When I was a kid in love with the theatre, the first airing of the Tony Awards ceremony on national television in 1967 marked a significant occasion for me. The hosts chosen for this historic event (of what this June will mark 50 years of broadcasts) were Mary Martin and Robert Preston, the stars of that season’s hit musical I Do! I Do!, a show with which I had become more than slightly obsessed. In order to compete with the Oscars and the Emmys, both highly rated broadcasts of the day, the Tonys would require enormous star power in order to bring in the required audience (and ratings) for this experiment. The theatrical producer Alexander H. Cohen was hired for the job, and what resulted was a well-reviewed and highly rated show, helped by appearances from the likes of Carol Burnett, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Zero Mostel and Barbra Streisand. The broadcast changed the lifeblood of the theatre from that night forward. And by the way, the entire broadcast was one-hour. Yes — thats all it took for 12 awards and four numbers to be performed.
Today is not the anniversary of that night, but of an evening when the very first Tony Awards were handed out. On Easter Sunday April 6, 1947, seventy years ago, the Grant Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria was the setting for what the ticket below announces as the “1st Annual Presentation of the Antoinette Perry Awards 1946–47.”
Supper $5 — not bad, huh?
The creation of the American Theatre Wing (still a co-sponsor of the Tonys), was founded in a different spirt and intent from the awards show for which it is famous today. The Tony Award was conceived in tribute to Antoinette Perry, who at the time of her death, was serving as the President of the Wing. At that time (1946) the organization had morphed out of something that had begun on the eve of America’s entry into the first World War in 1917. The Stage Women’s War Relief, an effort formed by seven women devoted to charitable causes, helped to raise millions for the war effort that were distributed throughout the world.
A little more than twenty years later, when an unthinkable second World War was on the brink, Antoinette Perry, along with Rachel Crothers (one of the original seven founders of the Stage Women’s War Relief) launched a new organization: the American Theatre Wing. Perry, who began as an actress but became a pioneering woman in the theatre as both a producer and a director, took the notion of charitable work in new directions with the Wing, one of which was the creation of numerous Stage Door Canteens serving refreshments and food to servicemen throughout the United States (as well as in London and Paris). A fictionalized film Stage Door Canteen, was one of the biggest box office hits of 1943, featuring an all-star cast in cameos among real-life soldiers. Its profits benefited the American Theatre Wing and its charities.
Antoinette Perry as a youthful ingenue in the 1920s.
When Antoinette Perry died from a sudden heart attack, one day after her 58th birthday, her friend and fellow producer, Brock Pemberton, proposed to the Wing that they sponsor an awards ceremony recognizing achievement on Broadway in her honor. In 1946 there were no awards designated for the theatre community voted upon by its members. Up until then, the theatre’s only citations were handed out by the New York Drama Critics Circle, the Pulitzer Prize, and a few others, mostly drawn from the votes of writers and academicians.
It was in the spirit of not creating competition among artists that the first awards had no announcement of any nominations. Winners were simply notified prior to the event, which must have made for a festive evening with no so-called “losers” forced to sit through a rubber chicken dinner (no offense to the kitchen staff of the once venerable Waldorf-Astoria) only to not hear their name called. Another decision made from the outset was that Tony categories would be free-flowing and fluctuate from year to year, as there would always be ever-changing and essential contributions to the theatre. This is one of the reasons why to this day some categories of achievement are newly instituted, such as one for Sound Design in 2008 (though it was unfortunately dropped after 2014). As I said, “ever-changing.”
There was also a concerted effort at the start to ban the use of the word “Best.” Instead, “distinguished” and “outstanding” were chosen; far better to exemplify the true nature of award. No one is ever best. How can best be qualified? It’s crept in over the years, but the early Tonys didn’t use any distinctively noticeable adjective, as you can see:
It might look like much, but I’m sure Ethel Merman
sure would have liked one for Gypsy this same season.
And at that first ceremony, there was no official Tony Award which looked like the one above. Instead, scrolls and sterling silver compacts were award the women, with gold money clips for the men. Bracelets and watch fobs completed this quaint tradition over these first two years. The medallion we have come to know didn’t make its debut until three years later; its familiar frontage displaying the masks of comedy and tragedy.
This money clip (with no one's name engraved on it) was from the first Tony ceremony.
On April 6, 1947, eleven Tonys were presented in seven categories, with eight special awards. Acting honorees were José Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac), Fredric March (Years Ago), Helen Hayes (Happy Birthday), Ingrid Bergman (Joan of Lorraine), Patricia Neal (Another Part of the Forest) and David Wayne (Finian’s Rainbow). A special award was given to Arthur Miller as “author” of All My Sons, as no award for outstanding play was presented, as well as to Vincent Sardi Sr., proprietor of the famous restaurant in his name, still situated on West 44th Street.
At that first ceremony when Brock Pemberton presented one of the awards and pronounced it “a Tony,” the nickname for Antoinette stuck as a worthy monicker. Today, the Tonys have a shared custody of both its progenitor, the American Theatre Wing, as well as the Broadway League (once the League of New York Theatres), now encompassing producers from all over the country. I’m sure this June, when it is televised nationally on CBS for the 35th straight year, it will be a far cry from its humble beginnings, when it was broadcast on local New York radio station WOR and the associated (and now defunct) Mutual Network.
Go, Tony Awards! And it is “70, girls (and guys), 70!”
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/