Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert was the "heart and soul" of the University of Colorado's Conference on World Affairs, providing cinematic insight and comic relief over four decades, say those in Boulder who knew him.
After participating in the CWA for the first time in 1970, Ebert became a fixture at the weeklong conference. His "Cinema Interruptus" sessions became something of a legend, as crowds learned to dissect films through the eyes of a critic.
Ebert died Thursday after a long battle with cancer.
"We're grieving," CWA Director Jim Palmer said. "We've lost a friend of 40 years. It's hard to put into words what Roger meant to the conference. He has the capacity to be friends with many people, and when he spoke at the conference people in the audience felt that he was speaking directly to them."
Ebert attended the CWA every year between 1970 and 2010 except 1995, when there was no conference, and 2007 and 2008, when he was recovering from surgeries related to his illness.
The CWA includes panel discussions and presentations on the CU campus covering "everything conceivable" each April. The 65th conference begins Monday.
In 2009, Ebert wrote in a blog about the conference: "Here more than anywhere else I have heard for the first time about more new things, met more fascinating people who have nothing to do with the movies, learned more about debate, and trained under fire to think on my feet."
In 1975, Ebert and CWA founder Howard Higman launched "Cinema Interruptus," a series of film screenings over the course of a week in which audience members yell "stop!" to pause the movie and ask questions or make comments.
The popular feature was renamed the "Ebert Interruptus" in 2011, the first year Ebert stopped attending the conference after losing his power of speech from his cancer treatment.
Palmer, who once called Ebert the "heart and soul" of the CWA, said he appreciated Ebert's candor -- whether it was discussing his fight with alcoholism or his cancer -- his courage and his eagerness to engage himself deeply in many aspects of the CWA.
"He was an intellectual sponge," Palmer said. "I think that is one of the reasons he loved coming to the conference."
Seattle film critic and longtime friend Jim Emerson hosted the Interruptus the past two years after working alongside Ebert in 2010. Emerson is dealing with health issues of his own this year and will miss the CWA.
On Thursday, he expressed sadness at the death of his friend.
"I was afraid that this would happen at some point, but in so many ways I thought, 'Eh, he'll outlive us all,'" Emerson said. "Some of my best memories of Roger are at the CWA, and he was just absolutely in his element there."
Ebert's loss was felt by many people in the Boulder community.
Boulder-born cyclist and former world champion Taylor Phinney on Thursday tweeted, "The @dailycamera used to have @ebertchicago movie reviews on Fridays when I was younger. A highlight of my week, every week. Rest in peace!"
Many of Ebert's favorite Boulder-area hangouts, such as Daddy Bruce's Bar-B-Que and the Stage House II bookstore, have closed, but The Red Lion Restaurant remains. The restaurant was the location of an annual dinner Ebert organized during the conference, where he would gather with friends to share stories and jokes.
Red Lion owner Chris Mueller remembers that several years ago Ebert came in and surprised him by saying it was his 38th visit to the restaurant.
"He really was fond of us, and it was clearly something he loved dearly because the same group came always," said Mueller, who noted a documentary crew making a film about Ebert will visit the Red Lion this weekend.
Actor and screenwriter Terrence McNally is set to review "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" for this year's Ebert Interruptus at the CWA.
McNally, an 11-year CWA veteran, was emotional Thursday when thinking about his past interactions with Ebert. He said he was already honored by the invitation to host the Interruptus and, in light of Ebert's death, he feels even more honored at the chance to carry on the event. He said he will be inspired by Ebert's memory, adding: "He'll be there anyway."
"People at the conference know he was so much more than most people know," McNally said. "For all his celebrity ... he was just such a great guy."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Joe Rubino at 303-473-1328 or email@example.com.