Media critic Andy Martin writes on the death of Roger Ebert and the era of Chicago journalism that died with him
The death of
film critic Roger Ebert has generated an avalanche of media coverage. Andy Martin knew Roger Ebert casually but Andy knew Ebert’s era of Chicago journalism up front and personal through Andy’s links to Chicago media. Andy provides a unique insight into the passing of Roger Ebert and the era of Chicago journalism that probably died with him. Chicago
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Andy Martin writes on the death of film critic Roger Ebert and an era of Chicago journalism that probably died with Ebert
(CHICAGO) (April 5, 2013)
I set eyes on the City of Chicago for the first time fifty years ago. A half a century ago? It doesn’t seem possible so much time has passed. But time has passed, and with the passage of time Chicago journalism has changed as well. An era may have also passed with Roger Ebert.
Chicago was love at first sight for me. I was captivated by what the poet Carl Sandberg called the “City of the Big Shoulders.”
I had grown up in New England, from New Hampshire to Connecticut, and went to Illinois with the possibility that I could play football at the University of Illinois (“U of I”). I visited Chicago during Thanksgiving vacation.
Chicago had a long history of a vibrant and sometimes outrageous media environment. The Chicago cauldron was later stirred by Paul Zimbrakos at the City News Bureau (“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”)(please see link #1 below).
The mighty Chicago Tribune owned “Chicagoland,” with one irritating exception. A scrappy tabloid, The Chicago Sun-Times, started by Marshall Field III, and carried on by his son Marshall Field IV (please see link #2) remained a liberal, independent voice in Chicago. The Field family fortune (“Field Enterprises”) was used to cover the Sun-Times’ losses. (Field also owned the legendary Chicago Daily News.) The cut-throat competition between the Sun-Times and Tribune continues to this day, although both papers are mere shadows of their former 1960’s selves.
But I get ahead of my story. I am not going to write about Roger Ebert the film critic. You already have scads of stories about that. I am going to write about the passing of Roger Ebert the newspaperman.
If one man is responsible for Chicago still being a two-newspaper town in 2013, that man is Roger Ebert.
Roger Ebert was editor of the Daily Illini (“DI”) my freshman year at the U of I. I never had any interest in being a student journalist although I later wrote a series of columns for the DI. But when I first met Roger and saw him in the old basement newsroom of the DI I was fascinated by his regal demeanor. He generated a “presence.” Roger was a “townie;” despite my New England origins I was a sort-of-townie because my mother was on the college faculty. I lived in the football dorm.
Ebert was an extraordinary editor and a very impressive student and I paid attention to his comings and goings where we occasionally intersected. Roger and I were never friends but I ran into him from time to time at licensed premises.
Eventually I became close with writers at the Chicago Daily News, and became a small part of a team that exposed corruption on the Illinois Supreme Court. One of my acquaintances from the U of I ended up at the Sun-Times. He became my eyes within Field Enterprises (I also did business with Field Enterprises as a broadcaster.)
From the late 1960’s to the mid-1980’s I was a regular visitor to the Sun-Times and Daily news newsrooms (The Daily News folded in 1977). Ebert had become a commanding presence at the Sun-Times. But Roger was much more than merely a film critic. He was the bedrock on which the Sun-Times continued to survive. The newspapers’ losses did not sit well with Field Enterprises executives even as Marshall Field V took control. Field V had a half brother in Alaska, Ted. Ted Field had little emotional connection to his sibling or to Chicago itself. Eventually Field Enterprises was sold off, wound up and divided among the heirs.
But Ebert endured at the Sun-Times. He was the “franchise” employee whose growing fame gave the newspaper a claim to survival.
The demimonde of newspaper writers hung out at Ricardo’s across from the old Sun-Times building (now the Trump Tower). The Billy Goat Tavern was also a popular watering hole, made famous by Daily-News-then-Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko. And for dead-enders there was O’Rourke’s on North Avenue, another bar with a media following.
Because I moved in with a woman I never acquired the habit of hanging out at Ricardo’s, the Billy Goat, or O’Rourke’s, although I lived a few blocks away. I was only an occasional visitor. I had friends that were there “regularly” and they kept me up to date on Ebert and others until Roger later left the scene.
Strangely, I can remember Mike Royko’s cubicle in the corner of the Sun-Times newsroom (after 1977). But while I remember seeing Ebert’s space I don’t remember where it was. Irv Kupcinet, also a Chicago mainstay, had an office and secretary a floor about the newsroom. I saw Ebert moving around. (After the Daily News folded the editors had merged the two newsrooms.)
Ebert and I continued to occasionally bump into each other and I found him a fascinating personality – writer, drinker, critic – until he married and adopted a more sedate lifestyle.
As I said, after Ted Field came of age Ted demanded the dismantlement of Field Enterprises. The Sun-Times lost its wealthy parent. Over the years the Sun-Times was purchased by other media organizations and today remains a stand-alone paper (that is now printed by the Chicago Tribune). Both the Tribune and Sun-Times have gone through bankruptcy.
The Chicago media world that existed from the mid-1960’s to the early 1990’s is no more. Death and retirement have claimed just about everyone. And Thursday, death claimed Roger Ebert.
I always found Roger an extraordinary character. For anyone to spend 46 years with any organization is unbelievable in the modern world. Although I knew Ebert had an excellent financial arrangement with the Sun-Times the Tribune would have lured him away in a Chicago Minute, as it eventually did Mike Royko. But Ebert stayed with the Sun-Times, and the Sun-Times survived in large part through Roger’s star power and loyalty.
The University of Illinois is spread across two small towns, Champaign and Urbana. Urbana is the smaller and homier of the two. My first house off campus was in downtown Urbana, where Ebert had grown up. He loved the Princess theater, and I went there with my girl friend at the time. I got to know Urbana well during my undergraduate studies and law school, from the Kroger supermarket to the News-Gazette bureau.
To understand Ebert all you have to do is know Urbana. Roger was a small-town guy with his name in lights in Hollywood but his values still anchored in Urbana. Ebert may have gone to Hollywood but he does not appear to have “gone Hollywood.”
Roger Ebert was a world-class celebrity, but he was still rooted in Urbana, at the DI and in the values of loyalty and consistency that kept him at the Sun-Times for 46 years. In my opinion, he kept the paper alive.
An era in Chicago journalism died with Roger Ebert.
[In preparing these remarks I went back and checked my files. I had written Roger on April 25, 2007 offering any assistance he needed.]
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He holds a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Illinois College of Law and is a former adjunct professor of law at the City University of New York (LaGuardia CC, Bronx CC).
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