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Roger Ebert and the Princess Theater

Yesterday brought the news of Roger Ebert’s passing. It also brought to a close more than forty years of turning to his reviews on the movies of the day. It began with train commutes to summer jobs in Chicago. The Sun-Times was the right size to hold while sitting next to other passengers,  and slightly more liberal than the Chicago Tribune.

Two years ago I completed a walking tour pastcast for Urbana, Illinois, entitled, “In Lincoln’s Shadow.” The challenge was to connect the city with the presence of our greatest president, who practiced law here while on the circuit. However, no buildings — except possibly one house — remained from the 1840s and 1850s. Instead, the scripts reflect themes about Lincoln’s association with Urbana — he, for example, signed legislation establishing land grant colleges, leading to the founding of the University of Illinois.

One theme brings us back to Roger Ebert. Lincoln had friends in town, and in the evenings when the court had adjourned, enjoyed lively local entertainments. In much the same way, Roger Ebert, an Urbana boy, fondly recalled his visits to the historic Princess Theatre where he gained an early love of movies.

City of Gold

In this 1957 classic film, Pierre Berton talks about his hometown of Dawson City. A recollection of the Klondike gold rush at its height, City of Gold used still photographs to compare Dawson City of the gold rush era with the town in the 1950s. It is, in essence, the “Ken Burns” technique years before that filmmaker’s breakthrough documentary, Brooklyn Bridge.

The documentary began when Colin Low visited the Public Archives in Whitehorse, Canada, and found 200 photographs taken by A. E. Hegg during the Gold Rush in 1898-99. These 8 × 10 glass plate negatives had been found in wooden boxes in a sod-roofed log house, but were fortunately saved and restored. The plates provided incredibly sharp images; photographer Hegg brought an eye for faces and context to his work. This is a real gem, lasting around twenty-one minutes.