This year will mark the 20th annual Roger Ebert Film Festival. Popularly known as “Ebertfest,” it originated in 1999 under the name “Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival.” In that first year, Ebert wrote a welcome explaining that no other festival was “dedicated to taking a second look at wonderful films that for one reason or another haven’t yet found the audiences they deserve,” something for which, over the next two decades, his festival would be known and adored.
Last week, I got the chance to sit down with Melissa Merli, who has recently retired after nearly thirty years at the News-Gazette, and who has been covering arts in the community since before the beginning of the festival. She reminisced about the early years with me, commenting on how wonderful it was to have Roger himself as emcee, bringing his enthusiasm and knowledge to panel discussions. She also commented on the size of the audience compared to today, saying, “In the first few years, you could find a seat anywhere. Now, it’s hard to find a seat for a lot of the showings!”
And while there were some changes over the years — dropping “overlooked” from the name, bringing in bigger guests and crowds, and the biggest being the loss of Roger — she also went on to say “Otherwise, it’s still that same medium town festival. It’s so nice and homey, and you see the same people year after year. And unlike most festivals, it’s all in one place… It’s pretty cool.”
Ebertfest is without a doubt a treasure in the Champaign Urbana community, and a tradition to many families and residents. In anticipation of this year’s festivities, we wanted to take the time to reflect back the many years of this festival that have made it what it is today. We pulled Melissa Merli out of retirement to provide us with a list of ten of her most memorable moments from years past.
Here’s what she had to share:
1: Werner Herzog and Roger Ebert talking on the Virginia Theatre stage until two in the morning, about Herzog’s Invincible — which had just been screened — and many other things, among them Herzog’s solo trek by foot across Europe. I could have listened all night; Herzog’s voice is mesmerizing and melodious.
2: Tilda Swinton leading a conga line through the Virginia house to effectively lighten the mood at the 2013 festival, which had opened just a couple of weeks after Ebert’s death.
3: The 60s band Strawberry Alarm Clock performing after the Russ Meyer camp classic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls closed the 2007 festival. It was the first time in years that the band, which appears in the Ebert-penned film, had performed in public. Said Ebert: “It’s my happening and it’s freaking me out.”
4: John Malkovich at the 2006 Ebertfest telling me his professors at Eastern Illinois and Illinois State Universities hadn’t thought much of his acting when he was in school.
5: Roger Ebert’s enthusiasm and skill as emcee, and his joking about the “Balkanization” between Champaign and his hometown of Urbana when he was growing up.
6: The first time I cried over an animated film was at an early Ebertfest. Grave of the Fireflies tells of a brother and sister struggling to survive after World War II as they make their way through the devastated Japanese countryside. Ebert considered it one of the best anti-war movies ever made.
7: Seeing vaudeville/golden-age-of-Hollywood star Donald O’Connor chatting openly and wittily on stage with Ebert after the critic showed Singin’ in the Rain. He received several standing ovations from the Ebertfest audience. It was his last public appearance. He died several months later.
8: Many festival guests made impressions on me. Particularly the legendary script supervisor Angela Allen, who came from London with The Third Man, and ghost singer Marni Nixon. Both had distinguished careers but were down-to-earth, friendly and interested.
9: TV legend Norman Lear answering his cell phone onstage at the Virginia last year. The caller: Heidi Ewing, who had co-directed the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. She asked whether the Ebertfest audience had liked it. He held his phone up to the microphone so she could hear the applause.
10: Herzog, a friend of frequent Ebertfest guest Paul Cox, who died in 2016, and of Roger Ebert himself, telling the Ebertfest audience that the film festival named after the critic is all about friendship. Herzog was right.
List written and generously provided by Melissa Merli. Photos from Eberfest website.