Life Itself, Steve James’ documentary about Roger Ebert and based on the world-famous movie critic’s 2011 memoir, is surpassingly good for any number of reasons. Among other pluses in what could easily win this year’s documentary Oscar, the film champions Ebert’s celebrating the subject that became his abiding work. It chronicles his marriage to gallant wife Chaz. It depicts unflinchingly the final months of his losing battle (after many winning skirmishes) with cancer of the jaw.
In one way, the biopic is especially appropriate. As someone remarks in the film, Ebert was already starring in the movie of his life. And as we know for any movie made, there are numerous outtakes as well as scenes on the cutting-room floor. It’s the same, of course, for the movie of the life Ebert was living.
So now that I’ve watched Life Itself—not without some painful moments and tearful ones, too—I’m going to write about a figurative outtake. Actually, I’m going to write about a series of scenes that couldn’t have landed literally on the cutting-room floor of Ebert’s life, because they were never filmed. As far as I know, they were never recorded in any way.
I’m qualified to describe them, because I was there:
In Life Itself, book and movie, Ebert talks about the Conference on World Affairs, a one-week gathering that takes place every April on the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus; the conference was founded in the late 1940s by the brilliant sociology professor Howard Higman.
Initially invited in 1969, Ebert attended as perhaps the unofficial star of the conference for upwards of 30 years. Although footage from CWA appears in Life Itself, nowhere does Ebert say what he said regularly to everyone there: that it was his favorite week of the year. He cherished it, he reiterated, not so much for what he contributed as a panelist and as he analyzed a single movie over a five-day period for two hours each day. He valued it for what he learned. He frequently cited hearing the word “meme” first on the UofC campus.
While the Boulder week was the highlight of his year, one of the highlights of that week—I think I’m safe in saying—was the dinner he presided over on Wednesday night. It took place in the outlying Boulder foothills at a restaurant called the Red Lion Inn where venison and buffalo steaks were on the menu.
Ebert and I met there in 1982, thanks to Betty Brandenburg, who was in charge of my writing and performing partners Bill Weeden and Sally Fay and me. The three of us, who’d been making a name for ourselves in corporate entertainment, were asked to CWA as singing satirists. Betty, who had very red cheeks and drove a red van, was worried that our “housers”—the people who put us up as part of the conference amenities—wouldn’t be available that night.
So off we went to the Red Lion Inn Wednesday event and subsequently remained as dinner guests for many years after that. Apparently, Ebert had taken to us, as he had to many other regulars sitting boisterously around the long table in the private room. And when I say Ebert presided over us participants, I do mean he held court. Not in an imperious manner. Not at all, but rather like a jocular monarch who might have been drawn by the illustrator O. Soglow.
What happened at these dinners that made them such marvelously raucous entertainments? Just about everything happened. There was a preponderance of joke telling, the gags ranging from silly to out-and-out filthy. Some of the favorites (usually the truly obscene ones) got told annually, became an inextricable part of the tradition.
Not everything was as bawdy as the jokes told by, for instance, Ebert’s buddy and Chicago Sun-Times technology columnist Andy Inhatko, who never took off his wide-brimmed leather hat. The level was habitually raised when Bill Nack, the superb sports writer and Ebert’s chum since their days on The Daily Illini, recited the final page of The Great Gatsby. (Nack recites it in Life Itself, saying he did so annually for Ebert—“annually” possibly meaning at the Red Lion Inn.)
Eventually, everyone had something to say. Everyone included people Ebert liked and, by implication, felt most comfortable with. Betty Brandenburg, who’d been his houser until he decided to crash at the Hotel Boulderado, was foremost, often with her children Karl and Kaye. Betty came every year without fail. That includes the years after she’d had a stroke and couldn’t drive the red van but was driven in her wheelchair by Rich and Linda Loose.
Richard Schwartz, who owned the second-hand bookstore Stage House II in Boulder, where Ebert always shopped for obscure titles, came with wife Diane Doe. Diane had been Ebert’s assistant at the Sun-Times. He’d introduced the two. Maura Clare, the CWA events director, was on the must-have list with aide Ramsay Thurber, as was Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart. Movie critic and Ebert confidant Howie Movshovitz was almost always there. Communications authority Sonya Hamlin came. Dallas Times Herald columnist and nonpareil humorist Molly Ivins, who made the Conference every other year, dropped in. One year, Ebert’s pal Studs Terkel was there. He, needless to say, had stories to tell.
What did singing satirists Weeden, Finkle and Fay have to offer? Somehow, perhaps at our first night, a singalong got underway. Ebert—I think he was the one—started warbling “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.” He and I (and likely others at the table), knew the oldie from the Somethin’ Smith and the Redheads recording (Epic, 1955), which boasted a counterpoint melody and lyric. We both loved it. I piped up with it. Ebert took delight in it and, presto, for many years it became a Red Lion Inn staple.
So, Roger, here it is for you again:
Be sure it’s true when you say “I love you.”
It’s a sin to tell a lie.
Millions of hearts have been broken
Just because these words were spoken.
“I love you. Yes, I do. I love you.
If you break my heart, I’ll die.”
So be sure it’s true
When you say, “I love you.”
It’s a sin to tell a lie.”
Cross my heart, and I hope to die.
I’ll never, never, never tell another white lie.
Took a little doll out on a date last night.
Next to her Gravel Gertie woulda looked all right.
Now I’m between the devil and the deep blue sea,
‘Cause I said, “Baby, you look good to me.”
I told her I loved her, but oh, how I lied.
Now she’s getting set to be my blushin’ bride.
If she leads me to the altar, then I’m sunk,
‘Cause I can’t tell the preacher I was drunk.
So Lord, have mercy on a no-account sinner.
Give me one more chance to have another guy win ‘er.
Cross my heart and I hope to die.
I’ll never, never, never tell another white lie.
I can’t sing the song without seeing Ebert and the happy look on his round face and in his eyes—those eyes that had watched, by his count, approximately 10,000 movies. I never will sing it without thinking of him. Ever.