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13 Facts About Siskel and Ebert and the Movies

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While 1986 was a big year for films—with a varied slate of movies including Top Gun, Platoon, Back to School, Aliens, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off dominating the box office—it was an even bigger year for film critics. On September 13, 1986, Siskel and Ebert and the Movies made its television debut, and turned arguing about films into a national pastime.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST TIME GENE SISKEL AND ROGER EBERT DISAGREED ABOUT MOVIES ON TELEVISION.

Throughout its lifespan, what eventually became known as At the Movies adopted (and discarded) a variety of titles. Though the iconic film review series began its run on September 13, 1986 as Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, it wasn’t the first time Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had collaborated on a television program. From 1975 to 1982, the two critics had co-hosted the PBS series Sneak Previews. And yes, they often disagreed about the quality of the movies they reviewed.

2. A COIN TOSS DETERMINED WHOSE NAME WOULD BE LISTED FIRST IN THE TITLE.

According to the Archive of American Television, Siskel and Ebert determined whose name would come first in the title of their new show in the fairest, most democratic way they knew how: a coin toss.

3. THEY USED TO HAVE A DOG SIDEKICK, THEN A SKUNK.

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For all their intelligent opinions about movies, Siskel and Ebert weren’t above using a fun little gimmick here and there—going all the way back to Sneak Previews. First there was Spot the Wonder Dog, who helped the duo declare the worst movie of the week (a.k.a. the “dog”). When asked about the canine cineaste, Ebert told The Washington Post, "You want the story of Spot, I'll tell you the story of Spot. Spot was fired by PBS because of his salary demands. He was getting $40 a week." There were other dogs, and then Aroma the skunk, who introduced the critics’ Stinker-of-the-Week.

4. THEY TRADEMARKED THE PHRASE “TWO THUMBS UP.”

Siskel and Ebert popularized the concept of a thumbs up/thumbs down rating system, with “two thumbs up” being the holy grail for any filmmaker lucky enough to have his or her film reviewed by the duo. To maintain the sanctity of that glowing accolade, Siskel and Ebert trademarked the phrase. "We made television history, and established the trademarked catch-phrase 'Two thumbs up,'” Ebert once explained.

5. DISNEY CLAIMED THAT EBERT FORCED THEM TO PULL THOSE THUMBS DURING ONE HEATED CONTRACT NEGOTIATION.

In 2007, Disney-ABC Domestic Television issued a statement claiming that Ebert had forced them to pull the thumbs from the show (which, by that time, was At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper) in the midst of a contract negotiation. In response, Ebert claimed that he "had made it clear the Thumbs could remain during good-faith negotiations," despite what the press release said. He went on to explain that, "They made a first offer on Friday which I considered offensively low. I responded with a counteroffer. They did not reply to this, and on Monday ordered the Thumbs removed from the show. This is not something I expected after an association of over 22 years.” When Ebert eventually ended his association with the show, the thumbs went with him.

6. THEIR FREQUENT DISAGREEMENTS WERE THE SHOW’S MAIN DRAW.

Any fan of Siskel and Ebert and the Movies can tell you that some of its best moments came when the critics were in serious disagreement about a movie. And while the critics themselves knew that their frequent differences of opinion were one of the show’s main draws, their relationship was based on fierce mutual respect.

“Gene Siskel and I were like tuning forks,” Ebert wrote on the 10th anniversary of his longtime partner’s passing. “Strike one, and the other would pick up the same frequency. When we were in a group together, we were always intensely aware of one another. Sometimes this took the form of camaraderie, sometimes shared opinions, sometimes hostility. But we were aware. If something happened that we both thought was funny but weren't supposed to, God help us if one caught the other's eye. We almost always thought the same things were funny. That may be the best sign of intellectual communion.”

7. THEY FOUGHT HARDER FOR EACH OTHER THAN THEY DID AGAINST EACH OTHER.

Though Ebert acknowledged that he and Siskel often disagreed on movies, when it came to real life, they always had each other’s backs. “In my darkest and moodiest hours, when all my competitiveness and resentment and indignation were at a roiling boil, I never considered [going our separate ways],” Ebert wrote. “I know Gene never did either. We were linked in a bond beyond all disputing. 'You may be an a**hole,' Gene would say, 'but you're my a**hole.' If we were fighting—get out of the room. But if we were teamed up against a common target, we were fatal. When we were on his show, Howard Stern never knew what hit him. He picked on one of us, and we were both at his throat."

