In 1982, theater critic Elliot Norton retired after 48 years of writing for Boston newspapers and, concurrently, moderating Elliot Norton Reviews on WGBH-TV for 24 years. He had covered more than 6,000 productions locally and elsewhere, and in 1971 had become the only critic to receive a special Tony Award while still in journalistic harness.
During his heyday, Boston theater consisted mainly of a steady parade of productions that visited seven downtown theaters on their way from New Haven to Broadway. And Norton's views were the ones most eagerly awaited by producers and directors. As it happens, when Norton retired the Boston-tryout system was on the wane, but a fresh phenomenon was just starting with the establishment of two major resident companies: the Huntington Theatre Company at Boston University and the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) at Harvard (imported, with trepidation in some quarters, from rival Yale).
Boston impresario and theater historian William Morris Hunt II had the notion of honoring Norton's lengthy career by soliciting funds to bestow annually an Elliot Norton Medal on "an individual who made a distinguished contribution to the theater of Boston during the past theater season." The recognition took the form of a silver medallion bearing Norton's likeness, along with a check for a thousand dollars. The recipient was chosen by a committee that included Norton himself.
For some years, under Hunt's direction, the Medal was sponsored by the Boston Theatre District Association, and then by the League of Boston Theatres (both now defunct). Starting in 1983, the Medal was first presented to a series of artistic directors--Peter Altman of the Huntington, Robert Brustein of the A.R.T., and Peter Sellars, wunderkind honcho of the incipient Boston Shakespeare Company. They were followed by Gloucester-centered playwright/producer Israel Horovitz. In 1987 a performer was the honoree for the first time when the Medal was hung around the neck of actress Sandra Shipley. The next year actor Sir Ian McKellen was honored for the run of his Acting Shakespeare at the Charles Playhouse.
The 1989 Medal went to a director for the first time when Jacques Cartier won for his staging of Molière's Don Juan at the Huntington. On the same occasion the selection committee first hinted at an expansion of the guidelines by announcing three commendations: to young local actor Michael Goodson, who had recently died after doing distinguished work at the now-disbanded New Ehrlich Theatre; to New York actress Ruth Maleczech, for four separate appearances in Boston during the year; and to Peter Sellars' successor Tina Packer, who had directed a shattering production of Frank McGuinness' award-winning Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at Boston College.
In 1990 the committee decided to take the full plunge by supplementing the Medal with formal honors to an outstanding Boston actress and an outstanding Boston actor--in any venue. These were $500 prizes originally named (at Norton's suggestion) for historic Boston-born luminaries, actress Charlotte Cushman (1816-76) and actor Otis Skinner (1858-1942). Thus the enterprise became truly plural: the Elliot Norton Awards, comprising a Norton Medal, a Cushman Prize, and a Skinner Prize. That year the Medal went to actor Robert Morse for his uncanny portrayal of Truman Capote in Tru, a performance that would shortly also bring him a Tony Award. The first Cushman Prize went to Dossy Peabody, and the first Skinner Prize to Jeremiah Kissel--both of whom, fortunately, are still active locally.