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Dead: Roger Ebert, A film critic with the soul of a poet; The Time I Had Dinner With Ebert and Russ Meyer

The rival Chicago Tribune had this to say about Roger Ebert who passed away today at the age of 70:

It was reviewing movies that made Roger Ebert as famous and wealthy as many of the stars who felt the sting or caress of his pen or were the recipients of his televised thumbs-up or thumbs-down judgments. But in his words and in his life he displayed the soul of a poet whose passions and interests extended far beyond the darkened theaters where he spent so much of his professional life.

Prolific almost to the point of disbelief—the Weekend section of the Sun-Times often featured as many as nine on some days. Ebert reviews on any given Friday—Ebert was arguably the most powerful movie critic in the history of that art form. He was also the author of 15 books, a contributor to various magazines, author of the liveliest of bloggers and an inspiring teacher and lecturer at the University of Chicago..


Like General Motors and the US Post Office, the late Russ Meyer was truly an American institution. Your classic man’s man usually seen with a Clark Gable mustache, Meyer was about patriotism, country, and camaraderie. But he was also about big boobs, gormandizing and libation.

If you connected with Russ Meyer on any of those half dozen levels you probably got into his inner circle, and once you did, Russ wasn’t the kind to let you pick up a tab. The trick was getting close enough to where Russ could size you up, bond and elect to teach you the secret handshake.

I was lucky. I got to interview him [over the phone], and Meyer later told me when we met that was the best article ever written about him. Those were his exact words.

[A reference to that interview is made in the Meyer biog, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws by Jimmy McDonough who used my quote about actress Lorna Maitland, one of Meyer’s pneumatic protégés, hating Russ’ guts.]

I’d say Meyer was being overly generous with his praise about my article, but I’ll bet he was like that with everyone who took the pains to write one. At least that’s how I know he and film critic Roger Ebert hooked up back in the Sixties – when Ebert interviewed him – and later became Meyer’s comrade-in-arms and co-conspirator on a number of film projects, including the infamous Beyond The Valley of the Dolls.

And that’s pretty much how I met Meyer and Ebert and wound up judging a big boob contest one night with them. Which was back in Chicago when the VSDA was still holding its summer shows in the Windy City.

“Sirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” said Meyer, rolling his R’s with the grand profundity of an orator, as we shake hands. Meyer always addressed you as “sir”. Here was a guy whose movies I used to watch all the time at the Devon Art Theater in Philadelphia , and now I’m hobnobbing with him in the flesh, talking about my own little fetish – big asses.

But butts weren’t his thing. So Meyer shows me a photo of his latest find/squeeze as if it’s the trump card in a discussion that had possibilities of going on forever.

“The Magnificent Tuuuuuuuuuuuuuuundi,” Meyer announces like a carnival barker knowing hers was the hoochie-coochie act that would bring the house down. Which it pretty much did.

The Magnificent Tundi is or was a blonde German stripper with paranormal, watermelon-sized breasts. Hard to believe, but they were naturals. No artificial preservatives were ever allowed in a Russ Meyer recipe or a Russ Meyer woman which made his quests to find them a bit more difficult.

Meyer was in the process of making a documentary about The Magnificent Tundi, though I’m fairly certain that project never saw the light of day.
Russ was also in the middle of writing his memoirs [which he did arduously by hand on legal pad].

When finished many years later, they’d occupy two phone book-sized volumes. Meyer sent me the early galleys. The book was written in Meyer-speak, obviously his tone-of-voice and quite authentic.

Casual conversation is one thing, but rendered on the printed page, Meyer-ese becomes something else entirely complex – a rambling series of compound-complex sentences with maddening parenthetical interjections and digressions, albeit, very meticulous in its summation of fact. Meyer had an amazing gift of recall.

We never got to discuss his finished work because, by then, Russ was already starting to lose it, didn’t even know who he was talking to when I called one afternoon, plus he was embroiled in an ugly legal fracas with another girlfriend, Melissa Mounds which pretty much ended his life on a very sad note.

Knowing that he had photographed her on a number of occasions, I began asking Russ about June “The Body” Wilkinson. To put this in perspective, I was in eighth grade when Wilkinson starred in Career Girl.

