RSS
How Roger Ebert got his start
In the chaos of the Chicago Sun-Times city room, says the famous film critic, I met my heroes and found my fate
Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1975: The celebrated movie critic shares memories from his city room days in his new memoir, "Life Itself."
Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1975: The celebrated movie critic shares memories from his city room days in his new memoir, "Life Itself."
Bettmann/CORBIS
F

OR A KID from downstate, Chicago was the great city over the horizon. We read Chicago's newspapers and listened to its powerful AM radio stations. Long after midnight I listened to Jack Eigen on WMAQ, broadcasting live from the Chez Paree, chatting with Martin and Lewis or Rosemary Clooney. Thomas Wolfe had taught me that my destiny waited in New York, but Chicago was obviously the first step on my path.

I walked up Wabash Avenue to the Sun-Times/Daily News Building, which looked like a snub-nosed ship on the banks of the Chicago River. A boat was moored at its dock, and a crane was offloading huge rolls of newsprint. Editors Jim Hoge and Ken Towers took me out the back way to lunch at Riccardo's and offered me a job. I would work under Dick Takeuchi, the editor of the paper's Sunday magazine. He was a cigar smoker, calm, confiding, tactfully showing a green kid the ropes. He gave me a desk close to his, in the back row of the city room. At lunch I began joining Takeuchi and Jack McPhaul, the magazine's copy editor, who wrote Deadlines and Monkeyshines, the best account of the Front Page era, when the Chicago dailies went at each other with hammer and tongs and hit men. He was my living connection to that era.

When Friday of my first week came around, I joined a general emigration to Riccardo's, where reporters from all four Chicago papers gathered to gobble free hors d'oeuvres. I felt a glow of camaraderie. I knew I lacked authenticity in this company. I was young and unseasoned, but I discovered there was nothing like drinking with the crowd to make you a member. I copied the idealism and cynicism of the reporters I met at Riccardo's and around the corner at the downscale but equally famous Billy Goat's. I spoke like they did, laughed at the same things, felt that I belonged.

At about 6 p.m. on New Year's Day of 1967, only two lights on the fourth floor were burning — mine and Mike Royko's. It was too early for the graveyard shift to come in. Royko walked over to the Sun-Times to see who else was working. A historic snowstorm was beginning. He asked me how I was getting home. I said I'd take the train. He said he had his old man's Checker car and would drop me at the L station. He had to make a stop at a 24-hour drugstore right where the L crossed North Avenue.

Royko at 35 was already the city's most famous newspaperman, known for complex emotions evoked with unadorned prose in short paragraphs. Growing up as the son of a saloon keeper, he knew how the city worked from the precinct level up, and had first attracted attention while covering city hall. He was 10 years older than me and had started at the old City News Bureau, the cooperative supported by all the dailies that provided front-line coverage of the police and fire departments. Underpaid and overworked kids worked under the hand of its editor, Arnold Dornfeld, who sat beneath a sign reading: IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT. When I met Royko, he'd been writing his Daily News column for two years. He chain-smoked Pall Malls and spoke in a gravelly poker player's voice. He drank too much, which to me was an accomplishment.

That snowy night the all-night drugstore was crowded. "Come on, kid," he said.

"Let's have a drink at the eye-opener place." He told me what an eye-opener was. "This place opens early. The working guys around here, they stop in for a quick shot on their way to the L." It was a bar under the tracks so tiny that the bartender could serve everyone without leaving his stool. "Two blackberry brandies and short beers," Royko said. He told me, "Blackberry brandy is good for hangovers. You never get charged for a beer chaser." I sipped the brandy, and a warm glow filled my stomach. It may have been the first straight shot of anything I'd ever tasted. I'd been in Chicago four months and I was sitting under the L tracks with Mike Royko in the eye-opener place. I was a newspaperman. A Blackhawks game was playing on WGN radio. The team scored, and again, and again. This at last was life.

"Jeez, they're scoring like crazy!" I said, after the third goal in less than a minute.

"Where you from, kid?"

"Urbana," I said.

"Ever seen a hockey game?"

"No."

"That's what I thought, you a--hole. Those are the game highlights."

I began to be welcome in Royko's cubicle. It amused him to explain the obvious to the downstate kid. He wrote on an old manual typewriter — not his own, just one from the office pool. His office was filled with newspapers, books, letters, coffee cups, ashtrays, and ties that he had taken off and thrown in the corner. He sat in a swivel chair with his back to the river, and there was a straight-backed chair for his visitors. He had a lot of visitors. Mike could have written his column at any time from anywhere and his editors would have been happy to have it, but he spent eight hours a day, sometimes longer, at the paper. He was the soul of the Daily News and the honorary soul, by osmosis, of the Sun-Times. No journalist in Chicago was more admired.

