An Unimportant Story

Long before I landed a job at the newspaper that was his home base, I just loved Roger Ebert. Toiling away on a series of night news desks, I sneaked peeks at his film reviews on the entertainment wire when I was supposed to be writing headlines for zoning-board stories. I delighted in his genial snark-and-snipe routine as half of the Siskel and Ebert TV team.

He was the best. So I devoutly hoped I’d never get to work with him when I arrived at the Sun-Times as a lowly copy editor.

By that point in my professional life, I knew that beloved, award-winning newsroom personalities weren’t always so lovable to be around. “If you can read this, you’ve come too close,” Dorothy Parker supposedly suggested for her tombstone. I thought of this quote often as I moved from newspaper to newspaper, heard the stories, and landed on the receiving end once or twice.

The hissy fits over unavoidable deadline or space constraints. The marquee-value columnists who used their high-profile pulpits to poke fun at lesser colleagues. (And, ugh: “How’d you like to sleep with a Pulitzer winner, honey?”  a colleague was asked a few weeks into her first job. She declined, probably more politely than was deserved.)

At the Sun-Times I worked on a variety of feature-section stories. Then I became an assistant editor on the Friday entertainment section, which ran movie reviews. But I was still safe from illusion-busting in the Ebert department, because his reviews were very much my boss’ territory. Ebert worked off-site and was actually in the office only occasionally. By that time he was as much of a media brand presence as he was a critic, and he was still, of course, a fine critic. His reviews came in by remote and were edited by my boss over the telephone, in conversations to which I listened with half an ear. They seemed cordial; fun, even. Still: better my boss than me. Ebert was a newsroom legend at the Sun-Times and his niceness was equally legendary, but I distrusted the stories. It was easy to wax eloquent about niceness if you only saw the guy every few weeks, I reasoned.

But a day came when my boss could not be there to handle the Friday-section movie reviews – he had the plague? Something dire, I’m sure.

“Just give him the lengths,” said the boss over the phone, from his bed of pain, or whatever it was. “Relax. It’ll be fine.”

It would not be fine, I knew as I looked over the space allotted for that week. There was not a lot of wiggle room. Of course Roger Ebert’s reviews were top priority, but a lot of movies were opening that particular Friday, and we were skimpy on jump space – the pages where you put the “Continued from …” parts of the reviews. The Friday section was never really the place where the movie reviews could run on and on, and this week was tight.

It was time to call Mr. Ebert and tell him this. Surely he would not be happy. Stars never liked being told their space was short. I was about to learn the real deal about the guy who had made me and my mom laugh hysterically over “At the Movies.”

I telephoned. I explained who I was and called him Mr. Ebert, and he told me it wasn’t necessary to call him Mr. Ebert. I recall ignoring this. Nervously I hemmed and hawed over the skimpy space, trying to be frank, yet inoffensive.

He cut efficiently into my waffling. “Liz. Listen.”

Here it comes.

“Just tell me the lengths,” Mr. Ebert said, very kindly, very patiently. “I will write to the lengths.”

“But …”

“Just tell me. I’ll write to it.”

The reviews came in, comfortably ahead of deadline, fitting the space to the syllable, and as fun to read as ever.

“But he’s always like that,” said a co-worker, witnessing my slack-jawed reaction. “I thought you knew that.”

I had heard so, many times. But I hadn’t really known.

That’s my only Ebert story, and it is not a particularly remarkable one. But I have come to believe that the truth of a person’s spirit is evidenced by how they treat those who are not in a position to do them any particular favors. By that measure, Mr. Ebert’s spirit was right up there. I will miss reading his reviews very, very much. And I am sad the world no longer has him in it.


NewsClips: Things Were Different Then.

From the Albany Evening Journal, Watervliet news section, Saturday, May 3, 1902:

A meeting will be held this evening by the old members of the Oswald Hose Company. The meeting will be held for the purpose of placing in the company’s quarters the head of “Nell,” who was the first horse ever owned by the company. “Nell” for over twenty years hauled apparatus to fires and became greatly attached to every member of the company, and it was with the greatest sorrow when she was obliged to quit the service.

The members fearing that she would be sold by the commissioner, raised a sufficient sum for her purchase, and placed her upon a farm in Colonie about three years ago. She then became sick, and it was thought best to end her suffering by chloroform, which was done.

The members decided to have the head mounted in a suitable manner, and the members will meet this evening, when the head will be dedicated, after which a spread will be enjoyed.

Some observations:

1. The Oswald Hose Company was, of course, in Watervliet. I was looking at volunteer fire companies in West Troy/Watervliet because my great-grandfather Joseph Haigney served in Watervliet’s Gleason Hook and Ladder company.

2. I’m continually struck by how 19th-century ancestors could be so much more sentimental and, at the same time, so much less squeamish than we are today.

3. First the head, then the spread. I prefer a simple tailgate, myself.


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