Interview With Dick Button

Photograph of Olympic Gold Medallist, World Figure Skating Champion and figure skating commentator Dick Button

When I started writing this blog, I had one Holy Grail. It was to someday, maybe have the chance to interview two time Olympic Gold Medallist, five time World Champion, Emmy Award winning skating commentator, skating pioneer (first triple jump in competition!) and living legend Dick Button. On January 16, in one of the most hilarious and fabulous phone calls of life, I did. It was a joy.

What hasn't Dick done for figure skating? He didn't 'just' win two Olympic gold medals and five World titles, he won seven U.S. Senior titles (and the U.S. Junior and Novice titles to boot),three3 North American Championships, was the only American to win the European title, the first skater to land a double axel, the first skater to land a triple jump (the triple loop), the first male skater to perform the camel spin and the inventor of the flying camel spin, the first American World Champion, the first and only American back-to-back Olympic Gold Medallist in figure skating, the first and only male skater to hold a National, North American, European, Olympic and World title at the same time, the youngest man to win an Olympic Gold Medal in figure skating.

Take a breath and grab a cocktail or cup of coffee, I'm just getting started. He attended Yale University and graduated from Harvard University. He went to Harvard Law School and was admitted to the bar following the completion of his Bachelor Of Law. He toured with Holiday On Ice and Ice Capades, commentated and hosted skating events on television for decades and decades, largely developed professional figure skating competitions (allowing hundreds of skaters to make a living), won an Emmy Award, judged Skating with the Stars and Battle of the Blades, acted in movies and TV programs with Mickey Rooney, Tony Curtis, Gene Kelly and Robert Goulet, starred in touring stage productions, survived a serious head injury and a brain injury and he is a member of both the U.S. and World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame. Now eighty four years young, Dick is busier than ever. He attended and spoke at the 2014 U.S. Championships in Boston and promoted his brand new book "Push Dick's Button". In this interview, Dick talked about everything from both the "amateur" and professional skating worlds to meeting Ulrich Salchow, his book Push Dick's Button, gardening, having a sense of humor, his legacy and so much more.

Q: A lot of what I write about focuses not on "amateur" competition but professional and artistic skating. I believe, as I know you do, that artistry is so important and underappreciated. Having pretty much single handedly through your company Candid Productions developed professional competition, what was your main motivation for creating events like the World Professional Championships, Challenge of Champions and the dozens of other events you put together over the years? Will we ever see professional competition again like that? Should we?

A: There were too many skaters who, after their amateur careers ended, had other goals such as going to college or university, working for a living or raising a family. They didn't want to sign a contract with Ice Capades or Ice Follies because it was a year long commitment yet still wanted to skate. There was a great gap in those skaters lives. I had spoken to the ISU - Beat Hasler's father George - and asked him if he wanted to join forces but it didn't happen. They didn't understand the needs and requirements nor wish to take advantage of professional skaters. The World Professional Championships were first held in 1973 then languished and came back in 1980. Ratings are so low and there's also no need for it now because the ISU finally got smart and started paying skaters. Nobody was paid anything in amateur championships when I skated. As an amateur you were given a present that was not worth more than $25. When people quit skating, they had to make a living.

Q: I fell in love with skating largely due to the way that you and Peggy Fleming presented it, as I think a whole generation of skaters and skating fans have. What I always loved is your wonderful sense of humor. I think my three favourite Dick Button quotes are "good for you, Lucinda Ruh!", "whatever that was supposed to be, it wasn't" and "there needs to be a little more swan in that Swan Lake."... and of course the one with the "Rusty Hoot". In your opinion, why is it so first-rate to have a sense of humor about skating and what's the funniest thing you've ever seen in all of your years in the sport?

A: Retaining a sense of humor isn't easy. It's gotten so serious. There are so many rules. In my book "Push Dick's Button" I quoted the fact that "rule makers are not rule makers if they're not making rules". I poke fun at myself in the book because I know if I don't criticize myself, I can't criticize anyone else. One of the funniest things I've seen was Suna Murray tripping on a curtain and sliding endlessly across the ice. There was also a funny moment when a Russian pair skater got the sleeve of his shirt caught in the boot hook of his partner and it just kept stretching and stretching, almost like an elephant's trunk. I embarrassed myself by being unable to stop laughing.