ON APRIL 1, 1967, the feature editor, Bob Zonka, called me into the conference room and told me I was being named the paper's film critic. He said Eleanor Keen, the current critic, was taking early retirement. When I walked back into the newsroom, Ellie was smiling across from her desk. She said she would finally not be asked five times a day if she'd seen any good movies lately. Actually what people are more likely to ask is, "How many movies do you see in a week?" They ask as if no one had ever thought of that question before. Gene Siskel told me that as an experiment he tried answering "Ten." He said people mostly just nodded and said, "Thanks."

I'd written a few reviews for my college newspaper, but being a movie critic was not my career goal. If I had one at all, it was to become a columnist like Royko. When the Daily News folded in 1978, Mike worked at the Sun-Times until Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in late 1983. This was a crushing blow to Mike. He went home and had a few drinks, and when the local TV stations brought their cameras into his den, he announced that a Murdoch paper was "not fit to wrap fish in."

The next afternoon I sat with him at Billy Goat's. "I guess I resigned, huh?"

"Murdoch doesn't care what you say about him," I said. "It's not what I said about him," Mike said. "It's that after describing a Murdoch paper that way, how can I work there?"

BEFORE THE Daily News folded, the city rooms of the two papers shared the fourth floor, separated by a glassed-in no-man's-land called the wire room, ruled by copyboys/pot dealers, where Teletypes chattered and printers turned out wirephotos. The city room was a noisy place to work. Typewriters hammered at carbon-copy books that made an impatient slap-slap-slap. Phones rang the way phones used to ring in the movies. Reporters shouted into them. They called out "Boy!" and held up a story, and a copykid ran to snatch it and deliver it to an editor. We worked at desks democratically lined up next to one another, row after row. Ann Landers (Eppie Lederer) had an office full of assistants somewhere else in the building but insisted on sitting in the middle of this chaos.

When you went on an interview, you took eight sheets of copy paper, folded them once, and ripped them in half using a pica stick. Then you folded them again. Now you had a notebook of 32 pages to slip in your pocket with your ballpoint. You had a press card. You were a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times. In the 1990s one of my young editors asked if it was really true they allowed reporters to smoke at their desks in the old days. Yes, and drink, too, if they could get away with it.

Reporters sent Milton the copyboy out the rear loading dock to Billy Goat's to fetch them a drink in a paper coffee cup. Billy Goat's was a dive so subterranean that after you were already on the lower level of Michigan Avenue you had to descend another flight of stairs. There really was a short-order cook like John Belushi's SNL character shouting, "Chizzbooger! Chizzbooger! Cheeps, no flies!"

Jim Hoge ruled a gifted staff that collected six Pulitzers. He once financed an elaborate sting in which the paper opened and operated a bar called the Mirage and was able to develop a 30-day series of articles about the graft and corruption involved. After Murdoch bought the paper, Hoge became the publisher of the New York Daily News and later the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. He was back in Chicago in early 2011, and at a brunch with some survivors of those days, he said, "We were right there on the edge of doing something great." There was still pain in his voice.

Bob Zonka became my best friend and father figure. He was a chain-smoker with thinning hair and a gut, and such charm that he was devastatingly successful with women. He was the last editor at the paper who worked himself up from copyboy, a passionate editor and a decent man. When Polish jokes were an epidemic in the 1970s, he refused to listen to them: "When a joke diminishes anyone, it diminishes me." At his funeral, Jon Anderson, a former Daily News columnist, said, "I spent more hours talking with Zonka than anyone except my three wives. And more quality time than with anyone."

Such, such were the days. There was adrenaline in the city room when a big story broke. The resignation of Nixon. The death of Mayor Richard J. Daley. The time when an L train derailed and we could see it from the office window. The afternoon when Jay McMullen — then the Daily News city hall reporter, later married to Mayor Jane Byrne — commandeered the paper's suite at the Executive House across the river and phoned the office to tell us to check out a balcony on the 17th floor. There he was, the phone to his ear, waving, standing next to a woman. They were both stark naked.

One day our columnist Bob Greene heard a five-bell alert ring on the AP wire and walked over to the machine. I looked up to see if it looked like anything. He walked over with tears in his eyes. "Elvis just died," he said.



From Life Itself, by Roger Ebert. ©2011 by Roger Ebert. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week