Upon entering the resplendently restored Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign, IL this past Saturday, my first thought was, 'If only Roger Ebert had lived to see this.' The rest of the visit there that afternoon was bittersweet. My partner and I, longtime Ebertfest-goers, walked around and took-in the Virginia in all her rediscovered glory. The murals, the stencils, the new licks of paint, the repaired masonry, it was all so beautiful. The new chairs? Eh, well, nothing is perfect.
And now, a few days later, we are about to begin Roger Ebert's 15th Annual Ebertfest, but without Roger Ebert. The film critic died earlier this month, and this will mark the first time the festival has taken place with its namesake dead (he did not attend one year due to health issues, but was active on his blog during the course of the festival). It is unclear how the festival will unfold this time around. Probably as normal, with a few misty-eyes and remembrances thrown in for good measure.
I do believe that Ebert will be there in spirit. Not his ghost, mind. No, he will be there because the building is there, because it is so handsomely re-emboldened (no doubt due in-part to the success of prior Ebertfests). He will be there because of us, the film-goers, the guests, and his beloved wife, Chaz. Most of all, he will be there because of the movies, those lovely bits of film-making glory that so excited him and that he wanted to share with us. Indeed, Roger Ebert suffused the Virginia Theatre with his presence ten-fold. And us. He was and is with all of us now.
Still, I wish he'd been able to see the Virginia as it is now.