C-U’s Native Film Critic Turns 70: Ebert’s Early Life
By Jeff Bossert
For most people, the name Roger Ebert stands out as a man who’s known for giving movies a thumbs up or down. And it’s widely known he hails from Urbana. But to those who haven’t read the famed critic’s memoir, there’s a backstory to a man who didn’t set out to write about film.
He simply wanted to be a journalist. On the Pulitzer Prize winner’s 70th birthday, we hear from some of the friends and colleagues that knew him before he wrote his first review.
There wasn’t a lot early in his life that hinted he would grow up to become one of the world’s most recognized film critics and prolific writer about film.
He grew up an only child in east Urbana to modest beginnings, the son of an electrician. but had an early affinity for the written word.
“I published my first newspaper in grade school – it was called the Washington Street news, and I gave it away to the neighbors," Ebert said in an appearance on WILL-TV in 1995. "And in high school, I worked for the high school paper, and on and on.”
But friends say the only thing they knew right off the bat is that they enjoyed his company.
"I don’ t think his youth was much different than yours, or mine, or anybody else’s," said Gary Wikoff, who grew up across the street from the Eberts. They met when he was 5, and Roger was 3.
“And an idyllic setting to be a kid in the 50’s was Urbana, Illinois", Wikoff said. "And I think that’s why Roger’s still attached to it like I am.”
Ebert, Wikoff and other neighborhood kids found ways to make their own fun. Softball, bike rides to Crystal Lake Park, and weekly meetings of the Four Stampers Stamp Club.
In the recently published “Roger Ebert: Life Itself”, Ebert admitted that the talk often shifted to girls, but Ebert said there was a genuine interest in stamp collecting.
“Also, it gave us an excuse to meet down in the basement and talk about anything," Ebert said, in an interview via e-mail. Ebert has been unable to speak since 2006 due to complications from cancer surgery. "I mention the catalogs from the Elmer R. Long Stamp Company, which were our bibles. After I wrote that, Hal Holmes actually sent me the scans of two "Elmer" covers he had saved all these years.”
Wikoff believes the stamp collecting may have satisfied his friend’s intellectual curiosity, a curiosity which led to Ebert’s interest in journalism. Wikoff let Ebert take over his paper route, delivering the now defunct Champaign-Urbana Courier.
“I think part of Roger’s curiosity about papers and books may have come from his friend Hal Holmes – whose father Harold Holmes was editor of the News-Gazette back in the late 40’s early 50’s," he said.
Harold Holmes hired Ebert to cover his own high school’s sports for the Champaign News-Gazette. Steve Shoemaker was among the standouts for the Urbana High School Tiger basketball team.
“Imagine a high school kid who is, himself, not very athletic, but who is deciding who gets their name in the paper," Shoemaker said. "And his name was in the paper every day."
Ebert’s roles at the local paper ranged from sportswriter to caption writer, to the state desk, to covering obituaries and county fair prize winners.
It was then, around age 16, that friends say they saw Roger Ebert’s potential. The caption below his senior picture in the 1960 Urbana High yearbook listed a litany of activities - Latin Club, speech club, science fiction club (which he founded) class plays, and senior class president.
“Rog is very, very sharp," said Carol Scharlau, Ebert's classmate and prom date senior year. In fact, the two were runners up for the prom court.
They went on other dates, including movies at Urbana’s Princess Theater. Both recall it as a relationship of mutual admiration.
In Carol’s yearbook, Ebert wrote that she was too nice, and needed to fight for what she believed in.
"You know, you sort of wonder when you think of Rog if maybe he sees something in people that they don’t see in themselves," she said. "Because of his ability to analyze, whether that’s sports or that’s movies or whatever.”
The young Roger Ebert also had a penchant for public performance. For two years, he emceed the high school’s annual stage show.
Ebert sang in his church’s choir, and though he never performed in a high school choir, or played in the high school band, he built a relationship with Urbana High band director and longtime University of Illinois faculty member Dan Perrino.
“What made Roger effective is that he was always thinking – and fitting the right phrase or the right statements into the right place," Perrino said. "Cause sometimes when you somebody who is an emcee, they talk too much. And they collect their own kind of jokes that may be funny to them, but not to a wide range of audience.”
Ebert recalled a night nerves got the best of him while emceeing a band concert.
“I did a really bad job," he said. "Dan was not critical of me, and he had every reason to be. His understanding and sympathy probably was a help in many ways in future emceeing. I have never forgotten that embarrassing night.”
In the fall of 1960, Roger Ebert enrolled at the University of Illinois. He rushed Phi Delta Theta and delved into classes like English and Fiction Writing.
He joined the young Democrats, and for a year, published his own weekly called the Champaign-Urbana Spectator. He eventually was given his own column in the Daily Illini, and by the fall of ’63, applied to be editor.
"And the outgoing editors recommended me because they thought Roger was too radical," said longtime Ebert colleage Dave Reed, who says they made the right choice.
“They asked me who I thought they should pick.," he said. "And I told them – I thought they should pick Roger Ebert. While I thought I would be a really good editor, Ebert was just a brilliant guy. And obviously, a guy like that doesn’t come along very often.”
With Ebert in charge and Reed as executive editor, that fall, the two covered campus reaction to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
And they went to California that winter to cover Illinois’ last Rose Bowl victory - a 17-7 decision over the Washington Huskies. The two would later work together at the Chicago Sun-Times, and in later years, Reed recruited Ebert to speak before the Illinois College Press Association.
“One of the things he said was that ‘the best job I had as a journalist was when I worked at the Daily Illini," he said. "Because when you work at your college paper, you don’t do it for money, you do it because you love doing it.”
Many of Ebert’s childhood friends say they expected him to do something special, but none guessed he’d become a film critic. And a graduate student named Ron Szoke may have played a role in that development.
“One day I dropped in at the Daily Illini, where I believe Roger Ebert was the new editor. And I said ‘why don’t you have movie reviews?," he said. "And so he said, write one and so I did, and they asked me for another one the next week, and it just continued on and on.”
Szoke, who later taught philosophy at the U of I, says his reviews at least played a role in making his editor believe this was something that could be done. Ebert agreed.
“Szoke made a great impression on me," Ebert said. "He knew an awesome lot about the movies, and made me keenly aware of my own paltry information. I went to the movies he recommended. He was a role model. I often think he must be privately amused by my choice of career, because he knew me when it was the last thing anyone would have predicted.”
Ebert earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the U of I in 1964. After two years in graduate school , Ebert became a features writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, and then became the paper’s film critic when reviewer Eleanor Keane retired.
“First he’s a journalist," said longtime colleage Dave Reed.
“He might be a movie reviewer, but first he’s a journalist," he said. "He does his homework – and has tremendous intellect, because he does the hard work of doing all the reading that you need to support that intellect.”
Because he still publishes movie reviews, and is active on social media, Ebert has maintained the ‘voice’ he’s always had, being unable to physically speak And he’s still young at heart, a lot like the same kid who great up on East Washington Street in Urbana.
When asked what his birthday plans were – he simply replied, "What 70th birthday?”
Friends and colleagues who have known him for much of those 70 years would consider it a day worth celebrating, and they hope the balcony remains open – and the thumb moves up and down - for years to come.