What It Was Like Inside the First Tony Awards Ceremony in 1947

Tony Awards   What It Was Like Inside the First Tony Awards Ceremony in 1947
The midnight gala presentation was a very different affair than the awards we know today.
An original 1947 Tony Award.
An original 1947 Tony Award. Anita and Steve Shevett

At 9 PM on Easter Sunday, April 6, 1947, some 1,200 members of the theatre community gathered in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf–Astoria to attend the first Antoinette Perry Awards ceremony.

The awards were named in honor of late actor/director Antoinette “Toni” Perry, a champion of the American theatre who served as a Chairman of the Board and Secretary of the American Theatre Wing through World War II. Perry died in June 1946—the theatre community paid tribute to the actor, producer, director, and co-founder of the Wing by naming an awards ceremony after her.

According to Perry’s eldest daughter, Margaret, the honor was originally to be called the Toni Award; however, a popular ad campaign at the time was also using the name Toni, and so the decision was made to change the spelling to Tony Award.

Tickets to the first Tony Awards were $7.50. The ballroom was decorated as an homage to the Wing's Stage Door Canteen. The menu featured lobster bisque, salted nuts, breast of chicken Montmorency in black cherry sauce, croquettes of brown rice, asparagus tips Polonaise, and frozen soufflé with strawberries. Entertainment was provided by the casts of such shows as Brigadoon, Call Me Mister, Carousel, Finian's Rainbow, and Oklahoma! At the stroke of midnight, over the Mutual Radio Network, 11 awards were presented. The first two years, there was no official Tony Award. The winners were presented with a scroll, as well as engraved 14-karat gold money clips or cigarette lighters for the men, and initialed articles of jewelry for the women, including initialed compacts and bracelets.

The first year of the Tony Awards, the nominees, selected by a special committee of theatrical luminaries, were not announced in advance. At the ceremony, only the winners were made known to the public, and they were not cited for the “Best” achievement in any category, but rather for their “Outstanding Contribution” to the theatrical season.

Theatre professionals weren’t the only individuals honored. Prizes were also given to loyal attendees of first nights. There was even a special award honoring the long service of a particular stage doorman. Among the 1947 honorees were performers Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes, José Ferrer, Patricia Neal, Fredric March, and David Wayne; as well as Agnes DeMille and Michael Kidd for Dance Direction, Kurt Weill for Score (Street Scene), Arthur Miller as Outstanding Playwright (All My Sons), and Elia Kazan for Outstanding Direction (of the Miller play).

This article has been edited and updated from pieces by Louis Botto in the 1991 Tony Awards Playbill as well as Ellis Nassour in the 2011 Tony Awards Playbill.

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