Life-size Roger Ebert statue planned for downtown Champaign

The nonprofit Public Art League plans to erect a statue of famed film critic Roger Ebert in front of the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.

The project has been in the works for more than two years, but its estimated $122,500 price tag prompted the league to ask for donations to complete it. Its unveiling is scheduled for the 2014 Ebertfest, which celebrates many of Ebert’s favorite, yet overlooked, films over the years.

The statue will replace the planter in front of the Virginia Theatre, and it will face north on the southwest corner of Park Avenue and Randolph Street.

Made from bronze, the six-foot-wide statue will depict Ebert giving a thumbs-up while sitting in one of three movie theater seats. Earlier in his career, Ebert would give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on TV to rate the movies he’d seen.

After years of suffering from cancer and other related health problems, Ebert died in early April.

He is one of the most famous film critics of all time, and he earned the first Pulitzer Prize for film criticism while working at The Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert began his career while he was a student at the University and as editor-in-chief of The Daily Illini.

The College of Media, the cities of Champaign and Urbana and the Champaign Park District are collaborating with the Public Art League to commission the life-size statue.

Donna Anderson, the travel agent for Ebertfest, and her husband Scott Anderson have spearheaded the project. Donna came up with the idea of the statue when she saw one of Adlai Stevenson at the Central Illinois Regional Airport near Bloomington, Ill. Like the statue at the airport, she wanted people to be able to sit next to the life-size Ebert sculpture and take pictures with it.

Rick Harney, a sculptor based in Normal, Ill., designed the statue as well as others around the state, including the Adlai Stevenson statue that inspired Anderson.

He made the first model of the Ebert statue in October from cardboard, plywood and Plastilina, an oil-based clay.

Since he first sculpted it, he has made only incremental changes: fleshing out the body and moving the three seats closer together. His original idea was to represent Ebert as a young adult. He also wanted to place the seats farther apart to represent the seating arrangement on the television show that Ebert shared with his critic counterpart Gene Siskel, who is not included in the latest model of the sculpture.

To better represent Ebert, Harney said he slimmed him down and portrayed him in his late 50s or early 60s, at the request of Chaz, Ebert’s wife.

“It was especially important to me to have something Mrs. Ebert was comfortable with,” Harney said.

Donna Anderson said she hopes the sculpture will help beautify the community in which Ebert grew up. Ebert’s contributions to the community have helped put Champaign-Urbana on the map.

“Roger has done a lot for this community, and it would be a great thing for everyone to have in front of the Virginia,” Anderson said. “He brought the festival here, and it would be a wonderful thing to honor him.”

Scott Anderson, who is in charge of the project’s fundraising, said most of statue’s costs will be covered by donations, and he plans to collect them over the next six weeks.

Ryan can be reached at weber34@dailyillini.com and @ryanjweber.