Remarks at the American Film Institute's Preservation Ball Honoring Fred Astaire
May 21, 1988
Talk about a surprise! [Laughter] I usually know when I'm going to be on "The Late, Late Show.'' [Laughter] Incidentally, I just have to say -- and about show business -- that the movie of that great Irving Berlin production, which was his second -- because the first was "Yip, Yip, Yaphank'' for World War I -- [laughter] -- and then this one -- Warners made it. And the total $10 million that came in in profits on the picture was donated to the Army Emergency Relief. And those of us that were back and in the picture -- we were already in uniform for real. It's the first time I ever made a movie for a second lieutenant's salary. [Laughter]
But again, as I say, thank you. And before saying anything else, I want to salute Bonita Granville Wrather. Bunny, you've guided the American Film Institute through its 20th anniversary, leading the Institute with dedication and inspiration into its third decade of service to this country. And I know that everyone here wants to join Nancy and me -- Ethey've already done it, but can do it again, in applauding you. [Applause]
"Dancing is a sweat job,'' Fred Astaire once said. "It takes time to get a dance right, to create something memorable.'' Fred took the time, and he created some of the most memorable films ever made, as we've seen tonight. He danced with Rita Hayworth atop a wedding cake -- "You'll Never Get Rich,'' 1941. He danced on roller skates -- "Shall We Dance?,'' 1937. He danced while hitting golf balls off a tee -- "Carefree,'' 1938. He danced up the walls and across the ceiling -- "Royal Wedding,'' 1951. And by the way, there's still nobody who's quite sure how he did that. [Laughter] He danced in an airplane, aboard ship, and in ballrooms -- countless ballrooms, huge, magnificent rooms, with chandeliers and vast expanses of polished floors. And you know, it was a funny thing about those ballrooms. They may have been jammed with people, but they always looked sort of empty until the floor cleared and Fred and Ginger began to dance.
He was a marvel, a distinctly American marvel. Europe had never produced anything like him, neither had anyplace else on Earth. And in devoting his talents to another distinctly American marvel, the movies, Fred Astaire added immeasurably to our heritage, to our sense of ourselves.
It's important work the American Film Institute is doing, in preserving our nation's film heritage. Just think of it: A century from now, young people will still be able to see that thin, lovable, sandy-haired man, 5 feet 9 inches tall -- see the way he tilts his hat to one side and smiles, starts to dance the way nobody ever danced before. And they'll be able to say: Yes! That's part of us. That's part of America.
You know, in Hollywood, if you don't sing or dance, you become an after-dinner speaker. [Laughter] And look where I wound up. [Laughter] But I have to tell you, I was an official of the Screen Actors Guild, president of the union and -- so, I'd be out there making my personal appearances on the mashed-potato circuit, and I started out -- what would I talk about? You didn't have speechwriters, you did it yourself. And I decided that I would try to correct some of the misapprehensions about show people and about Hollywood.
And I remember one example, and somehow it just does come back to my mind today and in the present circumstances. There had been a movement started because of some of the shenanigans of some of the people in show business that society looked down on. A movement had started in the Congress to pass a law that actors would have to be licensed by the Government in order to perform and be actors. And that gave me a line for my speech. I called that to the people's attention when I was speaking, and I said, "I think it's kind of funny: There are no actors in prison or jail. There are two United States Senators in prison right now.'' [Laughter] The line went over well. [Laughter] But I think that's enough from me.
And again, what a happy surprise that was. And thank you all and for all that you're doing in what I think is a very wonderful undertaking. And God bless you all.
Note: The President spoke at 10:40 p.m. in the Independence Ballroom at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Bonita Granville Wrather was chairman of the board of trustees of the American Film Institute. In his opening remarks, the President referred to the film "This is the Army.''