It was the late '70s. I was 10 or 11 years old, and quickly coming to realize that I wasn't good at much of anything. If you've ever wondered who paved the way for today's "Participant" and "Thanks for Showing Up" trophies, look no further.
But man, did I love movies. I personified the cliché of the nerdy kid who, with nothing but a bowl haircut and a profound lack of social skills, found total escape in the worlds created on the big screen. These were the days before VCRs, so when my favorite movies would finally air on TV, I would put my Radio Shack cassette recorder up to the tiny console TV speaker and capture the audio. Yup, while everyone else at school was listening to top 40, I was listening to the tinny recordings of my most-loved films.
Into this world came Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, and they would change my life.
I watched their first show, "Sneak Previews," religiously. Here were two of the smartest and most interesting people I'd ever seen whose actual job it was to sit and talk about movies.
Listening to them every week, I began to feel smart. More importantly, they showed me that people who had a passionate love of movies could actually be something. A great movie was a work of art that could tell a story about the world, or the human condition. The more I watched Siskel and Ebert, the more closely I looked at my favorite movies and, as with my favorite books, found pieces of myself in them.
I got to meet Gene Siskel in 1998, when I was a finalist in a nationwide "You Be the Movie Critic" contest. I'll never forget him smiling and nodding as I delivered my review of "Twister" to him, or the way I stood there stunned when he gave me the "thumbs up" that named me the winner. We got to talk about movies, and how especially perfect "The Full Monty" was. I have his autograph, in which he signed "Art: 2 Thumbs Up!" framed on my wall, and named one of our cats "Siskel" in his honor.
In 1999, I was home sick when my wife called to tell me of Gene Siskel's death. I felt my heart sink. A childhood hero, one who had shaken my hand and told me that had he loved something I had done, was suddenly just … gone.
Ebert continued, doing what he did best. I watched him keep the show going with Richard Roeper, and read him every week online. Even when he lost his jaw and ability to speak, he persevered. His love of movies - and talking about them, even without a voice - endured.
I was sitting at my desk at school, where I now utilize film criticism as a high school drama teacher, when my wife emailed me about Ebert's death on April 4. Just as it had in 1999, my heart sank. And now here I am, choking up as I write this. I realize it sounds clichéd; after all, I never met Ebert. I know now that the way he spoke and wrote, with such heart and purity, made me feel like we had met. That we were friends in our love and passion for all that movies are, can be, and can do for the world.
I now realize that when I was curled up in front of their show, they had made me feel like I was the third part of their critic's circle. I was there in the balcony, bowl haircut and all, learning a hell of a lot without my ever knowing it. For the first time, I belonged. I'll never forget that.
Farewell, Roger. Farewell, Gene. I guess the balcony really is closed. I'll see you at the movies, and please, save me the aisle seat.
Art Almquist teaches drama at Tucson High Magnet School. He can be reached at email@example.com