By Ellis Nassour
The Tony Award is Broadway’s most coveted prize. But who’s this Tony? The awards, presented by the American Theatre Wing and Broadway League, got their moniker by honoring an indefatigable actress who segued to top producer and director—Antoinette Perry.
In 1900, the Denver socialite and beauty, nicknamed Toni, captured Broadway as an ingénue. Ten years into her career, she left it behind to wed hometown beau Frank Frueauff, founder of what became CITGO Petroleum Company. Eleven years into their marriage, Miss Perry couldn’t resist theater’s siren call and returned to acting.
In 1922, Frueauff died of a heart attack, leaving a $13-million estate but no will. After a long court battle, his widow was awarded nine million—a fortune at the time. Miss Perry began spending it generously.
“Mother put actors on a pedestal and lent money to them and playwrights,” stated late daughter Margaret Perry, a former actress. “Still, we lived an extravagant life.” However, Miss Perry felt unfulfilled. She said, “Should I go on playing bridge and dining, going in the same old monotonous circle? It’s easy that way, but it’s a sort of suicide.”
Beginning in 1924, she starred in plays by Zona Gale, George Kaufman, Edna Ferber, William S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan), and, later, Clare Booth. She played Clytemnestra in Sophocles’ Electra, directed by the pioneering Margaret Anglin.
In 1927, after a stroke’s debilitating effects paralyzed the left side of her face, she fell into a depression. Her admiration of Miss Anglin and actress/playwright Rachel Crothers, who directed her own plays, led Miss Perry in a new direction. She partnered with flamboyant press agent-turned-producer Brock Pemberton as his “angel” for Miss Gale’s 1928 comedy Miss Lulu Bett, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
The duo joined forces as co-producers and co-directors, and also fueled theatrical gossip lunching daily at Sardi’s. “However, at day’s end,” recalled Margaret, “mother came home and ‘Uncle’ Brock, as we were instructed to call him, headed to his wife.”
The team struck pay dirt again in 1929 with Preston Sturges’ Strictly Dishonorable, a cynical play about virtue and Prohibition. Movie rights were sold. A month later, the stock market crashed. “Mother awoke two million dollars in debt,” recalled Margaret. “It took seven years to recover.”
She was the rare female among male power brokers, but no one ever criticized her for being strict, professional, and female. Miss Perry didn’t mind ruffling feathers. Blacks were limited to stereotypical roles, but she gave them equal treatment and pay.
One month in 1937, she directed (and co-produced) three Pemberton productions, “sometimes rehearsing in our living room,” said Margaret, “while peeling peaches for preserves.” With the introduction of Toni Home Permanent products, Miss Perry altered her nickname to Tony.
Miss Perry’s deft hand with comedy paid off co-producing and directing Mary Chase’s Harvey (1944), with Margaret working as costume supervisor. It won the Pulitzer over The Glass Menagerie, ran four years, and became a Hollywood hit.
In 1940, Miss Perry, with Gertrude Lawrence and others, reactivated the American Theatre Wing, founded in 1917. They staged benefits for the war effort and founded the Stage Door Canteen, where stars worked as dishwashers and waiters and entertained the troops.
Unbeknown to most, Miss Perry was an inveterate gambler. “The seed money for many a Wing activity or investment came from her winnings,” confided Margaret. “Even during board meetings, Mother discreetly placed wagers with a bookie.”
Miss Perry dreamed of a national actor’s school, a goal realized in 1946. Soon after, she developed heart problems. She refused to see a doctor. “The only thing that alleviated her pain was Brock’s nightly call,” stated Margaret.
In June, as Margaret and sister Elaine (later an actress and producer/director) planned a celebration for her 58th birthday, Miss Perry suffered a fatal heart attack. She was $300,000 in debt and living on $800 a week from Harvey royalties.
According to Margaret, “Mother was a fool for the theater. She lived and breathed it.”
Pemberton proposed an award for distinguished acting and technical achievement in theater. At the initial event, on April 6, 1947, at the Waldorf-Astoria, he handed out awards. Pemberton called them a Tony. The name stuck.
The 70th Tony Awards, hosted by James Corden, will telecast on CBS June 12th from 8pm – 11pm.