Sheldon The Wonderhorse

Eating Apples Since 1969
AUGUST 16, 2010 9:17AM

The Balcony Is Closed

Rate: 15 Flag

This weekend marked the end of an era. An era that started 35 years ago in a small television studio in Chicago, and it went out just like it came in: quiet, unassuming, and with very little fanfare.

Sneak Previews first aired on September 4, 1975 on Chicago's PBS station WTTW as a once-a-month show (shown only in Chicagoland for the first two years) and was originally titled Opening Soon At A Theatre Near You. The premise was simple: two film critics from opposing daily papers talking about current films. But what a find they had in those two critics: tall, lanky Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune and short, stocky Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times.

By 1979, Sneak Previews was syndicated to public broadcasting stations all over the country, and became the highest rated series in the history of public broadcasting.
I discovered Sneak Previews when I was about 10 and became a fan right away. I mean, here were two people who looked like people I was related to, and they were on tv. And they were arguing. About something I loved - the movies. I can remember seeing their review of a film called Magic (which Siskel really liked and put it on his list of the 10 best films of 1978), and they showed a clip that scared me out of my 10 year old mind. In it, ventriloquist Anthony Hopkins finds out from his agent Burgess Meredith that he's going to be featured on a television special. Meredith leaves, and the dummy Fats looks into the mirror and says, "We're gonna be sTAA-Rrs!"

Like I said, it scared the shite out of me. Yet, I was intrigued, and here were two grown men talking about the merits of a movie about a murderous dummy. My love of film began.

As I got older, I followed Gene and Roger when they eventually left PBS for syndication through Buena Vista Television (a division of Disney) and the show became At The Movies (Sneak Previews would live on PBS with different hosts, but was eventually cancelled in 1996). Siskel & Ebert were known for basically two things: The Thumbs Up/Down rating system, and their fights. But for me, the show was about more than just two guys arguing. It was about men who felt passionately about an art form, and when something didn't live up to what they felt it should have, they called the filmmakers out. On the surface, you thought the two men absolutely hated each other. But over the years, you began to realize that not only did they like each other, but they respected each other. When I watched Siskel and Ebert, they sounded like my friends and I after we saw something and went out afterwards to discuss the movie (only S&E were much more intelligent and had less fart noises thrown in). 

A lot of people felt that Siskel & Ebert dumbed down film criticism, by taking it to television and their Thumbs Up system. Frankly, I couldn't disagree more. In fact, Sneak Previews/At the Movies actually made its viewers smarter about film. It introduced documentaries to a wider public. It introduced foreign films to a wider public. It introduced indie films to a wider public. It reintroduced classic films to a wider public. The first time I ever saw Casablanca was because Siskel and Ebert said it was a must-see. Same goes for Citizen Kane, The Third Man, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and 2001: A Space Odyssey. They have my eternal thanks for that. They showed that there is more to film than the latest overblown Hollywood schlock. They not only talked about current films, but also about current trends: colorization, whether horror films are mysoginistic, and the advent of home video. I still belive one of the main reasons most dvds are now letterboxed is because of the constant urging by Siskel & Ebert that that was the way movies in the home were meant to be seen.

When Gene Siskel died in 1999, many thought the show couldn't go on. Yet, Ebert decided to continue and brought along Sun Times columist Richard Roeper. That incarnation lasted though 2008 when Ebert was on medical leave and Roeper announced his departure.  Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz were announced as hosts, and the result was pretty much a train wreck. Luckily, that pairing only lasted one season, and AO Scott of the New York Times and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune were brought in, as the show was restructured once again, this time going back to basics. Once again, intelligent film talk was on the air.

At The Movies never seemed to get the respect it deserved, even though it earned  seven Emmy nominations over its run. Even in its hometown of Chicago, syndicators never seemed to know what to do with it. I'm guessing there was never a show that has been pre-empted and moved around more than At The Movies. Sometimes you would find it on at 6:30 on a Saturday night, the next week it would be on at 4:15 on Sunday morning, surrounded by informercials and paid advertisement. They would then complain about low ratings. Here's the deal: it's kind of hard to watch a show if you keep moving it around. The fact that it lasted as long as it did is pretty remarkable in itself. 

