Antoinette Perry Makes a Name
The Tony Awards memorialize Tony.
Tony--actually, Toni--was the nickname of a stunningly beautiful, tough-as-nails Denver-born actress, Antoinette Perry, who successfully turned to producing and directing in an era when women in the business were usually relegated to acting, costume design, or choreography. Well into the 1970s, she remained the only woman director with a track record of Broadway hits.
Born in 1888, Perry showed theatrical instincts from an early ago. "I wanted to be an actress as soon as I could lisp," she wrote. "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." Her uncle, who ran a touring company, stimulated her desire to act, but at age nine, her goal changed. She put on plays at her Denver home, "but I didn't perform. I was director, costumer, and set designer."
Perry began her acting career in Chicago and then moved to New York. In 1909, at the peak of her success, she married Frank Frueauff, who merged Denver Gas and Electric with Cities Service Corporation (now CITGO). They were madly in love, and traveled the great ocean liners to Europe. Back home on Fifth Avenue, they entertained in robber-baron style. Soon, however, Toni's theatrical aspirations clashed with Frank's conservative lifestyle, and he convinced her to give up the stage and raise their two daughters.
In 1920, approached by Brock Pemberton, a flamboyant press agent turned producer, Perry rejected her husband's advice and became an "angel" in Pemberton's production of Zona Gale's comedy Miss Lulu Bett (which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize). Frueauff died of a heart attack in 1922, leaving a $13 million estate but no will. After court battles involving Frueauff's stock in Cities Service, the company settled out of court for $9 million--two-thirds placed in trust for the couple's children; the balance to Perry.
"Mother lent money generously," recalled her daughter Margaret Perry, now 88 and a former actress. Speaking from her wilderness ranch in Colorado, Margaret explained, "She bailed actors and playwrights out of overdue hotel bills. She enjoyed the extravagant life. In the summer of 1923, she took us, our governess, Uncle Brock (as we were instructed to call him), his wife Margaret, and 10 others to Europe for seven weeks. On coming home, Mother heard theater's siren call again."
At the time, Perry confessed to an interviewer she didn't find her life very fulfilling. "Should I go on playing bridge and dining, going in the same old monotonous circle?" she mused. "It's easy that way. But it's a sort of suicide, too."
A month later, the stock market crashed.
"Mother awoke $2 million in debt," remembered Margaret. "It took seven years to recover. Somehow, probably because of the success of Strictly Dishonorable, she got a loan of $2 million." The partners kept going, co-producing 17 plays in 13 years, including the hits Personal Appearance (1934) and Clare Boothe's Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938), a spoof of the search for Scarlett O'Hara.
Perry and Pemberton shared an intimate office in a theater [adjacent to the Imperial, on the site of the present parking lot] and lunched daily at Sardi's, where they fueled theatrical gossip. However, at the end of the business day, she'd go home to her children and he to his wife.
"Because of the effects of the stroke, mother tired easily," reported Margaret. "She came home, ate as she read scripts, and saw that we did our school work. Promptly at nine, Brock would phone and they'd talk for hours."
With the introduction of Toni home permanent hair products, Antoinette Perry decided to discreetly alter her nickname to Tony. She remained strongly focused on her goals, and as a director, blazed trails for women. In one month in 1937, she directed (and co-produced) three Pemberton productions, "sometimes rehearsing in the living room," recalled Margaret, "once while peeling peaches for preserves."
Perry wrote that she felt a responsibility to audiences. "Do you realize that a theatrical performance is one of the few things which the public is willing to pay for in advance, sight unseen?" She was a perfectionist with the philosophy that "a director should work closely with everyone from the producer to the crew."
She warned would-be actors that theater was a calling. "Be sure your desire is not based on boredom, an urge for so-called freedom, or the necessity of earning a livelihood," she said. "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."
The late actress Benay Venuta observed that when 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 learned technique from her. Tony could be tough. At rehearsal, she once screamed, 'Benay, what the hell are you doing?' I replied, 'Taking a breath.' She said, 'No, no, no. If you do, the audience is going to hold its breath, too. Act out that pause. Don't go for every laugh. Ride over the little laughs and go for the big one.'
"Working with her could be frustrating, but there was a payoff," Venuta went on. "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."
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."
The late, esteemed first lady of the American theater, Helen Hayes, observed, "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. She was a good communicator and wonderful at teaching timing. But, oh, my, when crossed, she didn't mind screaming to get a point across."
And yet despite her theatrical credentials, Perry is best remembered for her generosity and leadership during 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 visiting members of the armed forces. The sale of film rights for a story about the Canteen, a six-figure check from Perry, and support from Rodgers and Hammerstein provided USO tours of shows to overseas troops.
"The seed money for many a Wing activity or show investment came from my mother's track winnings," said Margaret Perry, who confided that her mother was an inveterate gambler. "Even during Wing board meetings, Mother played the horses. She'd have her secretary tiptoe 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 actors' school was realized in 1946.
Unfortunately, Perry's remarkable career was cut short by illness. "Mother developed heart problems," Margaret said, "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 the war's end, Pemberton was 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, Antoinette Perry suffered a fatal heart attack. She was $300,000 in debt and living on $800 a week from her Harvey royalties. Once, when a reporter asked her, "Why do you devote so much of your money and time to such thankless activities?" she quickly replied, "Thankless? They're anything but that. I'm just a fool for the theater."
"It's true," Margaret said fondly. "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."