In 2010, many people still don't know that this prestigious award is named in honor of a woman, Denver socialite Antoinette Perry, who later gained fame as an actress, producer, and director. Her nickname was actually "Toni," but at the first awards ceremony, held in 1947, the award became known as a "Tony" and the name has stuck ever since.
Perry's route to Broadway was circuitous, but, once she got there, she attracted the attention of David Warfield, a popular actor of the early 1900s, and his producer partner, impresario David Belasco. She was cast as Warfield's leading lady in A Grand Army Man at Belasco's new Styvestant Theatre (now the Belasco), and she became romantically linked with both men.
However, when Frank Frueauff, a Denver beau who merged energy companies to form Cities Service (later CITGO), came to town, he was the one who won the prize. He married Antoinette in 1909 and they traveled throughout Europe and later entertained at their Fifth Avenue apartment. And since Perry's theatrical aspirations clashed with Frueauff's conservative lifestyle, she gave up theater to become wife, mother, and hostess at their elegant, lavish parties.
But in 1920, after being approached by Brock Pemberton, a press agent turned producer, she invested in Zona Gale's comedy Miss Lulu Bett, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Thereafter, she became Pemberton's silent partner, and the two continued to work together until Perry's death.
In 1922, Frueauff died of heart failure, leaving a $13 million estate but no will. After a long court battle, Perry was awarded nine million dollars and continued to enjoy an extravagant life. In the summer of 1923, she took daughters Margaret and Elaine, a governess, "Uncle" Brock, as the children called him, his wife Margaret, and ten other people to Europe for seven weeks. By that time, she and Pemberton had also joined forces romantically (a fact that Mrs. Pemberton was seemingly oblivious to).
However, as much as she enjoyed living the high life, theater was still in her blood and she was soon back on the boards in plays by George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, and William S. Gilbert. In 1927, when a stroke left a side of her face paralyzed, she segued into directing. Between 1928 and 1945, Perry staged and/or co-produced nearly 20 Broadway shows, including such hits as Strictly Dishonorable (1929), Personal Appearance (1934) and Clare Boothe's Kiss the Boys Good-bye (1938), a spoof of the search for Scarlett O'Hara. In 1945, Perry and Pemberton struck gold with Mary Chase's Harvey, which won the Pulitzer Prize and became a long-running smash.
During World War II, Perry co-founded the Theatre Wing of Allied Relief (subsequently known as the American Theatre Wing, which is the co-presenter of the Tony Awards), which operated the Stage Door Canteen in the basement of the (now razed) 44th Street Theatre. There, some of the world's brightest stars worked as dishwashers, waiters, waitresses, and entertainers for the armed forces. The sale of rights for a movie about the canteen and a six-figure check from Perry -- along with support from Rodgers and Hammerstein -- also provided the funds for USO tours of shows to overseas troops.
Unknown even to close friends, however, was the fact that Perry was an inveterate gambler. "The seed money for many a show or Wing activity came from her track winnings," said her daughter, Margaret. "Even during Wing board meetings, she'd have her secretary tip toe in to give the odds on the ponies and then discreetly exit to call her bookie."
After the war ended, Perry helped finance the work of playwrights as president of the National Experimental Theatre and was the guiding force in setting up a Wing-sponsored national actor's school, which gave many returning military their theatrical breaks.
In 1946, Perry developed heart problems -- and being a Christian Scientist, she refused conventional medical treatment. On June 28, the night before her 58th birthday, Perry had a fatal heart attack. It was revealed later she was $300,000 in debt and subsisting on $800 a week from her Harvey royalties.
Following her death, Pemberton proposed an award for distinguished stage acting and technical achievement be named in her honor: the Antoinette Perry Awards. And now, 64 years later, there is still no higher theatrical honor than winning the "Tony."
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