Not too many are left to tell the story, but seventy-one years ago, on the evening of Easter Sunday April 6, 1947, in the Grant Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria (and as the ticket below clearly displays) the "1st Annual Presentation of the Antoinette Perry Awards 1946–47" were handed out.
Take a close look: Supper $5. Not bad.
The creation of the American Theatre Wing (to this day a co-sponsor of the Tonys), was founded in a far different spirit and intent from the awards show for which it is now known. Originally born out on the eve of America’s entry into the first World War, it was called the Stage Women’s War Relief, formed by seven prominent New York City women devoted to charitable causes. They 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, Rachel Crothers (one of the original seven founders of the Stage Women’s War Relief), alongside Antoinette Perry, 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 outlets that served food and refreshments to servicemen during the war throughout the United States (as well as in London and Paris). Calling them Stage Door Canteens, a fictionalized film based on its events (and titled Stage Door Canteen), served as a major fund-raiser benefiting the American Theatre Wing and its charities. Featuring an all-star cast (mostly in cameos and playing themselves), scattered among real-life soldiers, it was one of the biggest box office hits of 1943.
Antoinette Perry as a youthful ingenue in the 1920s.
When Antoinette Perry died in 1946 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. At the time, 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 (the Donaldson Awards anybody?), 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, as it prevented anyone who showed up in the hopes of being named, forced to sit through a rubber chicken dinner (no offense to the kitchen staff of the once venerable Waldorf-Astoria—or that bargain $5 price). 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. As one example, the art of Lighting Design didn't take its rightful place alongside Scenic Design and Costumes until 1970. To this day, certain categories of achievement continue to be implemented such as one for Sound Design in 2008 (though it was dropped in 2014, only to be announced last year that it would be reinstated for this 2017-18 season). 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 Ethel Merman sure would have
appreciated getting it 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 awarded 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 (and it wasn’t put on its perch until the 1967 awards, the first year it was nationally broadcast, which made for smoother hand overs on live television).
This money clip (with no one's name engraved upon it) is 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 talented group, especially when you consider that among these actors, with the exception of David Wayne, all would go on to win Academy Awards over the ensuing decades (Hayes and Bergman already had Oscars by 1947, with Hayes winning another in 1970 and Bergman winning two more, in 1956 and 1974). A special Tony was given to Arthur Miller as “author” of All My Sons, as no award for outstanding play was presented. Another was presented 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 36th 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.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.