It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Gene Siskel and I fought like cats and dogs, and we made some good television.
During those early years for "Sneak Previews" our favorite occupation was dreaming up "special editions" which were sort of like the "think pieces" we wrote for our papers.
I hadn't seen those shows for years, but it turns out they were safely slumbering in the vaults of WTTW/Chicago, our public television station. Starting Friday, we're going to be airing the best of those old shows on "Ebert Presents At The Movies."
Our favorite special edition was titled "Going to the Movies with a Critic." The idea was to follow the process of reviewing a single movie from beginning to end. The show opens with Gene and me receiving a call from John Iltis, then (and now) a Chicago movie publicist. It was our notice of a screening for the new movie "The Black Marble." This was a movie neither of us had seen, directed by Harold Becker ("The Onion Field," "Sea of Love") from a Joseph Wambaugh novel, and starring Robert Foxworth, Paula Prentiss and Harry Dean Stanton.
The show follows us as we meet at the Chicago Theater's old screening room (Gene stopping first to load up on his beloved Garrett's Popcorn). We see the movie. We do not discuss it. We return to our newspaper offices. We write our reviews. We go into the TV studio having read each other's reviews, and we discuss them with each other.
The purpose of this show, which aired 31 years ago, remains clear in my mind. Our program had aroused some interest here and there, among people who were tickled by the idea of two guys making a living by going to the movies. We were actually being asked questions like, "Do you see the movies before you write your review?"
We had enormous freedom at public television. No commercials, no pressure about ratings, no paranoia from the marketing people at movie studios. The movie was made available to us, sight unseen, by Avco Embassy, which agreed to abide by the results whether our thumbs were up or down. Can you imagine that happening today?
Most of that program will he shown this weekend, August 5-7, on "Ebert Presents." It will be followed by our co-hosts Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky discussing whether they take notes or discuss movies with other critics. I hope sooner or later during the upcoming Vault shows they discuss where they like to sit in a theater. I know Ignatiy prefers the front row. Gene and I always preferred the back row; Gene was convinced that Iltis the publicist would like to sit behind him to observe his reactions and tip off the studios. Gene was big on conspiracy theories.
The other shows from the Vault footage will feature such special editions as "Who's Funnier--Mel Brooks or Woody Allen" (weekend of 8/12), "Great Performances That Oscar Ignored" (8/19), "The Best and Worst Movies of 1978 are Still Relevant" (8/26), "Movies that Changed The Movies" (9/2), "Changing Attitudes Toward Homosexuality" (9/9), "Changing Sex Roles in Hollywood" (9/23), and the most talked-about show we ever did, "Women in Danger" (9/16). That was the one about the rise of stalker movies that took the POV of the stalkers.
At the end of this summer season we'll present "Beyond The Balcony At Ebert Presents," which will be a behind the scenes doc featuring Chaz, Christy, Ignatiy, director Don Dupree, coordinating producer Sonia Evans, and production assistants Caitlin Musick and Jacob Richards.
Every show will be introduced and discussed by Ignatiy and Christy. These retrospective shows round out the second season of "Ebert Presents." The shows are digital transfers from the original beta tapes, not grabs from YouTube.
So we're at a milestone. Since January "Ebert Presents" has proven itself, reaches 92% national coverage and all 50 top markets, plays worldwide on the Armed Forces Network, and is getting some of the best ratings on public television. It has established Lemire and Vishnevetsky as critics I'm proud of.
When "At the Movies" left the air, my wife Chaz and I believed there was still a need for a program using that format. With movie coverage dominated by mindless gossip and an obsession with box office numbers, there needed to be one show where competent critics said whether they thought a movie was any good. At one point in the 1980s, three programs were using that format simultaneously. But marketing became the engine that pulled the train in Hollywood, and TV (already in bed with the movies) focused on chatter about celebrities.
I think the new show has succeeded. Of course I'm hardly impartial. It isn't easy to succeed in our format. Not everyone can debate movies clearly, spontaneously and intelligently. The discussions are all ad-lib and mostly first take. During the winter and spring I watched Christy and Ignatiy find their stride. They felt as if they belonged in the balcony, and Chaz and I thought so, too.
In explaining our show in the early days, Gene always cited the beliefs of a former Chicago Daily News reporter named Van Gordon Sauter. In the 1970s he'd been brought over to WBBM, the Chicago CBS station, to be news director of a redesigned newscast. He threw out the "news set" and put the whole newsroom on TV. Viewers saw reporters working at their desks. This is common enough today on cable news, but then it was startling.
Van Gordon, wearing colorful suspenders and sometimes puffing on a pipe, would walk from desk to desk being updated on stories by reporters. His anchors, Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson, were to lead the station into first place in the ratings and keep it there for many years. What goes around, comes around: Bill Kurtis is now doing me the great favor of reading my voice-overs on "Ebert Presents."
Here's how Gene quoted Van Gordon: "The idea isn't to get TV professionals and teach them how to cover the news. It's to get news professionals and let them learn how to do TV." That's what he told Gene the day he started sharing him with the Chicago Tribune. "The reporter on the beat knows the story and can talk about it."
Gene always said that's what we did on "Sneak Previews." We were both full-time film critics. God knows we weren't TV professionals, although at the first Gene was a lot more at ease than I was. Gradually we found out how to work together, and the years we worked together created invaluable memories for me. It was said we "had chemistry." What I learned was: You don't cast for chemistry. You cast for people. If they're the right people, the chemistry takes care of itself.
Now it isn't too late. As we approach another of those milestones, "Ebert Presents" is a show I'm proud of. And I'm proud of Chaz, who is the executive producer and does the heavy lifting. It will be fun to look at some of those "Sneak Previews" moments again. What a long strange journey this has been.
Here is a link to the first show. Color photo of Gene and Roger (without Spot the Wonder Dog) taken by Victor Skrebneski.