From childhood, everyone called Antoinette Perry "Toni." That was the name by which she was known in theatrical circles. With much chagrin, she felt compelled in the late 1930s to change the "i" to a "y" with the popularity of the popular Toni hair home permanent line. Miss Perry left acting to become a unique innovator at a time when women producers and directors were not rare but there were only a handful of them.
AN ACTRESS REMEMBERS
"Tony was the most successful woman of her era producing and directing in a male dominated business," actress Benay Venuta said in a 1994 interview not long before she passed away. "She could be flutteringly female but also tough as nails. Tony knew the business inside out. She was raised with a silver spoon in her mouth and married into great wealth.
"She knew finance and big business. She also knew hardship when her husband died without leaving a will and when the stock market crashed. One of Tony's trademarks was a pocket book, as she always called it, slung over her right arm. In good times and bad, it was always open to those in need."
Venuta was a featured vocalist with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra when Miss Perry spotted her and asked her to audition for Clare Booth's Kiss the Boys Goodbye, a 1938 spoof of the search for Scarlet O'Hara for the movie of Margaret Mitchell's novel.
"I was a brassy singer in my 20s," Venuta said, laughing. "All I could do was sing. I'd never read for a play, never did anything in the theatre. But this lady director had faith in me. When I came to audition, she told me, 'Oh, hon, don't you worry, you'll do fine.' And I got the part. I was bad girl Myra Stanhope, a big tall brash blonde who slept with all the men involved in making the movie so I'd get the role of Scarlett. It was a smash. It was an ensemble cast: Helen Clare, Hugh Marlowe, Sheldon Leonard, Phil Ober, Millard Mitchell, John Alexander, and a wonderful black actor, Frank Wilson, who played the butler. "Did I tell you that Tony had spunk? We were in Washington for the pre-Broadway tryout and because our scenery was being installed, we had to rehearse at our hotel, the Willard. When Frank, who had to stay elsewhere because of segregation, arrived the doorman wouldn't let him enter. I was incensed and said, 'This is horrible and disgusting. I can't believe this! I'm from San Francisco and never heard of a thing like this, and in the nation's capital and right across the street from the White House!'
"This guy told me, 'Sorry, ma'am, but it's hotel policy. He'll have to use the service entrance.' I said 'Nothing doing. Frank, just you wait.' And I went and told Tony. She went to the manager and raised a ruckus. I said she could be ladylike. Could is the important word there. Because that morning I saw her explode. It was something. And Frank came in the front door just like everyone else." Venuta said that though she and Perry became friends, "she still screamed at me. She was tough. I don't believe in technique and I certainly didn't know anything about it then. But I learned it from her. In fact, Tony taught me everything I know about theater. Some things I still remember vividly. She was not one for overplaying a role. She told me, 'Don't go for every laugh. It's better to ride over the little laughs and go for the big laugh. Another time, she stopped me rehearsal and asked, `Venay, what the hell are you doing?' I replied, 'I was taking a breath.' She said, 'No, no, no. If you hold your breath, the audience's going to hold its breath, too. Act out that pause.'"
A DAUGHTER REMEMBERS
Antoinette Perry's surviving daughter Margaret, 84, who made her acting debut under her mother's direction (and who later married Burgess Meredith), lives on a ranch in a remote sector of Colorado, a state her grandparents helped settle.
"Mother was generous to a fault," she said. "She was maternal to everyone. It didn't matter if you were the taxi driver who took her to the office, the theatre janitor, or on that pedestal of pedestals to her, an actor. She cared and was always eager to help those in need."
Margaret said that in 1927, during a revival of Electra, in which Miss Perry played Clytemnestra, "Mother came to a decision to leave acting. The effects of a stroke had taken a toll. Mother was no longer the beauty of 15 years ago at the prime of her acting career and her interests changed."
Miss Perry increased the wealth from what she was able to claim of her late husband with shrewd investments. "With father," Margaret explained, "she became adept at playing the stock market. We'd often go to brokerage offices to watch the ticker tape. She guided many an actor to good fortune with her tips."
Margaret confided that her mother was an inveterate gambler. "The seed money for many an American Theatre Wing activity or show investment came from her winnings at the racetrack. 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."
-- By Ellis Nassour