Fondly remembering Roger Ebert… nerdy kid in search of friends, childhood zine editor

I have very few regrets in life. One of the biggest is not pursuing an interview with writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert more aggressively. (He finds himself in the distinguished company on Don Knotts and Joey Ramone in that regard.) If you haven’t heard, Ebert passed away today at the age of 70, just a day or so after he announced that he’d be retiring – or, as he put it, taking “a leave of presence” – due to a recurrence of the cancer that had claimed much of his lower jaw in 2006. According to his wife Chaz, he passed peacefully as they were preparing to leave the hospital for home. “We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care,” said Chaz, “when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away. No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition.”

Anticipating his own death not too long ago, Ebert, a lapsed Catholic, had the following to say.

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris…

What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes…

Someday I will no longer call out, and there will be no heartbeat. I will be dead. What happens then? From my point of view, nothing. Absolutely nothing. All the same, as I wrote to Monica Eng, whom I have known since she was six, “You’d better cry at my memorial service.”

[Bonus points for the Vonnegut reference.]

Ebert didn’t know it, but our paths have crossed twice… at least in a kind of cosmic sense. The first time was in Atlanta, when Linette and I had the pleasure of spending an evening with his on-again-off-again collaborator, the ferociously un-PC Russ Meyer, who talked with us for some time about his friendship and working relationship with the young screenwriter. (Meyer, as I recall, after telling us how he’d like to kill that “skinny bitch” Kate Moss, explained to us that it was Ebert’s wife who kept them from seeing one another. I didn’t press the matter, but, seeing as how Ebert gave up booze, and sought treatment for alcoholism not too long after he and Meyer last worked together, I suspect there may have been good reason for him to keep his distance, whether it was his wife’s idea or his own.) The second crossing of paths took place at a zine conference in Santa Barbara, where an elderly man approached me with a half-century-old mimeographed booklet, asking me to turn it over and read the author’s name. It was a little, self-published sci-fi publication called Stymie, and the author was one Roger Ebert. (The whole zine movement, by the way, rose up out of the sci-fi fanzine scene in the 50s.) According to the old man who had handed it to me, Ebert, before turning to film criticism, had been a precocious kid, writing furiously in his parents’ basement about science fiction. And that’s what fascinated me about Ebert. As much as I would have liked to have talked with him about the debauchery of his time with Meyers, the highly cantilevered women in the cult director’s entourage, and the Sex Pistols, what I really wanted to find out more about was his early years, working alone in his parents’ basement.

Maybe it’s because I’d come into adulthood publishing zines of my own, and I felt a certain kinship there, but I really liked the vision of this super motivated kid in the suburbs, hammering out articles behind the backs of his conservative parents. I jotted down the address noted on the back of Symie, and wrote a letter, hoping that someone in his family might still live there, and asking for an interview. Unfortunately, I never heard anything back. I did, however, stumble across a mention that Ebert had made of Stymie, and his early forays into publishing, a little while ago online. Here’s a clip. I fear it will be of little interest to anyone but me, but, as I love the history of self-publishing, and think this is one important aspect of the man’s life that’s not likely to be celebrated elsewhere today, I’m going to include it.

… Prozines and fanzines were two different worlds, and it was in the virtual world of science fiction fandom that I started to learn to be a writer and a critic. Virtual, because for a long time I never met any other fans; they lived only in the pages of mimeographed fanzines that arrived at 410 E. Washington St. and were quickly hidden among the hundreds of SF mags in the basement, on metal shelves that cost four books of Green Stamps. “Hidden,” because at first I concealed my interest in fandom from my parents. Fanzines were not offensive in any way–certainly not in a sexual way, which would have been the worst way of all in a family living in the American Catholicism of the 1950s, but I sensed somehow that they were . . . dangerous. Dangerous, because untamed, unofficial, unlicensed. It was the time of beatniks and On the Road, which I also read, and no one who did not grow up in the fifties will be quite able to understand how subversive fandom seemed.

