The silver medallion of the masks of comedy and tragedy, known as the American Theatre Wing’s Tony Award, is theatre’s most prestigious and coveted prize. But, you may wonder, how in the world did a theatre award get the name ‘Tony’? Who was this Tony, and what’s his or her claim to theatre history?
Tony — actually Toni — was the nickname of a stunningly beautiful but tough-as-nails Denver actress, Antoinette Perry, who later turned successfully to producing and directing in an era when women in the business were usually relegated to acting, costume design or choreography.
Miss Perry, from age three, showed innovative theatrical instincts. Once established in New York, she scored an enviable roster of hits and became one of theater’s most influential women. She’s still one of the most revered. Amazingly, well into the 1970s, Perry was the only woman director with a track record of Broadway hits.
Reflecting on her career in 1935, Miss Perry wrote, “I wanted to be an actress as soon as I could lisp. I didn’t say I was going to become an actress. I felt I was one. No one could have convinced me I wasn’t.”
At age 15, she joined her uncle George Wessells’s touring company. “I watched and learned. I did everything from helping in wardrobe to selling tickets. I was petite and blonde and soon was playing the ingenue in melodramas and farces. Eventually, Uncle George trained me, mainly in the Shakespearean male roles.”
She left the Wessels company in 1905 in Chicago where she auditioned for the part that brought her to New York. She was almost immediately cast to join The Music Master, a long-running melodrama about a Viennese conductor in America searching for his daughter. Miss Perry played the lead female role opposite David Warfield, one of the theatre’s most popular actors.
Warfield had great admiration for Miss Perry and they became friends. He was associated with impresario David Belasco and arranged for Miss Perry to audition for him. In October 1907, Miss Perry was cast as Warfield’s leading lady in Belacso’s A Grand Army Man at his new Styvestant Theatre (now the Belasco).
Soon, another man was in Antoinette Perry’s life. Frank Frueauff, an old beau from home who merged Denver Gas and Electric, of which he was vice president, with Cities Service (now CITGO). They fell madly in love, and, at the peak of her New York acting career, Miss Perry married Frueauff. They traveled the great liners to Europe and, on settling in New York, entertained in their Fifth Avenue apartment in robber baron style.
As many of her friends predicted, Miss Perry’s theatrical aspirations clashed with Frank’s conservative lifestyle. It didn’t take him long to convince her to give up theater and become a full-time wife, mother and hostess. Or so her husband thought.
In 1920, approached by Brock Pemberton, a flamboyant press agent turned producer, Miss Perry, unbeknownst to Frueauff, became an “angel” in Pemberton’s production of Zona Gale’s comedy Miss Lulu Bett. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and become a huge hit. Soon Miss Perry was Pemberton’s silent partner. When her husband discovered his wife has invested in theatre and had done so well, he gave his blessings. Then, in 1922, he died of a heart attack. He left a $13-million estate.
“Mother generously lent money,” daughter Margaret Perry, 89 and an actress who long ago gave up theatre, said from her wilderness ranch in Colorado, “and bailed actors and playwrights out of overdue hotel bills. She enjoyed the extravagant life. The summer of 1923, she took us, our governess, Uncle Brock, as we were instructed to call him, and his wife Margaret, and ten others to Europe for seven weeks. On coming home, Mother heard theatre’s siren call again.”
Perry advised novices that being an actor was not for everyone: “Be sure your desire is not based on boredom, an urge for so-called freedom, or the necessity of earning a livelihood . . . Freedom and the theater are incompatible. For the theater is a despot, a tyrant to whom you must be willing to pay tribute with every breathing moment.”
She told an interviewer she wasn’t leading a very fulfilling life. “Should I go on playing bridge and dining, going in the same old monotonous circle? It’s easy that way. But it’s a sort of suicide, too.”
Miss Perry hadn’t been forgotten, and was soon back on the boards in starring roles in a broad spectrum of plays by Kaufman, Ferber, and William S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan). However, in 1927, due to the debilitating effects of a stroke which left a side of her face paralyzed, she left acting.
A Director is Born
She went into a great depression and became an avid reader. Inspired by actress/playwright Rachel Crothers, who directed her own plays, Perry decided she wanted to direct. Her wealth, which she doubled playing the stock market, and her relationship with Pemberton were her entree. They joined forces, professionally as well as romantically, and had modest successes. In 1929, they struck paydirt with Preston Sturges’s Strictly Dishonorable, a cynical play about virtue and Prohibition. A critic praised Perry “for doing a man’s job” as director. Scalpers got $30 a ticket. Movie rights were sold. They were on their way to easy street.
A month later, the stock market crashed.
“Mother awoke two million dollars in debt,” recalled Margaret. “It took seven years to recover. Somehow, probably because of the success of Strictly Dishonorable, she got a loan of two million dollars.”
Perry and Pemberton shared an intimate office in a theatre (it was adjacent to the Imperial, where there is a parking lot today), and lunched daily at Sardi’s, where they fueled lots of theatrical gossip. However, at the end of their business day, she’d go home to her children and he to his wife.
“Because of the effects of the stroke,” reported Margaret, “mother tired easily. She came home, ate as she read scripts and saw we did our school work. Promptly at nine, Brock would phone and they’d talk for hours. They remained devoted friends until Mother’s death.”
