April 6, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
With the 2019–2020 season halted due to COVID-19, the scheduled Tony Awards ceremony in June has been indefinitely postponed. That old showbiz adage “the show must go on” has been dashed in ways Broadway’s thriving economy could not have foretold, and with it any sense of closure for the current season. As a lyric in Kismet’s “Stranger in Paradise” goes, things “hang suspended.”
In 1967, when I was a ten-year-old kid in love with the theatre, I made sure to be in front of my parents’ black & white TV for the first airing of the Tony Awards ceremony on national television. The hosts chosen for this historic event were Mary Martin and Robert Preston, then the stars of that season’s hit musical I Do! I Do!, the first Broadway show I ever saw. In order to compete with the Oscars and the Emmys, the Tonys smartly sought star power such as Preston and Martin in order to bring in the required ratings for what was truly an experiment. It would prove a challenge to drudge up interest in some of the awards themselves as some were not expected to go to household names. Two British actors, Paul Rogers (The Homecoming) and Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George), whom American audiences had surely never heard of, took home Actor and Actress in a Play Tonys. To compensate, Alexander H. Cohen, the theatrical impresario hired to produce the show, made sure the presenters were famous faces such as Carol Burnett, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Zero Mostel and Barbra Streisand (all with appropriate theatrical lineages). Well-reviewed and with respectable ratings, the broadcast effectively changed the lifeblood of the theatre from that night forward. As but one example, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, which was awarded Best Dramatic Play, had been doing poor business up to that point and posted a closing notice. After the broadcast, the box office take tripled and it ran an additional seven months.
And by the way, the entire show was one-hour, broadcast from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. Yes — that’s all it took to hand out twelve awards and present four musical numbers — with commercials! Yes, the speeches were crazy short. Robert Preston’s was one sentence and lasted 7 seconds.
But I digress. Today is not the anniversary of that night, but the un-televised evening the very first Tony Awards were handed out on Easter Sunday April 6, 1947, seventy-three years ago in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria. As you can see below, the ticket announces it as the “1st Annual Presentation of the Antoinette Perry Awards 1946–47.”
The creation of the American Theatre Wing (still a co-sponsor of the Tonys), was founded in a different spirit 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 in 1946, was serving as the President of the Wing. By then the organization had morphed out of something that had begun on the eve of America’s entry into the first World War in 1917, originally as the Stage Women’s War Relief, an effort formed by seven women devoted to charitable causes. It 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 Wing’s mission of charitable work in new directions, one of which was the creation of numerous Stage Door Canteens. Serving food and refreshments to servicemen throughout the United States (as well as in London and Paris), the canteens were a fixture during the war years. 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.
When Antoinette Perry died from a sudden heart attack a 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 with no one left to wonder if their name would be called upon the opening of an envelope. 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 (a novel approach to awards giving). This is one of the reasons why to this day some categories of achievement are freshly instituted, such as one for Sound Design in 2008 (though it was inexplicably dropped after 2014 before being re-instated in 2017). 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 the 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:
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 and 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 its pedestel was introduced for the first time in 1967, at that year’s first national broadcast, in order to make it easier to hand to its recipients — fun fact.
But twenty years earlier, 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), David Wayne (Finian’s Rainbow) and in her Broadway debut, Patricia Neal (Another Part of the Forest). 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 dubbed it “a Tony” (Antoinette Perry’s nickname), it stuck as a worthy monicker. Today, the Tonys have a shared custody by both its progenitor, the American Theatre Wing, and the Broadway League (once the League of New York Theatres), which now encompasses producers from all over the country.
With any luck, there will be a presentation of the 73rd Tony Awards, perhaps this fall. If not, like so many things disrupted in the wake of this pandemic, we all must continue to be patient and vigilant. It’s the health of our nation and its citizens that’s at the core of this fight, and as the theatre has endured even worse times than this in world history, we shall most surely see the lights of Broadway lit again. Amen.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.