Broadway Features and Reviews
Celebrating The Toni in Broadway's Tony Awards
By Lauren Mastro, Broadway Magazine
This Sunday, Broadway's creme de la creme will gather at the majestic Radio City Music Hall in hopeful anticipation of returning home with a Tony. The silver medallion engraved with the masks of comedy and tragedy has honored the theatrical achievements of stars like Audrey Hepburn and Alan Bates. The most impressive achievement the Awards celebrate, however, is that of the woman whose story inspired the Tony Awards in the first place.
Tony, or originally Toni, was the nickname of generous yet tough Denver actress Antoinette Perry, who later pursued ambitious careers in directing and producing. Most importantly, Perry found her creative niche in a theatrical world dominated by men during the first half of the 20th century.
Perry said she discovered an innate passion for acting at a young age when she joined her uncle's touring company. She was an observant participant, soaking up every bit of knowledge she could about show business. She also acquired the confidence and experience in all aspects of production that would propel the rest of her career.
Perry's career gained momentum in 1905 when she was cast as the female lead in The Music Master opposite popular actor David Warfield. Warfield and Perry forged a friendly relationship, and the two appeared together again in David Belasco's A Grand Army Man a couple of years later.
Romantically, Perry was involved with Denver entrepreneur Frank Frueauff, and the two eventually married. However, Perry's acting career did not fit well into Frueauff's high-end corporate lifestyle, and she soon gave up her career altogether.
Perry didn't stay out of the limelight for long, as she was convinced by producer Brock Pemberton to play a role in the comedy Miss Lulu Bett. The show's enormous success won it a Pulitzer Prize and won Perry her husband's support. Unfortunately, Frueauff died not long after the show took off.
After a brief period of reflection, Perry took the stage in a slew of successful productions, including one by notable producer William S. Gilbert. However, her stage career was cut tragically short when she suffered from a stroke that paralyzed her face.
After facing the devastating effects of her husband's death and her stroke, Perry retreated into books. One of her favorite authors was actress and playwright Rachel Crothers, who also had experience in directing her own plays. With the help of her old friend Pemberton, who later became her love interest, Perry pursued a career in directing. After years of mediocre reviews, the duo finally made a name for themselves with Preston Sturges's cynical play Strictly Dishonorable in 1929.
The financial rewards from the play were short-lived, as the stock market crash forced Perry into debt. She began the gradual process of rebuilding her life through hard work and an extraordinary ability to multi-task. As a part of the rebuilding process, Perry changed her first name to Tony. By 1937, Perry was back on top, sometimes directing three productions at one time.
Perry and Pemberton's most memorable collaborations include Personal Appearance in 1934, Kiss the Boys Good-bye in 1938 and Harvey, which knocked out The Glass Menagerie to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1944. Perry had a reputation for being an extremely demanding director who knew exactly what she wanted in a production. This mentality earned her the respect of her male colleagues and made her a true Renaissance woman in theatre, according to Kiss the Boys Goodbye actress Benay Venuta in an interview. She was also known to provide guidance and opportunities to up-and-coming actors and playwrights. She was president of the National Experimental Theatre, which provided financial assistance to hopeful new playwrights.
Perry's generosity extended beyond the stage, as she was involved in several philanthropy projects. During World War II, Perry spearheaded the Theatre Wing of Allied Relief, now known as the American Theatre Wing. Celebrities worked as waiters and entertainers for the armed forces at the legendary Stage Door Canteen in the basement of the 44th Street Theatre. This project segued into a series of USO tours overseas.
The stress from being involved in numerous charity and theatre projects began to take a toll on Perry's health. She developed heart problems in her later years, but refused to seek medical treatment since she was a devout Christian Scientist. On June 28, 1946, just one day shy of her 58th birthday, Perry died of a heart attack.
Perry touched so many people's lives, both during and after her own lifetime. In her memory, Pemberton proposed an award for distinguished stage acting and technical achievement. The first Tony was awarded in 1947, and it has remained the most prestigious award in theatre.
"Theatre was Mother's great love, what she lived and breathed," her daughter, Margaret Perry, said in an interview. "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."
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