Q: "Push Dick's Button" couldn't have come at a better time. Skating is really starting to regain the public's attention and interest and this book will only help that by leaps and bounds. How difficult was trying to sum up so many stories into just one book?

A: I didn't say everything I wanted to say. There will always be three skating programs, three paintings and three books that you write. The first one is the one you plan, the second is the one you do and the third is the one you wish you'd have done. All of these things are true. Writing isn't easy. Just because you might know how to speak, it doesn't mean it's easy to sit down write a book. It's a very difficult process that you have to learn. Writing is a different science. Just because you think blue and pink don't go together doesn't mean you can decorate somebody's place. Just because you think you think you can design a house doesn't mean you're an architect. If I ever do a volume 2, it would be much longer and include many esoteric things. One of the reasons I got started was when a friend of mine said, "I'd love to have you come sit on the couch with me and tell me what the heck we are watching and what's going on". Just because I commentated for years doesn't mean that I could just go from commentating to writing. I have hundreds of ideas to include in a volume two but I'm still reeling from volume one!

Q: You've been asked a million times about your Olympic gold medals, experiences and how you revolutionized skating by landing the first double axel and triple jump in competition, so I'm not going to ask you that all over again as amazing as those milestones are and as much as I respect and think the world of what you've done in the sport. What makes you smile today when you watch skating?

A: Not too much right now. I'm not a happy camper. The new system of judging is there for the extraneous reason of making everything secretive. If Ottavio Cinquanta (the President of the International Skating Union) had his druthers, he would get rid of all the judges and totally eliminate subjective judging.

Q: What direction and action does the ISU need to take to really bring the fandom and fun back to skating?

A: The first thing is to split up the ISU. Both speed skating and figure skating should be in separate federations and not connected to each other. The next thing to do is to get back to common sense and not reward a fall with more points. It's called not rewarding failure! It's a challenge but they should not give any points if you miss it or fall down on it. This is now a point system based on numbers.

Q: I know you love a great layback spin. What makes a layback spin GREAT in your opinion?

A: A great layback spin is in what they call the "attitude" position in dance with the free leg behind, quite high but flat with the knee not lower than the foot of the free leg. That's the problem. Many skaters don't know what a classical position is. With spinning, when Jason Brown did a catch foot donut spin he pulled it up into a beautiful position. He didn't delay. He had an extraodinary extension which he used to enter into jumps. That was magnificent.

Q: What do you remember about meeting Ulrich Salchow?

A: I went to his house in Stockholm in 1947. He invited a whole group of skaters and all of his trophies were in a good sized room. He said, "I don't want you to leave this competition without having a trophy. I want you to pick any one you want out of this room." They ranged in size from 1-2 inches high to a big silver statue of Peter The Great on a rock. Of course, that's what I really wanted but I thought no. I didn't want to pick one of the smaller ones and insult him either. I picked the trophy you see in "Push Dick's Button". He won in that in London in 1901. Since it was given to me, I gave it to Misha Petkevich on the condition he give it someday to someone else when he felt that there was someone he admired. I admired Petkevich's skating very much so I gave it to him but I also had a copy made for myself. He gave to Paul Wylie and he did the same thing.  When Paul gives it to someone else, each person will still keep their own copy.

Q: What did you think of Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown at U.S. Nationals?

A: I thought they were both good! Jeremy Abbott had a wonderful short program and was very good. He's an elegant skater with great line and great softness of edges. Jason Brown was superb. His choreography was done by Rohene Ward and that program really had a beginning, middle and an end. You didn't know what to expect. His extension was extraordinary. The music and program was very difficult to skate to because Irish music is up and down, meaning it's vertical stepping. It's tapping and there's little upper body movement but his program was beautifully done.

Q: I know my mother will love this question because no one loves gardening more than her. Ken Shelley told me you're a wonderful gardener so I had to do a little research and saw some wonderful pictures of your farm and garden. What draws you to gardening and what is your favourite flower?

A: I don't have a favourite flower any more than I have a favourite skater. There is not a skater around who doesn't have something of great interest. In addition to skating, I have always been intrigued by landscape and architecture.

Q: At the end of the day, what do you want your legacy in life to be?

A: Thank you for thinking of it. I would like to see proper development of a Museum of Skating Media so that people will know and understand the history and be able to see films of those outstanding performances... of people like Belita, Charlotte, Barbara Ann Scott, The Protopopov's, John Curry, Kurt Browning and so many others.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":