Backward Glances at Tony Memories

News   Backward Glances at Tony Memories June being the traditional month of the Antoinette Perry Tony Awards, it's amusing to recall some of the unusual events that have taken place at this event since its establishment in 1947. In the early years of this award, the ceremony was held in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria. In addition to the Tonys conferred on theatrical luminaries, there were some special awards in 1947 that garnered publicity.

June being the traditional month of the Antoinette Perry Tony Awards, it's amusing to recall some of the unusual events that have taken place at this event since its establishment in 1947. In the early years of this award, the ceremony was held in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria. In addition to the Tonys conferred on theatrical luminaries, there were some special awards in 1947 that garnered publicity.

Mr. Ira Katzenberg, a retired shoe manufacturer and his wife, Rita, were cited for enthusiasm as inveterate first nighters." They had attended opening nights — always in the same front row seats — for three decades. Mr. Katzenberg, who was bald, always spread a handkerchief over his head just as the curtain rose ("to avoid catching a cold"). Many years later, it was irascible producer David Merrick who refused the Katzenbergs their "Row A" opening night seats. "I don't want those two mummies who fall asleep, distracting the actors." They stopped going to first nights.

In 1947, another special Tony went to Vincent Sardi, Sr., the restaurateur, "for providing a transient home and comfort station for theatre folk at Sardi's for twenty years."

Two Tony Award winners in 1950 had a bizarre surprise. Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer were cited for their brilliant performance in William Inge's first Broadway play, Come Back, Little Sheba. Imagine their surprise when they received their medallions and the inscription cited them for their performance in the musical South Pacific.

The official rules of the Tony Awards state that in order to qualify for an acting award, the performer's name must appear in the opening-night cast of a Broadway show. There have been two notable exceptions. In 1956, singer Lotte Lenya won a Tony as Best Supporting Actress in the Off Broadway musical, The Threepenny Opera. In 1971, Larry Kert was nominated for Best Actor in the musical Company, although he was not in the show on opening night. He succeeded Dean Jones in the show's leading role, shortly after the musical opened. I once asked Isabelle Stevenson, for many years the President of the American Theatre Wing, the founder of the Tony Awards, why these two exceptions were made and she replied that the rules were sometimes changed when warranted. Perhaps the most glittering and most memorable Tony Award presentation was the one held at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1970. In addition to the awards for the theatrical season, special awards were given to Noel Coward Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Barbra Streisand and The New York Shakespeare Festival. The presentations were made by such luminaries as Cary Grant, James Stewart, Michael Caine, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Patricia Neal, David Frost and Clive Barnes. The set for the musical Coco, then playing at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, was used for the telecast. It featured an imposing stairway, and as Noel Coward majestically descended it to accept his award, he purred to the audience: "This is my first award, so please be kind."

Then there was the occasion when Elizabeth Taylor was invited to the Tony Awards to present a citation to the Nederlander organization. To the theatrical community's horror, instead of saying Nederlander, she blurted, "the Nedelheimer Organization." Nedelheimer was the name of an ice cream parlor in the theatrical district.

In 1989 Playbill asked well-known theatregoers to name the Tony Award winning performances that had made the deepest impression on them through the years. The most votes went to Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!; Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof and Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba. Producer/director Harold Prince voted for Ms. Booth and stated, "I remember jumping to my feet when the curtain fell. Those were the days when standing ovations meant something."

There is one mystery about the Tony Awards that to this day has not been solved. According to Joel Wyman, the Deputy Editor of the Tony Awards Playbill, one year, when the awards were staged at the Winter Garden Theatre, a messenger bearing hundreds of sandwiches attempted to deliver them to the Stage Door. He also expected to be paid the whopping bill. He was asked who ordered them. He claimed that the sandwiches had been ordered by phone for the stagehands at the theatre. No one had knowledge about the order, and the furious messenger was dismissed from the theatre — with his sandwiches and his bill.

-- by Louis Botto