With the introduction of the Toni Home Permanent products, Miss Perry decided to discreetly alter her nickname to Tony. She remained strongly focused on her goals. As a director, she blazed trails for women. In one month in 1937, she directed (and co-produced) three Pemberton productions, “sometimes rehearsing in the living room,” said Margaret, “once while peeling peaches for preserves.”
Of the team’s 17 plays in 13 years, there were impressive hits, among them: Personal Appearance (1934) and Claire Boothe’s Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938), a spoof of the search for Scarlett O’Hara. The latter had a stellar cast: Helen Claire, Benay Venuta, Hugh Marlowe, Sheldon Leonard, Phil Ober and Millard Mitchell.
Interviewed shortly before her death, Benay Venuta spoke of her experience in the play and working with Miss Perry. “I was a tall, brash blonde, a big band vocalist [with the Vincent Lopez orchestra] who’d never read for a play, or done anything but sing. And I got the part. The show was a smash. Helen Claire wore a hoop skirt and pretended to be from the South with this accent that dripped magnolias. I was Myra Stanhope, who was attempting to get the role of Scarlett by sleeping with all the men involved with the movie.”
Miss Venuta observed that when Miss Perry spoke, the male power brokers listened. “I never heard her criticized on the basis of being a woman. She was a good communicator and wonderful at teaching timing. I don’t believe in acting technique and I certainly didn’t know anything about it then. But Tony taught me. She was tough and didn’t mind screaming at me or any of the other actors.”
But, Miss Venuta observed, working with Miss Perry could be frustrating. “She’d have us learn pages and pages of dialogue, then say, ‘I’m cutting this, this, and this.’ We asked why. ‘Now you know what’s essential,’ she replied. And when we did the streamlined version, we could see her vision. There was a bigger payoff. Tony could see the forest and the trees.”
The late set designer Ben Edwards recalled Perry’s oft-repeated dictum about staging a comedy: “Don’t have too many open doors or the comedy will go right out.”
Helen Hayes, the late, esteemed First Lady of the Theater, noted, “Tony was a gifted and versatile actress, and one of the best directors the American theater has produced. What made her wonderful to work for was how she gave actors the opportunity to express themselves. She didn’t impose her will on them.
“Tony,” continued Miss Hayes, “didn’t mind ruffling a few feathers to make a point. In that day, the casting of blacks in establishment theatre was limited to sterotypical roles, but she saw to it that they received the same treatment and pay as the other actors.”
Tony’s deft hand with comedy paid off co-producing and directing Mary Chase’s Harvey (1944). It won the Pulitzer Prize over The Glass Menagerie and became a long-running smash with Hollywood begging for the rights.
Antoinette Perry: Philanthropist
In spite of her theatrical credentials, Perry is best remembered for her generosity and leadership in World War II as a co-founder of the Theatre Wing of Allied Relief, subsequently, the American Theatre Wing.
The Wing operated the famed Stage Door Canteen in the basement of the (now razed) 44th Street Theatre, where stars worked as dishwashers, waiters, waitresses, and entertainers for the armed forces. The sale of film rights for a story about the canteen, and a six-figure check from Perry along with support from Rodgers and Hammerstein, provided USO tours of shows to overseas troops.
Margaret confided her mother was an inveterate gambler. “The seed money for many a Wing activity or show investment came from her track winnings. Even during Wing board meetings, mother played the horses. She’d have her secretary tip toe in to give her the odds, then place a wager with a bookie.”
Perry was also president of the National Experimental Theatre and financed, with Actors Equity and the Dramatists Guild, the work of new playwrights. During and after the war, she underwrote auditions for 7,000 hopefuls. Her dream of a national actor’s school was realized in 1946.
“Mother developed heart problems,” Margaret explained, “but, as a devout Christian Scientist, she refused to see a doctor. That, her directorial duties and her dedication to the work of the Wing took a terrible toll.” By now, because of their huge successes, Pemberton was a member of cafe society and, because of his brother’s membership in the Algonquin Roundtable, on the best terms with literary society. “But,” noted Margaret, “from wherever he was, he’d call Mother every night. Often his calls were the only thing that alleviated her intense physical pain.”
On June 28, 1946, as Margaret and her sister Elaine (an actress, stage manager, and producer/director who died in 1986) made plans for their mother’s 58th birthday celebration the next day, Miss Perry had a fatal heart attack.
She was $300,000 in debt and living on $800 a week from her Harvey royalties. Once a reporter questioned her support of things theatrical. He asked, “Why do you devote so much of your money and time to such thankless activities?” Replied Tony, “Thankless? They’re anything but that. I’m just a fool for the theater.”
“True,” said Margaret. “Theater was Mother’s great love, what she lived and breathed. Her outstanding trait was that she cared. It didn’t matter if you were a janitor, cab driver, or, on that pedestal of pedestals, an actor.”
Pemberton memorialized her as “an individualist who met life head on, dramatized life, and gave of a generous nature.” At Jacob Wilk’s suggestion, he proposed an award in her honor for distinguished stage acting and technical achievement. At the initial event in 1947, as he handed out an award, he called it a Tony. The name stuck.