8. IN ADDITION TO REVIEWING MOVIES, THEY TALKED ABOUT THE STATE OF MOVIEMAKING.

Though reviews were their main business, Siskel and Ebert worked hard to develop an appreciation for the art of cinema itself in their viewers. In an editorial for Film Comment in 1990, Ebert reminded readers of the many themed issues he and Siskel had produced where they delved into issues facing moviemakers of the day, including the colorization of films, the virtues of letterboxing, the art of black-and-white cinematography, and why the MPAA was the same as censorship.

"Siskel & Ebert was the first, and often the only, television show of any kind to deal with many of these subjects,” Ebert wrote. “It would be fair to say that most mainstream Americans who have formed an opinion on colorization and letterboxing were inspired to do so because of our program. (Video retailers say the Siskel & Ebert program on letterboxing caused a noticeable swing in the opinions of their customers on the subject.)"

9. THEY FILMED AN EPISODE IN BLACK AND WHITE.

To illustrate that aforementioned point about black and white cinematography, Siskel and Ebert filmed an entire episode in black and white.

10. THEY TURNED AUDIENCES ON TO A NUMBER OF INDEPENDENT FILMS AND DOCUMENTARIES.

While much of the show was dedicated to major Hollywood movies, Siskel and Ebert made a point to review smaller films, including foreign films, arthouse movies, and documentaries. Many people credit the critics with pointing audiences toward the documentary Hoop Dreams, and they were very early champions of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. (Ebert was also a huge fan of Michael Moore’s Roger & Me.)

"They'll talk about art-house films I wouldn't have fathomed seeing, like Heavenly Creatures, and I will give them the benefit of the doubt and go see or rent them," one twenty-something film fan told the Los Angeles Times. "But they could say what they want about Interview With the Vampire or Desperado, and a pack of wolves couldn't keep me away from either. There are some actors I will see anything that they do." (We're thinking she was an Antonio Banderas fan.)

11. A BAD REVIEW OF THE FISHER KING LED TO A VILLAIN NAMED SISKEL IN THE REF.

Ahead of the 1992 Academy Awards, Siskel and Ebert ran a pre-Oscars special in which they discussed that year’s nominees and Siskel declared Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, written by Richard LaGravenese, among the least deserving nominees. "I thought it was overwrought," Siskel told the Los Angeles Times.

Two years later, while at a press screening of Ted Demme’s The Ref, also penned by LaGravenese, Siskel noticed something odd: The bad guy’s name was Siskel. The critic had no idea why the screenwriter would have any ill will toward him, until LaGravenese confirmed through a publicist his reasons for using Siskel’s name.

"I think it's a strange form of revenge,” Siskel said. “I don't know that it's the most effective form of protest. He may have sabotaged those scenes in which it's used, dramatically, by causing you to suspend disbelief by bringing the 'reality' of my name into the mix. I think people may be waiting for a Roger Ebert joke after that." (Always a critic.)

12. SISKEL LIKED JOHN WOO’S BROKEN ARROW, UNTIL EBERT DIDN’T.

One of the duo’s most memorable reviews was, ironically, of a pretty unmemorable movie: John Woo’s Broken Arrow. It marked the only time on the series where Siskel changed his opinion (and the direction of his thumb) after hearing Ebert’s take on a film. He changed his thumbs up to a thumbs down on the air to make it a unanimous stinker.

But it wasn’t the only time that one of the critics swayed the other to a new way of thinking about a movie. “I was far more enthusiastic about Babe than Roger was, and he’s come around,” Siskel told Entertainment Weekly in 1996, before explaining that he “was sort of on the fence about Broken Arrow, and when he made his comments, right then and there I turned my thumb down.” Ebert had his mind changed, too. “I changed my mind on Unforgiven,” he said in the same interview. “I gave it only two-and-a-half stars [in the Chicago Sun-Times]. I wasn’t thinking very well when I reviewed that.”

13. THE BALCONY SEATS WERE EVENTUALLY DESTROYED.

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Like many movie props before them, the balcony seats the film critics occupied for so many years were eventually destroyed. Ebert was not happy. He wrote about how “one of the most iconic set ideas in ... television history, which had survived for more than half of the life of the medium”—and which he believed belonged in the Smithsonian—were instead thrown “in a dumpster in the alley.”

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

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Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

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2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

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Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

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3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

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Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

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4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

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Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

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5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

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Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

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6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

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Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

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7. UNA GRILL; $139

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Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

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8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

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9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

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Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

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10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

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Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

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11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

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Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

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12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

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Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

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13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

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Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

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14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

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Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

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15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

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Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

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Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

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17. HAMMOCK; $174

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Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

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18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

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Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

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11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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