Most fanzines had a small circulation of a few hundred, but they created a reality so intriguing and self-referential that, for fans, they were the newspapers of a world. Looking through old issues of Xero, which during its brief glory was one of the best fanzines ever published, I was stunned by how immediate and vivid my reaction was to names not thought about for years: Harry Warner Jr., Mike Deckinger, Guy Terwilliger, Gene DeWeese, Bob Lichtman, bhob Stewart (how evocative that “h” was!), Walt Willis, Bob Tucker, “Ajay” Budrys, Ted White. I met Donald Westlake as an adult (we have been on a couple of cruises together) and he was surprised to find that I was already reading him in Xero. I found established professionals (Harlan Ellison, Donald A. Wollheim, Anthony Boucher, Frederik Pohl, Avram Davidson, James Blish) happy to contribute to a fanzine, indeed plunging passionately into the fray. I confess happily that as I scanned pages and pages of letters of comment (“locs”), my eye instinctively scanned for my own name, as it did forty years ago, and when I found it (Blish dismissing one of my locs), I felt the same flash of recognition, embarrassment and egoboo that I felt then; much muted, to be sure, diluted, but still there. Locs were the currency of payment for fanzine contributors; you wrote, and in the next issue got to read about what you had written. Today I can see my name on a full-page ad for a movie with disinterest, but what Harry Warner or Buck Coulson had to say about me–well, that was important.

Wilson (Bob) Tucker was the first fan I met. He lived in Leland, a hamlet south of Bloomington, not far from Urbana. In the summer of 1958, still in high school, I was working as a reporter for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, and was assigned to drive to Springfield to cover something at the state fair. I made a detour past his house. Bob and Fern made me feel right at home, and to meet them again I concocted a sort of fraud on my newspaper. We had a Sunday article on interior decorating, and I convinced an editor that I should write a piece about the household arrangements of one of Downstate Illinois’ major writers. Well, Tucker was major! In the endless fanzine debates about whether SF was really literature, The Long Loud Silence was always cited as real literature. Bob was a movie projectionist in Bloomington who wrote in his spare time (a writer with the same talent would be a best-seller today). The Tucker home was a modest two-bedroom suburban house with attached garage– “turn left off the highway when you get to the motel.” I photographed the high points of the interior decoration, which to my eye consisted of Bob’s typewriter, his desk, his shelves of books, his piles of SF magazines, his framed movie posters, and the Tuckers, standing in front of various compositions of the above. This article actually ran in the paper.

A year or so after that I joined Tucker and Ed Gorman, a fan from Cedar Rapids, on a trip to the MidWestCon in Cincinnati. We drove in my family’s Dodge, nearly skidding off a road in Indiana, talking all the way about fandom in a giddy rapid-fire exchange of inside jargon. At a motel in Cincinnati, I made people laugh with my reproductions of Bob and Ray routines, and drank a little beer, which felt like a lot of beer to an inexperienced drinker, and–here is the earth-shaking part–I actually met Buck and Juanita Coulson, Dick and Pat Lupoff, and Harlan Ellison! The Coulsons struck me as two of the nicest people I had ever met, the kind of people where you would like to move into their spare room, and the astonishingly long run of their Yandro was one of the monuments of fandom. The Lupoffs were enormously funny and smart New Yorkers–that city that the novels of Thomas Wolfe had forever colored in my daydreams. Harlan was–how old? Twenty? Young and cocky, with the color proofs for the cover of his new paperback that Berkeley Books was about to publish, and as he showed me the glossy reproduction, I knew envy of a desperately sincere kind.

The summer of 1961, now a student at the University of Illinois, I made my first trip to Europe on a $325 charter flight, and in Belfast visited Walt and Madeleine Willis. They invited me to tea–tomato sandwiches and Earl Grey–and took me around to meet James White, another of Belfast’s BNFs (Big Name Fans), whose prozine collection was carefully wrapped in brown parcel paper, year by year, and labeled (“F&SF 1957”). Fandom was a secret society and I had admission to friends everywhere who spoke the same arcane language.

In the summer of 1962, I found myself going to South Africa as the press agent for a tour of wheelchair athletes from the University of Illinois. After the long bus trip from Urbana, we stopped overnight at a motel near LaGuardia, and I called Dick and Pat Lupoff. We met for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Times Square. Other members of our party included Lin Carter and his girlfriend, Gerry Deindorf, Walter Breen, and Ted and Sylvia White.

