The awards were first given out during the 1945-46 season, making them older than the Tonys. Daniel Blum was the series founder and original editor. The awards honor actors and actresses who are making their New York City stage debut performance, either on Broadway or Off-Broadway. This means the awards can go both to unknowns and to famous film stars who just happen to be doing their first New York stage work.
Mr. Willis served as the editor-in-chief of both Theatre World and its companion volume, Screen World, for more than 40 years. The volumes served as pictorial and statistical summations of each theatrical season, featuring glossy photos of the year's productions as well as the facts and figures surrounding each show (where, when, who, etc.), and were treasured and collected by theatre enthusiasts. They also proved invaluable reference tools for theatre editors and reporters
This past spring, the organization suffered a financial crisis that threatened its continued existence and reached out for support. A mass-mailed letter from past winners Meryl Streep and Mamie Gummer solicited donations to the not-for-profit awards.
During the heyday of the Theatre World Awards, from the 1960s to the 1980s, Mr. Willis would throw legendary parties at his large, rambling Riverside Drive home. Regular fixtures were Carol Channing, Colleen Dewhurst, Dorothy Loudon, Bob Fosse’s first wife and dance partner, Marianne Niles, and Maureen Stapleton. Mr. Willis had also served as editor of Dance World, Opera World, "A Pictorial History of the American Theatre 1860-1985," and "A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen." In 2001 Mr. Willis received a Special Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre. He also served on the Nominating Committee for the Tony Awards.
John Alvin Willis was born on Oct. 16, 1916, in Morristown, TN. He was a graduate of Milligan College and did graduate work at Indiana University, Harvard University and the University of Tennessee. During World War II, he served in the United States Naval Reserve in the South Pacific. He moved to New York City in 1945 to become an actor, and retained his membership in Actors' Equity for decades. He served as an educator in the New York public school system for 20 years.
Both of Mr. Willis’s marriages—to Claire Olivier in 1960 and Marina Sarda in 1978—ended in divorce. He had no children. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Theatre World, c/o 190 Riverside Dr. #1D, New York, NY 10024.