Visitors to the central Illinois theater that hosts the annual "Ebertfest" film festival he started now may feel like they saw him at the movies. A life-sized bronze statue of the longtime Chicago Sun-Times critic will be formally unveiled Thursday outside of the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, which is next to Urbana, where Ebert grew up.
His wife, Chaz Ebert, described the statue as "interactive art," because it shows her late husband giving his famous "thumbs up" sign and sitting between two empty theater seats where visitors can sit.
"Roger, he would feel honored that someone wanted to do this for him, but he almost would feel embarrassed because he was so modest," Chaz Ebert said. "But he would be very grateful that they thought enough of him to do it."
Ebert died at age 70 after a long battle with cancer. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975, becoming the first film critic to do so, and he became a household name through his nationally syndicated column and the television show he co-hosted with Gene Siskel, a Chicago Tribune film critic who died in 1999.
The statue will remain outside the Virginia Theatre during this week's festival, which ends Sunday. Organizers hope to have it permanently installed outside the theater over the summer.
"It will instantly become an icon in Champaign," Virginia Theatre director Steven Bentz said. "It will be positioned in a way that you will have the marquee of the theater behind it."
The statue was made by Normal artist Rick Harney and is called "C-U at the Movies." Festival organizer Donna Anderson said she got the idea when she saw a similar sculpture Harney made of former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson.
"That's how so many of us remember him, sitting in the theater seat with his thumb up," she said. Anderson's husband, Scott Anderson, said a $112,500 fundraising campaign to pay for the statue is about $18,000 short, but they're confident they'll raise the money.
Spike Lee and Oliver Stone are among those slated to attend this year's Ebertfest, which celebrates films that may not have received the recognition they deserved when they first ran. Before his death, Ebert made a long list of movies that he would want played at his festival, and Chaz Ebert said she and festival director Nate Kohn would pick films from that list and others they think her husband would have liked when choosing the lineup each year.
"We probably have enough movies for the next ten years," she said.