Poor health blamed for organist's absence from Ebertfest

CHAMPAIGN – The Mighty Wurlitzer organ at the Virginia Theatre has been silent during Roger Ebert's Film Festival this week.

Organist Warren York, who has performed between screenings at past festivals, is in declining health and resting at home, according to Chaz Ebert, emcee of her husband's festival, and Jameel Jones, manager of the Virginia.

"He is dearly missed by everyone here," Jones said Friday afternoon, the third day of the 11th annual festival, a special event of the University of Illinois College of Media. "I've had a minimum of 60 people asking about him."

Chaz Ebert suggested from the stage that festival-goers pass around and sign a card for York.

"Send him a pair of red socks," one man in the audience shouted, referring to York's penchant for wearing that color while he works the pedals of the organ.

The festival reopened Friday with first-time filmmaker Karen Gehres' documentary "Begging Naked." It follows Gehres's friend, artist Elise Bainbridge Hill, over nine years of her life in New York City.

A teen runaway who landed in New York when she was 15, Hill worked as a prostitute and then a stripper at clubs on 42nd Street before then-Mayor Rudolf Giuliani closed down that district, called the sex capital of the world by a civil rights lawyer who was interviewed by Gehres.

After the clubs closed, Hill eventually was evicted from a small space on top of the elevator shaft of a building near Carnegie Hall, where she had lived for 20 years.

Meanwhile, she slipped into paranoid schizophrenia and, after the eviction, ended up living on the streets and in Central Park. Now 46, Hill remains homeless in the city; Gehres, who lives in Brooklyn, stays in touch and sells Hill's paintings, giving Hill all the proceeds.

Also a painter, Gehres brought some of Hill's paintings here and displayed them for a silent auction at the Mental Health Center of Champaign County across the street from the Virginia.

A good number of festival-goers viewed them, and some entered silent bids on the paintings.

All get inside

Everyone waiting in line to see sold-out movies at Ebertfest has gotten into the screenings, according to Jones. For "Woodstock," the festival opener Wednesday evening, 85 people waited in the rush line; about half that number stood in line for "Chop Shop" and "Trouble the Water" on Thursday. Fifteen people waited and got into "The Last Command."

Jones said many people this year who bought festival passes early on called the theater to try to sell them or turn them back in, citing family and personal reasons for being unable to use the passes.


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