For awhile there, Pat Embry was on pace to watch as many movies as anyone who ever attended the UI — a university that counts as its alums famed critics Roger Ebert and Gene Shalit.
“Before Netflix, before HBO and Turner Classic Movies, and definitely before giant multiplexes with full-service bars and comfy seats, a malnourished movie fan from tiny Mackinaw, Illinois could get a belly full of cheap cinematic entertainment without leaving the U of I campus,” recalls the 1979 journalism grad, now the director of media and community relations for the Nashville-based Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
“As many as a dozen or more venues big, small and in-between showed second-run to classic films every night for not much more than the price of a beer and a taco at Murphy’s.
“Imagine seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ for the first time on the Auditorium’s giant screen, with hundreds of fellow plot-ignorant patrons shrieking at the shower scene. Speaking of moms, I took mine to a midnight showing of The Marx Brothers ‘A Night at the Opera’ on Mom’s Day weekend.
“Westerns, war movies, screwball comedies, Charlie Chaplin silents — it didn’t matter. Sam Pecklnpah’s slow-mo shoot-’em-up ‘The Wild Bunch’ at Lincoln Hall. Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep” at McKinley Foundation. Legendary director Frank Capra taking questions from the audience after a screening of his ‘Lost Horizon’ at Gregory Hall.
“I had it bad, sometimes loading up with as many as three movies for a day-night-midnight tripleheader. How about ‘Birth of a Nation’ solo on a Monday night — for fun! And hard to forget ‘Deep Throat’ at Altgeld Hall with a date — now known as ‘the ex’ — who headed full-run to the exit before Linda Lovelace even made it out of the opening kitchen scene. My money was hastily refunded at the door.
“Serious film study beckoned, as well. I took six or seven film courses for credit: Hitchcock, horror, German, comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank the Academy and the Illinois taxpayers for footing the bill for those particular course credits.’
“Syllabi were procured for other courses just for the opportunity to show up for choice daytime screenings. Had it bad, I tell ya.
“My student journalism career included highlights akin to those eloquently reminisced by others on these digital pages. See former DI colleagues Russ Mitchell and Ken Paulson. Later, in a more than quarter-century newspaper career, I actually served as movie critic for the Nashville Banner. The film fanaticism came in handy, even for reviewing middling Brat Pack flicks.
“Once in college, while thumbing through the dailies in our subterranean student newspaper lair, a couple of us young punks discovered a rare factual error in a Chicago Sun-Times movie review. So then and there, we decided to call the most famous former Daily Illini editor-in-chief of them all to alert him, one DI staffer to another, about the flub.
“‘Thanks, kid!’ said Roger Ebert, sounding just like Roger Ebert. It was a thumbs-up kind of a moment.”