The Tony Awards are just around the corner, that sparkling night when Broadway celebrates the best and the brightest of its season. Like clockwork each spring, the glitterati and talent of the Great White Way are on display, with musicals and plays, actors and actresses, writers and designers, vying for prizes in a host of categories. The yearly tradition of the Tony Awards has been part of the Broadway theater culture since the first ceremony on April 6, 1947, at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The honor of a Tony is considered an affirmation of excellence, the induction into an elite club that recognizes the best of the best in theatrical circles. This we all know, but the real question is: Who is “Tony” and why is there an award named for this person?
“Tony” is actually a nickname for the ceremony’s original moniker, The Antoinette Perry Awards. With that part of the mystery solved, the bigger question is: Who was Antoinette Perry and why is theater’s trophy of excellence named in her honor? The story behind Antoinette Perry is one of a strong and influential woman who was a part of Broadway’s heyday — her hard work, talent, and legacy the foundation for theatrical excellence.
Mary Antoinette Perry was born in Denver on June 27, 1888. She grew up inspired by Mildred Hall and George Wessels, her aunt and uncle who were touring actors who were well-reputed across the theater circuit. Mary Antoinette, from an early age, was hypnotized by the stage. At the age of 11, she made her theatrical debut, but her parents were opposed to her pursuing her dream of being an actress. They agreed, instead, to a compromise and sent her to New York City to study voice and piano. This afforded her a certain amount of freedom to pursue acting despite her parents’ objections. In 1905, she made her legitimate stage debut in Mrs. Temple’s Telegram, premiering in Chicago and then moving to New York City. Perry was only 18 years old. It appeared that her career was taking off, but in 1909, Perry married Frank W. Frueauff, president of the Denver Gas and Electric Company, and she left acting … for the time being.
In 1922, Frueauff passed away from a heart attack and the lure of the footlights remained too enticing for Antoinette Perry. Soon, she was back to treading the boards. In 1924, she appeared in Zona Gale’s Mr. Pitt and in George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s Minick. In 1928, Perry gravitated toward directing and producing, establishing a partnership with theatrical producer and director Brock Pemberton. Together, they produced several hits, including Divorce Me Dear, Ceiling Zero, Red Harvest, Strictly Dishonorable, Personal Appearance, and Kiss the Boys Goodbye. Of all their successes, the Pulitzer Prize–winning classic Harvey by Mary Chase was their most distinguished and continues to enjoy regular revivals to this day. Perry also directed Harvey, doing so in an era when only a handful of women had the honor of helming a Broadway production.
Antoinette Perry was one of the founding members of the American Theatre Wing, and served as both its chairwoman and secretary. To better understand her contribution, one has to have a better understanding of the organization and its history. The American Theatre Wing itself is “dedicated to supporting excellence and education in theatre.” Originally established in 1917 during World War I as the Stage Women’s War Relief, it evolved in 1939 to become a branch of the British War Relief Society. This was where Perry, along with a host of other theater professionals, including Helen Hayes and Tallulah Bankhead, began fundraising and holding clothing drives to help outfit European refugees. By the end of 1941, it was clear that the United States would be entering the fray of World War II, and the Stage Women’s War Relief was rechristened the American Theatre Wing of the Allied War Relief. Moving forward, their work turned predominantly toward supporting the soldiers in the war effort.
One of Perry’s signature contributions in this new era of the American Theatre Wing was in cofounding the Stage Door Canteens, which provided entertainment to serviceman in several cities around the United States. The first Stage Door Canteen opened on March 2, 1942, in the basement of the 44th Street Theatre. Performers, movers, and shakers of the entertainment world pitched in to give their time and talent for our boys heading overseas. Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, and Sam Jaffe cleared tables and washed dishes. Gertrude Lawrence, Walter Pidgeon, Tallulah Bankhead, and myriad others, led by Antionette Perry, did their part for the cause as workers and entertainers.
When Antoinette Perry died from a heart attack in 1946 at the age of 58, Brock Pemberton suggested that the American Theatre Wing devise a series of awards that would be named in her honor. Starting in 1947, the Antoinette Perry Awards, or “The Tonys,” became an annual tradition, recognizing the excellence that the American Theatre Wing, and Antoinette Perry in particular, had promoted. Her legacy and groundbreaking achievements continue to be felt today.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.