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ACLU Celebrates the Bill of Rights : Kanin, Bird and Margolin Honored at Birthday Gala

December 08, 1987|ELLEN MALINO JAMES | James is a Los Angeles writer

The American Civil Liberties Union welcomed nearly 1,000 supporters at its annual dinner Saturday at the Biltmore to celebrate the 196th birthday of the Bill of Rights. "It's the most successful dinner we've ever had," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the Southern California affiliate of the national rights organization. "It broke our hearts that we had to turn people away."

The dinner also served as a welcome back for Ripston, who returned in September to her post after an 18-month stint with People for the American Way.

This year's Bill of Rights Award went to Hollywood screenwriter Fay Kanin.

Kanin, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, greeted friends and colleagues who came to honor her, including Ed Asner, former recipient of the ACLU Bill of Rights Award and former head of the Screen Actors Guild.

Actor Rod Steiger reinforced the Hollywood connection by serving as master of ceremonies, while his old friend, Harry Belafonte, whom Steiger called the "conscience of the industry," took the stage as honorary chairman of the dinner. Belafonte recalled, "Rod and I were blacklisted together." As he table-hopped before the program began, Belafonte said that he and the ACLU "go way back together . . . some 40 years to the McCarthy period. But now, more than ever, there is a greater demand for the ACLU because of the rights of blacks, Hispanics, women."

Belafonte introduced clips from three of Kanin's films, "Friendly Fire," "Hustling" and "Heartsounds." "The role of the artist is not only to show life as it is but as it should be," said Belafonte, who announced that Kanin is writing an ABC-TV movie that he is producing for release in 1988 about South Africa and the life of Nelson Mandela.

The connection between art and politics took an apt turn when Ripston introduced actor Stephen Macht, who plays an ACLU attorney on the CBS series "Cagney and Lacey." ("He sets a very high dress code on TV for ACLU lawyers," Ripston said.) Macht read excerpts from the opinions of former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, who received the Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award, named for the late director of the Southern California ACLU.

"She will always be my chief justice and yours too," said George Slaff, the civil liberties attorney who chaired the dinner and introduced Bird.

Bird, who received a standing ovation, confided before the dinner in answer to a question about her future plans that she was "busy being a private citizen, tending to my own garden." She told the audience that she wanted to be remembered as a "good gardener" and hoped also that the ACLU would initiate a campaign to allow running shoes to be worn by women at formal dinners. On a more serious note, Bird reflected somewhat philosophically on ends and means: "The means we use each day are the true measure of our character."

The third award of the evening for Special Legislator went to Hollywood Assemblyman Burt Margolin.

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