The bottom line is this: Sneak Previews/At the Movies has been a part of my weekend ritual since 1979, and now it's gone, and for me, the world is a little bit cloudier because of it.  The very first show to ever put two film critics together to debate is now a part of history. Ebert, whose voice has been silenced by his bout with cancer, is still writing reviews for the Chicago Sun Times and has one of the best and most widely-read & respected blogs out there. He has said that he is working on a weekly review program that would bring the Thumbs Up/Down back . I hope he is successful - it would be a perfect fit for such cable channels as AMC or Turner Classic. It's an important show to have around - more than just something that links a bunch of movie clips together. Thank you to the all the hosts, but especially Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel for helping to ignite something that has given me so much joy over the years.

The balcony may be closed for now, but luckily, the movies are still open. If we hurry, we should be able to make the first matinee, and once again, get lost in that beautiful flickering light.  

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Wonderful post. I share your enthusiasm for the history of the program and mourn its passing. Thanks for blogging this, Sheldon-who-usually-writes-about-wedding-planning-and-makes-me-laugh-Wonderhorse.
I am so with you on this. It was one of the shows I looked forward to viewing as I love films. I enjoyed the banter and the differences in opinions. I was alerted to many movies I would have never been exposed to because of Ebert and Siskel.
Excellent, Sheldon. I enjoyed Siskel & Ebert, though I rarely saw the movies they discussed. I lost interest when Siskel died. The two were cordial, affable, honest, and interesting. I get the sense, however, that they didn't see themselves as a "team." They were independent critics whom circumstance had put together. Clearly their impact on your life was profound. A wonderful tribute.
I appreciated Siskel and Ebert's work together for all the reasons you mentioned. It was never quite the same after Gene Siskel died. The chemistry wasn't quite right with Richard Roeper.

I'm grateful for the way that the show opened up a larger world of films I hadn't yet explored, as well as encouraging intelligent debate.
They came on every Saturday afternoon at just the right time. It was after the weekend chores were done and yet it was too early for dinner. Although I wouldn't agree with their choices I still watched. The best thing about the show was even when they totally disagreed with each other they still did it with respect. If only the talking heads of the so called "news" shows could learn to act like that.
Thanks, all. Nice to know I wasn't the only one!

For an interesting spin on the whole Siskel & Ebert model, check out Sound Opinions on NPR. Two rock critics from Chicago, pick up where Gene & Roger left off, and adopt the format for music. Pretty interesting stuff.
Sheldon, you're spot on. S&E introduced me to movies I never would've heard of otherwise. My only - and I mean only - complaint was that Siskel admitted to not liking science fiction movies. He nearly always gave those films a poor review. Sure, most of them deserved poor reviews, but .... S&E were a pure joy to watch when they profiled a small indie that they both loved. And hilarious when they both hated a Hollywood blockbuster.
My earliest memory of S&E involved a review of what I'm pretty sure was a Spanish soap opera TV movie. I swear, scout's honor, that that's true.

Two thumbs up.
Woah, was I really the first person to make the predictable "two thumbs up" comment?
Shelly I too have been a fan of S&E since childhood. I can remember every Sat morning waking up and on the only channel my family got on tv there they were. Telling us off all the movies wee would never see, telling us why those movies were worth the 5$ or why it was a thumbs down, not even worth the paper it was printed on...
I did not know that Ebert too has succumb to the big C as well. I wish him well.
And to you Shelly, I know you are sad for the passing of a childhood memory, but remember... Just remember you'll always have '{Forget} Paris'
Wow remind me never to comment while I am jacked up on Mountain Dew and pixie sticks...
Two thumbs up for your insight...
Great post - I loved the 2 Siskel & Ebert shows, too, and completely agree with you on what they did for movies.
Yup. Ebert is still my favorite movie critic, and I'm profoundly moved by what he has written about his bout with cancer and loss of ability to speak or even eat.

45 years ago I started reading him in the Sun Times. First time I ran into him in person, the first of many, he was standing on a table in an Irish Bar singing a bawdy song to an appreciative crowd. I will always treasure that memory.
Loved the show too. And cannot believe you found the scariest movie trailer ever. For me, it was only a vague memory. A scarey movie about a ventriloquist? Surely it had been a childhood nightmare. But no, the Wonderhorse has brought the fear right back to the forefront. I'm sad to say, it still freaks me out.
Well said, Sheldon.......very well said. (carrots for your supper!)
Great job. I really enjoyed this show over the years, too.