These meetings, these connections and conversations, were important because they existed in an alternative world to the one I inhabited. Fandom grew out of and fed a world-view that was dubious of received opinion, sarcastic, anarchic, geeky before that was fash-ionable. In those years it was heretical to take comic books or “Captain Video” seriously. Pop culture was not yet an academic subject. From Lenny Bruce, Stan Freberg, Harvey Kurtzman, Mort Sahl, and Bob and Ray we found an angle on America that cut through the orthodoxy of the Fifties and was an early form of what would come to be known as the Sixties.

I published my own fanzine (Stymie), cutting the ditto masters on an old L.C. Smith and paying an office supply company a few bucks to run it off for me. My freshman year in college I published The Spectator, a weekly “newspaper of politics and the arts” at the University, and this was a descendent of my fanzine. If I had only known it, I had stumbled on the format of the alternative weekly, but I didn’t know enough to give it away, and the ads and circulation income weren’t enough to keep it afloat; at the end of a year I sold it for two hundred dollars and joined the staff of The Daily Illini, then as now a great independent campus paper, and it took so much of my time that, little by little, fandom drifted out of sight…

And here, for those of you who don’t care so much about his 1950’s foray in self-publishing, are a few of my favorite videos of the beautiful, kind, thoughtful and generous Mr. Ebert in action… brilliantly egging on his old foil, Gene Siskel, defending Star Wars against a sci-fi hating asshole, and tearing apart the shittiest movies of 1983. (Those seeking more video clips can find a good list here.)

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15 Comments

  1. Edward
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    We’re lucky to have role models like him in this life, who persevere in the face of adversity, and face death bravely.

  2. Posted April 5, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Ysterday was the day that Martin Luther King was shot, by the way.

  3. Posted April 5, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Ebert was a great guy. I always loved his review of “I Spit on Your Grave.”

    He was obsessed with that movie, for some reason. He mentioned it on his show multiple times, so much that I desperately wanted to see it. It’s an entirely disturbing violence fest,but probably one of the most important movies ever made. I think he loved and hated it at the same time.

  4. Meta
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    R.I.P.

    The trailer for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TH6bgJEEr34

  5. anonymous
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    I had no idea that he’d gotten his start in zines. Very cool. I’d love to see a copy. Does one exist online.

  6. Mr. Y
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    More on Ebert’s early work in the underground press, included scans of a few pages.

    http://potrzebie.blogspot.com/2011/09/life-itself.html

  7. Mr. Y
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    More early Ebert.

    http://potrzebie.blogspot.com/2011_09_01_archive.html

  8. Elliott
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    My favorite… Roger Ebert yelling at Sundance.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSzP9YV3jbc

  9. Eel
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    So much to like about this post, and Mr. Ebert. My favorite part?

    “Pop culture was not yet an academic subject. From Lenny Bruce, Stan Freberg, Harvey Kurtzman, Mort Sahl, and Bob and Ray we found an angle on America that cut through the orthodoxy of the Fifties and was an early form of what would come to be known as the Sixties.”

    It’s good to be reminded that some of the boomers are good people.

  10. John Galt
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    You are such an elitist. You eloquently eulogize Mr. Ebert, but completely ignore the recent passing of Buckwild’s Shain Gandee.

  11. K2
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    There’s an Ebert documentary in the works that promises to be good.

    http://kartemquin.com/films/life-itself

  12. double anonymous
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    If you really want to cry, watch the video of Ebert getting his voice back electronically, thanks to the work of Scotland-based Dr. Matthew Aylett of CereProc, who used samples of his recorded voice taken from his countless television appearances, DVD commentary tracks, etc.

    http://www.metafilter.com/89705/It-takes-two-to-speak-truth-One-to-speak-and-another-to-hear

  13. double anonymous
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Also, Ebertfest begins in about 10 days. Lots of tears will be shed.

    http://www.ebertfest.com/fifteen/schedule.html

  14. Bob
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    I was a fan of his work but met him briefly in the late 80’s and again around 2000. He wasn’t very friendly or warm either time.

  15. Posted April 8, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m amazed, I must say. Seldom do I come across a blog that’s both equally educative and amusing, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The issue is something that too few folks are speaking intelligently about. Now i’m very happy that I
    stumbled across this in my hunt for something concerning this.

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