Remembering Tony Namesake Antoinette Perry


04 Jun 1998

FROM THE SPECIAL TONY PLAYBILL

FROM THE SPECIAL TONY PLAYBILL

Miss Perry's surviving daughter Margaret recalls the namesake of the Tony Awards:

The Tony is the theatre's most prestigious award. It's handed out at the season's toniest event. But that's not why they're so named. What was this Tony's contribution to theatre that made her namesake of these annual honors for distinguished work on Broadway?

Antoinette Perry, beginning in the late twenties, was a trailblazer for women in theatre as a producer and director. Her surviving daughter, Margaret Perry, 84, lives on a ranch in Colorado, where her great grandparents were among the state's earliest settlers. She has vivid remembrances of her mother.



"There were other loves in mother's life," she explained, "but theatre was her first. Theatre was what she lived and breathed. If you were an actor, you were on that pedestal of pedestals."

Antoinette Perry got her first urge to perform in grade school from an uncle who was an actor. "When I was six," she later wrote, "I didn't say I'd become an actress. I felt I was one. No one could have convinced me I wasn't."

On finishing school at 16,in spite of a threat of disinhertance from her grandfather, a state senator, Antoinette joined her uncle's stock company, billed as "The youngest female star in America." When the company played New York in 1906, she called "the sweetest, most piquant ingenue Broadway has seen for many long months." Her stage personality was "distinct," her acting "clever and winsome," and her beauty "such as the poets apostrophize."

"Mother quickly rose from ingenue to leading lady," said Margaret, "equally at home in comedy or the classics."
On tour in Denver in 1908, utility magnate Frank Frueauff fell in love with Antoinette. He sent flowers, gifts, was in the audience every night and finally persuaded her to have dinner with him.

Frueauff was 14 years Antoinette's senior, but he swept her off her feet. Before she left she agreed to marry him.

Frueauff merged his company with Cities Service (now CITGO), headquartered in New York. The couple moved to New York, summered in Newport, traveled to Europe, and entertained in robber baron style.

"Mother's literary and bohemian set clashed with father's conservative lifestyle," Margaret said. "When she became pregnant with me, father persuaded her to quit theatre to raise a family."

Margaret was born in 1913. The Frueauffs had two other children: Virginia, who died two weeks after her birth in 1918, and Elaine, born in 1921. "During labor with Virginia," reported Margaret, "mother suffered a stroke, which paralyzed the right side of her face. In photographs she always propped one side of her face up with her hand."

In 1920 Miss Perry became an "angel" for Brock Pemberton, a press agent turned producer, on Zona Gale's comedy Miss Lulu Bett, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Frueauff died of a heart attack in 1922, leaving $13 million but no will. After protracted court wrangling, Cities Service awarded the estate $9 million.

Miss Perry enjoyed an extravagant life but soon heard the siren call of the theatre.

"I'm making a fight for my very existence," she told an interviewer. "There's no charm to a life of leisure. I yearn to return to my other love. Should I go on playing bridge and dining, going in the same old monotonous circle? It's easy that way, but a sort of suicide, too."

"With enthusiasm," recalled Margaret, "Mother returned to theatre. She invested in Brock's plays and bailed actors and playwrights out of overdue hotel bills. She sold the house and bought a seven-room condo."

Miss Perry resumed her career in a broad spectrum of plays by Miss Gale, George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, William S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). In 1927 she decided to leave acting. The effects of her stroke had taken a toll, and her interests changed.

Miss Perry wanted to direct. In 1928 she joined forces with Pemberton, who produced early works by Sidney Howard, Maxwell Anderson, Paul Osborn and the American premiere of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author.

The Perry-Pemberton partnership blossomed into a romance that became the talk of the theatre. "But at five," said Margaret, "he'd go home to his wife and mother home to Elaine and me. Promptly at nine, Brock would call and they'd spend an hour on the phone."

Miss Perry financed Pemberton's production of and co-directed with him in Preston Sturges's Strictly Dishonorable, a cynical 1929 play about virtue and Prohibition in which Margaret debuted. A critic praised Miss Perry "for doing a man's job." Scalpers got $30 a ticket. Movie rights were sold.

"A month later," Margaret noted, "Mother awoke two million in debt. The stock market crash wiped her out. Somehow, probably because of the success of Strictly Dishonorable, she got a million dollar loan."

In the male-dominated theatre of her time, when women were relegated to acting, costume design or choreography, she became the first successful independent woman producer/director. Well into the 1970's, Antoinette Perry was the only woman director with a track record of hits (500 or more performances).

Of her 17 plays in 13 years, there were impressive hits, among them: Personal Appearance (1934); Claire Boothe's Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938), a spoof of the search for Scarlett O'Hara for Gone with the Wind; and Mary Chase's classic 1944 comedy Harvey, which won the Pulitzer over The Glass Menagerie.

In 1939 Miss Perry with actresses Josephine Hull, Gertrude Lawrence and Helen Menken founded the American Theatre Wing. She was it's first board chairman and secretary. The Wing sponsored the Stage Door Canteen, where stars worked as dishwashers, waitresses and entertainers for World War II service personnel. Money from a movie about the canteen financed tours of hit shows to overseas troops. At the end of the war, Miss Perry was the guiding force in setting up, under the GI Bill of Rights, a drama school for veterans.

In June 1946, as they planned her birthday celebration, Miss Perry had a fatal heart attack. When her will was probated, it was learned she was $300,000 in debt and had been living on $800 a week from Harvey royalties.

New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, "Antoinette Perry was an imaginative, able and selfless person. There was nothing she would not or could not do. But fame was not what she was after. She just loved theatre."

Show-business notables suggested an annual awards for distinguished acting and technical achievement in the theatre be named in Miss Perry's honor. The initial event took place April 6, 1947, at the Waldorf-Astoria, with a 15-minute radio network broadcast. Host Pemberton explained, "The goal of the American Theatre Wing in presenting these awards is to encourage new trends considered to be of value to the arts, crafts or business of theatre."

Miss Perry was memorialized an individualist who met life head on, dramatized life, gave of a great and generous nature that others might have fun, and in the process had a lot of fun herself.
The award was called the Tony, the name by which thousands had come to know and love Antoinette Perry.

-- By Ellis Nassour