As though in one of those movies that Roger Ebert would praise as long as the emotions rang true, the applause started softly near a rear entrance of the historic Virginia Theatre on Wednesday night and rippled outward until all in the crowd were standing on their feet smacking their hands together.
It was about 15 minutes before the opening of the ninth annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival when the festival’s namesake quietly entered the theater from the back, marking his first public appearance since cancer surgery on his jaw in June. Several surgeries later, the 64-year-old film critic -- who has since appeared only sporadically in the Chicago Sun-Times and not at all on his syndicated television show, “Ebert & Roeper” -- still can’t speak or completely close his mouth. His lower lip juts out a bit, and his neck, where he has had a tracheostomy, is wrapped in gauze.
Yet he was back where he grew up and attended the University of Illinois, wearing a blue blazer with a peach-colored handkerchief in the pocket and walking down the theater aisle dispensing handshakes and hugs to those who came to see him and the movies he selected for five days of viewing. Many in the crowd were close to his age, gingerly embracing him and wrapping their arms around his wife, Chaz, more vigorously.
Karol Gaines, Ebert’s 62-year-old second cousin from nearby Savoy, wiped tears from her eyes as she returned to her seat after greeting him. She said they were tears of joy.
“He’s been through a lot, and he’ll get better,” Gaines said, adding that his attendance “means a lot to everybody. Like my daughter said, ‘He’s coming home.’ It doesn’t bother him that people see him.”
In the back row where Ebert typically sits during the festival, a brown La-Z-Boy recliner had been installed, the tags still attached. A few seats away sat Dusty Cohl, Ebert’s friend and co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Earlier in the evening, the Eberts received and dispensed gratitude at a reception hosted by University of Illinois President B. Joseph White. How was Ebert feeling before his return to the Virginia?
He wrote in this reporter’s notebook: “I have a line prepared which Chaz will read tonight & says it all.”
Cut to the theater, where Ebert walked up to the podium and received another, longer standing ovation and wiped his brow theatrically. Chaz Ebert joined him and delivered his line: “This is my happening, and it freaks me out.”
Yes, Ebert was quoting from the 1970 cult classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” which he wrote and which will close the festival Sunday. (Mike Myers also delivered the line in “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.”)
Chaz Ebert read a longer statement from him in which he explained that he won’t be leading this year’s onstage discussions because “my speaking voice is disabled, pending another surgery.” But, “I will fulfill a lifelong dream to have my own La-Z-Boy chair in a movie theater.”
She laughed at that line but got choked up as she credited everyone’s prayers and warm wishes for getting her husband back to his own festival, despite the concerns of doctors and friends.
“This is where he wants to be. This is where he is. And this is where he’s staying.”