Outside the Ebert memorial event on Thursday night.
Ben Kenigsberg Outside the Ebert memorial event on Thursday night.

Roger Ebert was remembered as a groundbreaking film critic, champion of independent cinema, dedicated journalist, internet pioneer, man of letters, public face of disability, and devoted husband and grandfather at a nearly three-hour memorial tribute in Chicago that included cameos by everyone from John and Joan Cusack (reading a message from Barack and Michelle Obama) to the proprietor of the city's Old Town Ale House.

"Roger, this is your happening, and it freaks me out!" his wife, Chaz Ebert, said by way of introduction, paraphrasing an iconic line from the Ebert-scripted "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." A crowd of 1,500 poured into the historic Chicago Theatre, which, as Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy noted, Ebert had helped to restore by advocating its use for the 1981 roadshow presentation of Abel Gance's "Napoleon."

Gene Siskel's widow, Marlene Iglitzen, recalled the days when Chicago critics previewed movies at a screening room on one of the building's upper floors -- and how her husband and Ebert would avoid sharing an elevator. Ebert himself could be seen seen onstage at least as recently as 2007 being honored by the Chicago International Film Festival.

Alternating clips and speeches, the tribute spanned both national figures like Sony Pictures Classics president Michael Barker (who recalled hanging with Ebert at Steak 'n Shake and said "no public figure has ever meant more to me") to family members like granddaughter Raven Evans, who recounted the books Ebert sent her throughout the years. In a touch that gave the evening the air of an Oscars ceremony, the presentation was bookended with musical performances by a choir from Chicago's Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church.

The Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy said the first time he saw his name in print was when he wrote letters to his hometown film critic. He also praised Ebert's uncommon ability to write the way he talked. "You always felt the real guy behind the words," he said. Variety's Scott Foundas pointed to Ebert's advocacy for "One False Move" and what it did to launch the careers of Carl Franklin and Billy Bob Thornton.

Indeed, more than one filmmaker cited Ebert as a savior. Gregory Nava ("El Norte") tearfully recalled his friendship with the man, while "Middle of Nowhere" director Ava DuVernay delivered a lengthy rundown his support for her over the years—as well as meeting him when she tried to crash an Oscars rehearsal as a young girl. Still another director Ebert championed, Steve James of "Hoop Dreams," could be glimpsed off to stage left, working on his documentary adaptation of Ebert's memoir, "Life Itself."