FROM THE 2011 TONY PLAYBILL: Who Was the Original "Tony"?

By Ellis Nassour
10 Jun 2011

Antoinette Perry
Antoinette Perry

The Tony Award, unlike the Grammy and Emmy, is named for a real person. Meet the late, great star.

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Tony was the nickname of Denver-born actress Antoinette Perry (1888-1946), who later turned to producing and directing in an era when women in the theatre were relegated mainly to acting, costume design or choreography.

Perry first made her mark on Broadway as a performer, appearing in a broad spectrum of dramas and comedies from 1906 to 1926. Then she joined forces with Brock Pemberton as a producing/directing duo. Their first of many hits was Preston Sturges' Strictly Dishonorable (1929), a cynical play about virtue and Prohibition.

Perry's deft hand with comedy paid off co-producing and directing Herschel Williams and Josephine Bentham's Janie (642 performances) and their biggest smash, Mary Chase's Harvey (1944), which won the Pulitzer Prize over The Glass Menagerie and ran more than four years, with Hollywood begging for the film rights.


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Actress Vera Allen, shortly before her death in 1987, observed, "Tony might have been small in stature, but, oh, the strength she had. And the strength she gave others. People must wonder who Antoinette Perry was. We should tell them. Here we have the only award named in honor of a real person who made real contributions. Naming the awards after Tony was justified by her Herculean tasks during the war years, but she was so much more!"

During World War II Perry was a leader of the American Theatre Wing, which operated the famed Stage Door Canteen in the basement of the (now razed) 44th Street Theatre. Her dream of a national actor's school was realized in 1946. However, on June 28 of that year, Perry suffered a fatal heart attack.

Jacob Wilk and John Golden proposed to Pemberton an award for distinguished stage acting and technical achievement be named in her honor. Pemberton in turn took the idea to the Wing. At the initial event in 1947, as he handed out an award, he called it a Tony. The name stuck.

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Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Kline."

This article appears in the Playbill for the 65th annual Tony Awards, June 12, 2011, at the Beacon Theatre on Manhattan's Upper West Side.