen words of pleasantry since Ebertfest began 15 years ago.

But I have read — in both Roger's words and others — of her incredible dedication to him through years of catastrophic illness that would have tested the resolve of many spouses, perhaps most.

Ebert found her, a successful Chicago attorney, late in life. The characterizations in his writing leave little doubt he found her worth the wait.

"If my cancer had come, and it would have, and Chaz had not been there with me, I can imagine a descent into lonely decrepitude," he wrote in his autobiography. "I was very sick. I might have vegetated in hopelessness. This woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live. She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind pushing me back from the grave."

It's just one of the testimonials to his wife of 20 years to be found in his book. Others elaborate on her strength, her accomplishments, her beauty, her faith. To no small extent, she dedicated her own life to help Roger live his.

So here she was this month in Champaign — just two weeks after his death — greeting guest after guest to Ebertfest personally, maintaining the brutal schedule the festival demands, taking his place center stage at the Virginia, thanking others, always thanking someone.

It is easy to see why Roger loved her. Champaign-Urbana loves her, too, I think.

Ebert's estate allows for her return to the Virginia next year and beyond, one more gift he shared with his hometown.

John Foreman, publisher of The News-Gazette, can be reached by email at jforeman@news-gazette.com or P.O. Box 677 in Champaign.

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