Career Girl was one of those notorious films to make it on to the Catholic Legion of Decency’s “Forbidden” list for whatever reasons, which I imagine in this case were the suggestive posters featuring Wilkinson wrapped in a towel.

Otherwise, the movie itself is fairly innocuous and quite tame, but I would make it my solemn duty to watch every one of those films so designated by the “Legion”, and, so doing, always wondered what taboo was involved or being broken.

Meyer tells me Wilkinson, now 70, was his next door neighbor and that he would arrange for a future get-together. You could have knocked me over with a tit. Of course I’m flabbergasted because as a 13 year-old I could only imagine what was behind that towel. Plus the fact that Wilkinson went on to marry quarterback Dan Pastorini when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles was something I never really held against her. Bygones.

During the course of our chat, Meyer’s also showing me a flyer advertising a big boob contest being held at some out of the way strip club in the Chicago suburbs and that he’s been asked to judge it. He wonders if I’m interested in tagging along because he sure as hell isn’t going by himself, he says. For the adventure, yeah, of course, I’d go.

So while Russ and I continue to discuss the wonders of June Wilkinson, The Magnificent Tundi and big boob contests, who stops by Russ’ RM Productions booth at the Convention Center, but another adult industry legend, Dave Friedman.

Friedman had been working on his own autobiography A Youth in Babylon, so he and Russ compare some notes including some mutual recollections about strip club operator Pete DeCenzie and Meyers’ association with DeCenzie in the making of The Immoral Mr. Teas. DeCenzie and Meyer had a subsequent falling out. Meyer could accept you generously into his fiefdom but could also dismiss you with a casual flick of his finger, which is what happened there.

This is crazy, I’m thinking to myself, that I’m in the crossfire of two men whose oeuvre and camera tricks I knew backwards and frontwards. By this time, Russ was already planning his itinerary for the evening and asking Friedman to join us for dinner, which I’m sure would entail the strip club invite, being as how that would have been the catch. Friedman begs off because these conventions tend to drag you all over the social map. So Meyer gets on the phone and calls the next logical person – Roger Ebert.

Ebert shows up later to the restaurant casually dressed with an open-neck shirt. Russ mentions the fact that I’m editor of AVN and Ebert without missing a beat says I’m the subject of some whimsical posting for the amusement of all to read on the Chicago Sun-Times bulletin board. Which I can’t even begin to imagine.

“It’s the funniest thing I ever read,” says Ebert. Meyer’s got to know, and Ebert explains that it’s a “retraction” involving some apparent misinformation concerning Lisa DeLeeuw’s first anal scene and Ebert recites the item, rote.

Some joker apparently clipped the item out of an AVN and tacked it on to the board. My guess was Ebert. Ya gotta get important information like this right, I comment.

Ebert, after explaining to me exactly what constitutes membership in the Russ Meyer fellowship club, exchanges some recollections with Meyer about Beyond The Valley of the Dolls, but Ebert’s also got a sense there’s more to this dinner invitation than meets the eye. That’s when Meyer explains he’s been recruited as this judge, and Ebert winces.

Ebert’s not too crazy about the idea of joining up, figuring this is all he needs for a potentially scandalous story like that to get out. Meyer spends most of the meal convincing him otherwise and to be a sport.

With Ebert joining us in Meyer’s mud-caked Jeep Cherokee after dinner, it’s quite dark, and it almost strikes me that this club is somewhere in the backwoods with Meyer having no exact idea where he’s going. How we get there is anyone’s guess, and, as it turns out, we’re the three lone judges.

Ebert’s face sours because the contestants aren’t exactly the girls you might write home about. Meyer makes a few sarcastic witticisms, and I recall taking some notes for an article, trying to come up with polite ways of saying “homely” and “fucking ugly.”

As memory serves correct, because I chatted with her about it years later, Jeannie Pepper wound up winning the contest which had to be by default since she was the most normal looking of the contestants.

Ebert had an early day, so Meyer dropped him where he needed to go but wanted to continue the evening in cowboy style. I know I was being a pussy, but I had a convention to cover and backed off from further adventure. All I know is Russ went off somewhere down the road looking for a bar.

Judging by his face the next morning, I think he found it.


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