CHICAGO — There's a vacant seat in the critics' screening room on Lake Street where Roger Ebert used to sit.
I was privileged to share more than a few screenings with Ebert, back in the day when I was sometimes working as a movie critic, mostly in the '90s, but I can't share any tales of him cracking wise during a film, like some robot out of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."
He did indeed attend screenings — no getting videos sent for him to watch at home, not when I knew him — and he was all business. We knew each other, and I knew he was a fellow Illinois and Daily Illini alumnus, but there weren't any secret handshakes or collegiality. To me, sharing an elevator back down to street level, Ebert gave off an almost competitive vibe, as if in his silence he was saying, "I'm going back to the Sun-Times office now, to kick your behind."
And far more often than not he did. He wrote like a wizard and found insight where other critics only yawned.
So the competition between Ebert and Gene Siskel was genuine as well. Yes, they respected each other, but Ebert had won a Pulitzer for criticism, where Siskel never would, and Siskel always seemed to resent that a little. One got the impression that Ebert never even needed to remind him of it.
At the screening room, a small theater of about 50 seats at 70 E. Lake St., there was a chair in the back corner, right next to the door, that belonged to Ebert.
No one else was ever to sit there. It was unwritten, unspoken, but it was enforced. And no screening could begin until both Ebert and Siskel were there.
One morning, before seeing some movie I've long since forgotten, Ebert kept all the rest of us — the dozen or so working critics in town — waiting well past the designated show time. I do remember that just that morning, however, he had given Wesley Snipes' "Sugar Hill" four stars.
I remember because of the following exchange:
"Where the hell's Roger?" some critic wondered.
"He's probably still opening the fruit basket he got from Wesley Snipes," Siskel said.
But I won't give Siskel the last word. Not today.
One of the rare times Ebert violated his utter professionalism was entirely justified. It was during a screening of the first "Austin Powers" movie, "International Man of Mystery," when Mike Myers' title character says, "This is my happening, baby, and it freaks me out."
Ebert, it's said by fellow critics who were there, blurted out the line almost in tandem with Myers — because he'd written it in the screenplay for Russ Meyer's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" more than a quarter-century before.
Myers had clearly tossed it in as a knowing '70s-era homage to Ebert.
Today it is entirely your happening, Roger, you consummate pro, and it freaks us all out.
Ted Cox covers City Hall for DNAinfo.com Chicago.