Theatre Community Turns Out to Salute Special Tony Honorees

By Robert Simonson
27 Oct 2004

Brooke Shields (left) and Lucie Arnaz
Brooke Shields (left) and Lucie Arnaz
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The cream of the New York theatre community convened at Tavern on the Green Oct. 26 to honor a group of professionals they have known long and well. The occasion was the presentation of the 2004 Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre.

This year's winners were marketing executive Nancy Coyne, restaurateurs Vincent Sardi, Jr. and Frances and Harry Edelstein, photographer Martha Swope and the cast of Roundabout Theatre's Big River revival.

All the recipients expressed surprise that the Tony committee had thought of them at all. Vincent Sardi, Jr., son of Vincent Sardi, Sr., who founded the famous Broadway eatery that bears his family name, said he was not even aware—until now—that his father had been similarly honored by the Tonys in 1947.

Martha Swope said of her notification, "I kept thinking did they really call or did I imagine it?"

Brooke Shields, currently starring in Wonderful Town, hosted the event, which took place in the Tavern's Crystal Room. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also gave a special address.

Each award was presented by someone who knew the honoree well, beginning with Disney executive Thomas Schumacher. "Whenever people interview me, they inevitably ask me about the 'Disney Marketing Machine,'" said Schumacher. "'How does the Disney Machine work?' Well, I'm here to tell you that anyone here can hire the 'Disney Marketing Machine.' There she is: Nancy Coyne."

Coyne, who heads Serino Coyne, Broadway's leading advertising agency, recalled her beginnings writing copy at Blaine Thompson, the reigning marketing outfit in post-World War II New York. "I remember the first time the boss came back to my little cubby hole and said, 'I want you to go to this show tonight, and I've got two tickets so your husband can go too. And before the show I want you to go to Sardi's. And sign it! And take a cab home.' I was literally hyperventilating."

Sardi's loomed large in the imagination of many present. Playwright Neil Simon, who presented Vincent Sardi, Jr., with his Tony, remembered walking into the restaurant after the opening of his musical Little Me. "It was the applause there that meant something, not the applause in the theatre," he said.

Simon also presented the Edelsteins with their trophy. Simon's connection with the Edelstein's Edison Cafe (aka "The Polish Tearoom") is such that he wrote a play about it, 45 Seconds From Broadway. "The Edison Cafe should get an award for Best Revival of a Pastrami Sandwich," he joked. "Not much of what I remember of old Broadway is around anymore, but Frances and Harry are still here."

Musical theatre actress Chita Rivera and choreographer Arthur Mitchell introduced Martha Swope, who for decades photographed almost every important Broadway show that was staged. Rivera informed the crowd of the little known fact that Swope came from Waco, Texas, to New York to become a dancer. She, Rivera and Mitchell took classes together at School of American Ballet. Her career as a photographer began when she asked Jerome Robbins if she might take some shots during rehearsals of West Side Story. The pictures were published in Life and her career was made.

"Martha took my favorite photo of myself," said Rivera. "I liked the way my face looked, and the line of my body. My legs were perfect. Then I looked down at the bottom of the photo and the caption read: 'Rita Moreno.' I nearly died.

"Theatre and dance are time bound," she continued. "They live in the moment and then are gone. But these wonderful moments continue to exist in the posters, Playbills and tickets stubs you save, and, or course, the photographs. Martha is an expert of using a mechanical device to translate the essence of live performance."

Actress Lucy Arnaz presented the Tony to the cast of Big River, many of whom had just flown in from a tour date at the Aoyama Theatre in Tokyo, Japan. "We all just got in yesterday," said Michael McElroy, who despite his travels, looked rather spruce. "Everybody's so excited and wanted to be here for this."

Established in 1990, The Tony Honors have been presented annually by the Tony Administration Committee to "institutions, individuals and/or organizations that have demonstrated extraordinary achievement in theatre, but are not eligible in any of the established Tony Award categories." In 2003, a new tradition began whereby the Tony Honors would be announced and presented in a separate ceremony to allow the honorees their due moment.