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Chicago nightlife with Ebert

John Prine concert Proviso East H.S. Maywood 2010. Phoby Scott Stewart/Sun-Times

John Prine in concert at Proviso East H.S. in Maywood in 2010. Photo by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times

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Updated: May 8, 2013 6:48AM

If you were fortunate enough to come up in Chicago media in the late 1970s, you saw the brightest lights of the big city. The wild ride of Jimmy Reed on a Friday night, the romance of John Prine on a Saturday evening. Word spread from characters who shot from the hip: Jay Robert Nash. Paul Galloway (late Sun-Times, Tribune feature writer).

Roger Ebert.

Roger held court at the most colorful version of O’Rourke’s at 319 W. North Avenue. He roared like the MGM lion, he had the span of an eagle. O’Rourke’s was a scene beyond Hoffman and Redford.

The bar was part of the Friday night “Bermuda Triangle” flight pattern for Roger and his posse: Riccardo’s after work, O’Rourke’s and the Old Town Ale House for those left standing. Roger took time to get to know you — even if you were a 25-year-old kid fresh out of suburban journalism. He became a mentor for so many.

“Roger could command that front corner of O’Rourke’s,” Tribune columnist Rick Kogan said on Friday. “Poetry reading from memory. The occasional Irish ballad or the impromptu stinging witticism. There was serious competition from such loquacious characters as (Sun-Times columnist) Tom Fitzpatrick, Mike Royko, Roger’s best friend John McHugh and photographer Jack Lane.”

They shared a stage.

Roger’s diverse interests enabled him to seamlessly play off of each character.

He taught young writers the value of knowing a lot about a lot of things. Roger gave a thumbs down to myopia.

For example, Roger was the first journalist to discover future Grammy winning songwriter John Prine. Roger wandered into the Fifth Peg, a tiny bar on West Armitage Avenue where Prine was playing to a handful of people. He was attracted to Prine’s songs like “Angel From Montgomery” and “Hello In There,” which are their own small movies. “I was drawing maybe 14 people,” Prine said from Nashville. “After the article came out, they turned the house every time I did a show.”

Roger and Prine developed a regular-guy connection. Prine explained, “He never talked about movies as a superintellectual or [would] tell you about the lighting. It was about the emotion. I’d tell him every time I went to a movie, whether it was bad or good, I was that person for at least a half-hour. When I saw Audie Murphy in ‘To Hell and Back,’ I’d pass by a used car dealer and jump on the hood and shoot down all these Japanese with a machine gun. If it was John Wayne, I’d walk like John Wayne in the movies daring somebody to draw against me. Roger loved that. He helped me see that.”

In 1979, Roger had been reading a section of M.F.K. Fisher’s “The Art of Eating” about pacing yourself. He stopped drinking. He gained focus. Ten years later, he met Chaz Hammelsmith, his future wife.

Former Chicago photographer and former Allman Brothers road manager Kirk West attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the late 1970s with Roger at the Mustard Seed on the Near North Side. “He was very articulate, forthcoming and recognizable,” West recalled from his home in Macon, Ga. “He was very helpful, in much the same way as Eric Clapton was. When you have celebrities, the reaction oftentimes is completely opposed. Some people fawn all over famous people. Some people treat them like just another drunk. Eric Clapton would greet everybody as they came into a meeting. It immediately took the star power away. And Roger was as accessible in the meetings as he was on television.”

Kogan reflected: “For those of us who knew Roger when he drank, it was easy to believe that booze was the fuel for his glorious and glitzy conversational style. It was a pleasure to realize after he stopped drinking that was not the case, but that’s who Roger really was.”

Roger was seen everywhere.

He would veer off to the iconic Earl of Old Town, another late-night joint that was within walking distance of the Ale House. “He loved Martin, Bogan & Armstrong (the last of the African-American string bands) to no end,” club owner Earl Pionke said on Friday. “Gus [Johns, the manager] would sit him in the corner. We served cheeseburgers until 4 o’clock.”

Prine added, “Roger would go from Holsteins to Orphan’s, Kingston Mines to Earl’s. And he still found time to go to the movies!”

About a month ago Roger emailed his order for his beloved Steak ’n Shake steakburgers for his EbertFest, which is April 17-21 in Champaign. “He let me know we were going to sponsor the [Spanish] silent film ‘Blancanieves,’” said Jim Flaniken, senior vice president of marketing at Steak ’n Shake. “His final email to me was about the film, and he said black-and-white had a nice resonance with Steak ’n Shake. Each email he would sign off in a unique way using one of our slogans.

“In sight, it must be right.”

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