The Tony, named in honor of Antoinette Perry, remains one of the theatre's most coveted awards and is annually bestowed on professionals for "distinguished achievement" in the theatre.
When Antoinette Perry died on June 28, 1946 at the age of 58, many people who knew her were determined that she not be forgotten. As chairman of the board and secretary of the American Theatre Wing throughout World War II, Antoinette Perry insisted on perfection and high standards of quality. Her dedication and tireless efforts to broaden the scope of theatre through the many programs of the American Theatre Wing affected thousands of people.
Born in Denver, Colorado in 1888, Antoinette Perry made her first impact on the theatre in 1906, when she was only eighteen. She played opposite David Warfield in Music Master and, the following year, in David Belasco's A Grand Army Man. Only two years later, and at an age when most actresses are still waiting for that first big break, Antoinette Perry retired, a star, to marry and raise a family.
Following in their mother's footsteps, her daughters, Elaine and Margaret, also pursued careers in the theatre. Elaine became an active member of the American Theatre Wing as well as a theatrical arbitrator and Broadway producer, and Margaret, who understudied Ingrid Bergman in Liliom, stage-managed the touring production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street.
In 1922, after the death of her husband Frank Freuauff, Antoinette Perry returned to the stage and appeared in many plays, including Minick, by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, in 1924, and Margaret Anglin's 1927 production of Electra. In association with Brock Pemberton, she then turned her talent to directing, enriching the theatre with several memorable plays, including Preston Sturges' comedy Strictly Dishonorable in 1929 and Mary Chase's classic, Harvey, in 1944. Harvey was a giant hit and Ms. Perry tragically died during its four and a half year Broadway run.
Creating the Awards
When Antoinette Perry died, Jacob Wilk, the head of the Story Department for Warner Brothers East Coast office, suggested the idea of an Antoinette Perry Memorial to John Golden. He, in turn, presented the idea to the Wing. Brock Pemberton, a long-time personal friend as well as business associate, was appointed chairman of the committee, and suggested that the Wing give a series of annual awards in her name. A panel of six members was appointed to nominate candidates for the award in each category. The members who made the selections - by secret ballot - in the first year were: Vera Allen, Louise Beck, Jane Cowl, Helen Hayes, Brooks Atkinson, Kermit Bloomgarden, Clayton Collyer, George Heller, Rudy Karnolt, Burns Mantle, Gilbert Miller, Warren P. Munsell, Solly Pernick, James E. Sauter and Oliver Sayler.
The first awards were presented at a dinner in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria on Easter Sunday, April 6, 1947. With Vera Allen, Antoinette Perry's successor as Wing chairwoman, presiding, the evening included dining, dancing and a program of entertainment whose participants included Mickey Rooney, Herb Shriner, Ethel Waters and David Wayne. WOR Radio and the Mutual Network announced the awards at midnight.
During the first two years, there was no official Tony Award. The winners were presented with, in addition to a scroll, a cigarette lighter, a money clip or a compact. The United Scenic Artists sponsored a contest for a suitable design for the awards and Herman Rosse's entry, depicting the masks of comedy and tragedy on one side and the profile of Antoinette Perry on the other, was selected. In 1949, the medallion was initiated at the third annual dinner. It continues to be the official Tony Award, and since 1967 has been mounted on a black base.
From 1947 until 1965, the dinner and Tony Award presentation were held in various ballrooms of such hotels as the Plaza, the Waldorf-Astoria and the Hotel Astor. The ceremonies were broadcast over WOR radio and The Mutual Network and, in 1956, televised for the first time on Du Mont's Channel 5. Brock Pemberton, Mrs. Martin Beck, Helen Hayes and Ilka Chase presided over the ceremonies and awards presentations and entertainment were provided by Ralph Bellamy, Joan Crawford, Alfred de Liagre Jr., Gilbert Miller, Shirley Booth, Carol Channing, Joan Fontaine, Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Anne Bancroft, Sidney Poitier, Fredric March, Robert Goulet, Gig Young, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal and many others. The Tonys were televised intermittently in this period, with the awards typically given out following the 11 pm news.
In 1965, Wing President Helen Menken, in failing health, announced her intention to retire from the Wing - an action that may have signaled the end for the Tony Awards. On behalf of the League of New York Theatres, Harold Prince convinced Miss Menken to withdraw her resignation. Thus the Awards continued and a partnership with the League began. Despite some concerns about propriety, upon the death of Ms. Menken in March of 1966, the awards were presented at the Rainbow Room the following month. However, the ceremony was subdued and, for the first and only time, held in the afternoon without public attendance or entertainment.
The Television Era
In 1967, the American Theatre Wing authorized the League of New York Theatres to present the Tony Awards, when the ceremonies moved from the traditional hotel ballroom setting to a Broadway theatre at the suggestion of Alvin Cooperman, who was vice president of special programs at NBC-TV. For the first time, television viewers nationwide had the opportunity to watch the presentation of the Tony Awards. Although the Tony Awards telecast is three hours long today, the first telecast was limited to only an hour, so the program was hurried, especially toward the end. At the very end of the ceremony, Robert Preston rushed to rejoin his co-host, Mary Martin, after receiving his Tony Award for his performance in I Do! I Do! and launched into a scripted quote from Samuel Johnson. With the stage manager frantically signaling Mr. Preston to wrap things up, the new Tony winner bungled the quote. The first network telecast of the Tony Awards ended with Mary Martin turning to Robert Preston, shaking her head sadly, and taking his new Tony away from him - a fitting cap to a monumental evening. For twenty years, Alexander H. Cohen produced the nationwide television show and organized the ball and supper dance after the awards. The Tonys shifted between networks for a decade, but beginning in 1978, they were aired on CBS, their home ever since.
In 1987, the Wing formed a joint venture with the League (now the The Broadway League) to present the awards and expand social events. That entity, Tony Award Productions, continues to manage all the aspects of the awards.
In 1997, Radio City Music Hall served as the venue for the award presentation for the first time. A year of firsts, 1997 marked the first time the awards were broadcast on PBS for the first hour and CBS for the following two hours. In 2000, after a one-year absence from Radio City Music Hall due to its renovation, the Tony Awards returned to Radio City to welcome the millennium and continue to celebrate excellence in theatre. the Tony broadcast continues to be recognized as one of the top award and entertainment programs on network television, most recently honored with a 2004 Emmy Award as Outstanding Music, Comedy or Variety Program.
In 1947, the originating committee devised a voting system whose eligible voters were members of the board of the American Theatre Wing, representing management, and the performer and craft unions of the entertainment field. In 1954, voting eligibility was expanded to include theatre professionals who were not members of the American Theatre Wing. Today the system has been further enlarged. Persons eligible to vote for winners of the Tony Awards, besides the board of directors of the American Theatre Wing and its Advisory Board, are members of the governing boards of Actors' Equity Association, the Dramatists Guild, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, United Scenic Artists and the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers; those persons whose names appear on the first night press list; members of the Theatrical Council of the Casting Society of America; and certain active members of the The Broadway League. There are approximately 725 Tony voters.
The Tony Awards Nominating Committee is a rotating group of up to 30 theatre professionals selected by the Tony Awards Administration Committee who serve for overlapping three-year terms. They are asked to see every Broadway production and then meet, following the Tony eligibility deadline, to vote on the nominations.
The accounting firm of Lutz & Carr supervises the entire voting and nominating process. With the sole exception of that firm's representatives, no one knows the results of the voting until they are announced on the telecast.
In 1998, the Tonys launched a website that today, with the participation of IBM, has become the definitive site for information about the awards as well as related news and feature stories. Continually updated, the site is located at www.tonyawards.com.