Festival Reflections: Long Term Sponsor and Volunteer Todd Salen remembers his favorite moments of Ebertfest

    Ebertfest is celebrating its 20th Anniversary and its dedication to Roger Ebert and his legacy. The festival has now shown over two hundred films, hosted over four hundred guests and trained hundreds of volunteers. Some of these volunteers have been around since before the start of the festival itself, including sponsor, volunteer and once part time Virginia Theatre employee Todd Salen. 

    Todd has been involved since the beginning when Roger and Chaz were first proposed the idea of starting Ebertfest. Personally knowing Roger and being involved with the festival for so many years comes with its fair share of memories from funny to sad. 

    Being close with Roger, a special memory that is shared between him and Todd was when they bumped into each other in the security line at the San Diego Airport. Just as Roger had always raved about Steak and Shake’s hamburgers having taken all of his friends and family there, Roger insisted that he and Todd get lunch at Nathan’s hot dogs. 

“It was evident that Nathan’s was arguably his favorite hot dog by the ways in which he critiqued the hot dog for almost twenty minutes as he would a film,” said Todd. “It’s a review of his that I’ll never forget.”

    One of Todd’s favorite guests that has ever been at the festival is Norman Lear who was at the festival for his film Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. He remembers listening to him and being fascinated by what he had to say about his life and the films he has worked on and that it inspired him to go and read Norman’s autobiography. 

“He took so many risks related to television and challenged the public conscious of what is acceptable and not acceptable,” said Todd. 

The memories that a stand out guest can bring to the audience of a film at Ebertfest are special. For Todd, his list includes Alan Rickman who wasn’t at the festival for his most known acting in Harry Potter, but rather for his more serious performance in his film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer in 2007. The audience that day really felt like they got to know Alan as he discussed his personal acting journey. 

Todd and other audience members were able to get a glimpse into Alan’s disappointment “that his performance in Harry Potter overshadowed his other great performances,” throughout his lifetime mentioned Todd. 

Another guest that stood out on his list was Donald O’Connor who came to Ebertfest for his film Singing in the Rain in 2003. “It was a really endearing moment,” said Todd when Donald talked about “performing at the Virginia Theatre when he was young and now the audience was listening to him talk to Roger about his experience with the movie when he was older and could look back.”
Ebertfest showcases a wide variety of films in which some resonate with the audience and some miss the mark, but “there are some movies that are absolute gems that our patrons would’ve never seen otherwise,” remarked Todd. 

If it wasn’t for Ebertfest and the films Roger wanted to show at the festival, Todd would’ve never seen some of his favorite movies such as Gates of Heaven and What’s Cooking? 

Todd’s most memorable moment from Ebertfest was when he was working part-time for the Virginia Theatre during Ebertfest and was assigned to “Roger duty.” This includes accompanying Roger into and out of the theatre and around the festival. Todd was assigned this job the last day of the 2012 festival. 

That Sunday, the festival had shown Citizen Kane “which was without a question one of Roger’s top three or four favorite movies, if not his favorite,” said Todd. Roger was no longer able to speak, his cancer having progressed far at this point in his life and as Todd walked out of the theatre with Chaz and Roger, he reminisced about the time when he and Roger shared Nathan’s hot dogs at the airport and Todd had listened to Roger’s critique of them. One review that he will always remember.

Roger squeezed Todd’s hand throughout the story to show that he remembered this fond moment they had shared together very well. “I will never forget that I was the last person to walk Roger from the Virginia Theatre prior to his death,” said Todd. 

    Over the twenty years of the festival, many guests have come out of respect for Roger such as Spike Lee. Spike came as a guest of the festival in 2014 for his film Do the Right Thing and to pay tribute because of how much Roger’s support meant to him over the years remarked Todd. 

    “I have enjoyed seeing so many young filmmakers, actors and directors who owe their success to Roger,” said Todd. 

    This upcoming festival, Todd is especially excited for The Fugitive and The Big Lebowski. Todd is looking forward to seeing Ethan and Joel Coen’s film because it was one that Roger never rated. 

    “It wasn’t his absolute favorite movie that he ever saw, although I can’t say he didn’t like it,” said Todd. “When he was talking to me about it what I found the most intriguing was that Roger was willing to change his opinion and that’s something that not many critics are open to doing and it was great.”  

“Roger had this amazing gift,” said Todd. “His knowledge of filmmaking is like no other and for him to be so passionate about this festival it’s important to share such an incredible talent.”