Everyone at the moment seems to have a Roger Ebert story, or memory or anecdote, and I suppose mine falls under the heading of "memorable and fleeting first impression."
I first encountered him and his redoubtable co-conspirator, Gene Siskel, at something called "NAPTE," which stands for "National Association of Television Program Television Executives," at the time a vast sprawling convention for the vast, sprawling and dazzlingly slick business known as "syndication."
It was, along with cable TV, taking the television world by storm, with shows like "Jeopardy," and "Wheel" and a million other bits of flotsam — all mostly now forgotten — which were designed to fill the hours of the day where the networks were not allowed to program (typically just before prime time began.)
And then, there they were — the biggest stars in a place so vast that I think it housed a cement manufacturer convention the week before. They were on a stage, at the Buena Vista booth (BV, owned by Disney, was and for all I know still is that company's syndication arm).
They were doing what had made them at that point among the biggest stars in syndication: pontificating about the world's most important cultural force, the flicks. It wasn't playacting, but real criticism — verbally whacking at each over some forgotten movie. It was an amazing show — especially amazing because a booth or two over were (probably) a couple of WWF guys in tights faux-wrestling, and somewhere not far from there, Roger and Michael King — wrestlers in their own right — probably wondering why they didn't have "At the Movies with Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert." Oprah, which they did have, or shortly would, wasn't even remotely as big a star as Ebert — not yet anyway.
The show itself was a marvel of the moment, and as it turned out, an enduring one too. It aired usually on Saturday nights, when most people were thinking about movies, and offered a bromide of movie love mixed with movie hate. One guy often despised the movie in question, the other often loved it; there was no logic to who loved and who loathed — but viewers did expect an argument from each side that was invariably sharp and incisive.
Neither Ebert nor Siskel commanded the high ground in the joust — there was obviously mutual respect, and a conjoined intelligence that made their opposing points so bracing.
The show — and its host — could be brutal. This was also remarkable because TV shows devoted to the coverage of entertainment — then and now — were fawning and averse to criticism of any sort. Imagine! Rapping a movie that might be running an ad in the show? Not a concern with Gene or Roger: They blasted movies with a brio designed to kill a potential ad buy. It was wonderful theater and, you knew, honest theater as well. People were going to shell out real money to watch a film in question — why waste it on garbage?
As a TV personage, Ebert was by far the most memorable of the two. When the thumb wasn't up or down, he held his arms out while making a point, and looked like he was holding something. Often he was of course: a turkey. He was not what you might call made-for-TV, but he delivered his thoughts with a precision that left no one in doubt about where he stood and why he stood there. And you sensed — knew — that behind those fast uppercuts of the rhetorical sword lay a vast store of knowledge and intelligence.
Ebert was a TV brand who emerged from the pages of a newspaper. It was masterful combination simply because the TV persona seemed to blend so perfectly into the other. Others tried to copy this and why not? "Mystery Science Theater 3000," for example, was a wonderful copycat and a unique one, too. But Ebert was a complete original. He was un-copyable..
So, in the end, two thumbs up. (What else?) Check out this clip from long long ago, and remember, these two guys didn't just entertain us, they prevented us from wasting good money. A belated thanks .?.?.