Ups and Downs
Chicago film critics and newspaper columnists Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel are shown in a publicity photo showing off their now famous "thumbs up and down" rating symbols for movies. Their "At the Movies" long-running syndicated series will end its 32-year run with a final episode to air the weekend of Aug. 14 and 15, 2010. Provided Image

It's officially the end of an era.

I used this same opening sentence at about this same time in 2008.

I was announcing that after a 30-year tenure as co-host of the most famous movie review television show, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Roger Ebert had officially parted ways with the legendary franchise he began in 1975 with fellow Chicago Tribune newspaper critic, the late and great Gene Siskel.

Now, it's the entire TV series syndicated franchise "At the Movies" that has been cancelled. The final episode airs (locally) this weekend on Chicago's ABC Channel 7.

In 2008, The Walt Disney Co. officially aired the final episode of what was then called "Ebert & Roeper at the Movies."

It was fellow Sun-Times Columnist Richard Roeper who had been sharing the hosting duties at the time.

Ebert and Roeper were replaced by two new younger hosts. Taking over duties were Ben Lyons, 26, son of film critic Jeffrey Lyons (and grandson of New York show biz columnist Leonard Lyons) and Ben Mankiewicz, 41, Ted Turner's Turner Classic Movies host. He is also the grandson of Hollywood screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who co-wrote "Citizen Kane" with Orson Welles.

The Lyons and Mankiewicz "revamped" show, launched in September 2008 and lasted less than a year.

Next up, replacing that "less than dynamic duo" were film critics A.O. (Tony) Scott of The New York Times and Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune, as announced by ABC Media Productions last August.

They too, have lasted less than a year, and now the plug has been pulled on the entire show.

This weekend's final episode will be a nostalgic look back at the entire series, including the many critics who have hosted the show over the years, ranging from Rex Reed to Dixie Whatley.

When Ebert first helped launch this show in September 1975 on PBS, WTTW's Channel 11, it was called "Opening Soon at a Theater Near You," airing just once a month and described as "the first American film review show."

I still remember a few years ago walking through downtown Park Ridge, Ill., just north of Chicago, with friends and how thrilled I was when they pointed out the small movie-house marquee that was used in the opening credits of "Sneak Previews." (The opening credits back then also featured a bizarre, carnival-like theme song, which is still stuck in my head.)

This was a show I grew up with, like so many others. And it launched during a time when so many fewer movies were released each month, unlike today.

In fact, the original show, which was renamed "Sneak Previews" by 1977, began running every other week. And by 1979, it was a weekly series syndicated to more than 180 stations.

By 1982, Ebert and Siskel had moved on to their own spin-off show "At the Movies" and also gained legal control of their signature "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" scoring system.

(When Disney failed in contract negotiations with Ebert in 2007, he took away the show's permission to use the "thumbs," so Roeper's and his fill-in cohosts' began a new symbol of approval and disapproval for films using the phrase "see it" or "skip it," and later, also the option of "rent it.")

When Ebert and Siskel left "Sneak Previews," they also left behind their signature sign-off phase: "Until next week, save us the aisle seats." On their new show "At the Movies," they signed off with: "Until next week, the balcony is closed."

"Sneak Previews" then continued until 1996 with new hosts Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved, both New York film critics.

During last weekend's second to the last broadcast of "At the Movies," following Scott's and Phillips' standard sign-off tag at the end of the show, Scott added: "Until next week, and not for much longer, we'll see you 'At the Movies.'"

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at philip.potempa@nwi.com or 219.852.4327.

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