Antoinette Perry: The Real Woman Behind the Tony

  • William Statham

This Sunday marks the 73rd Annual Tony Awards, broadcast live on CBS from Radio City Music Hall. And while the Tonys is theatre’s biggest night for a myriad of celebratory reasons, the real woman and inspiration behind the ceremony is often overlooked and forgotten. 

Mary Antoinette Perry was what many might call a “theatre animal.” Her entire life's work was dedicated not only to the craft of theatre, but in instilling and implementing a respect for all those who came to the theatre as a noble and honored profession. Whether that be by means like many who enter the world of theatre with a destiny to be in the footlights or working behind table as a director or behind the scenes philanthropically. Perry, incidentally, achieved all three of these theatrical feats independently during her noted career. 

Beginning her life as an actress at the age of 11, the young Antoinette had what few of those in the theatre have at the genesis of their career: familial support. While not avid about his young daughter pursuing a life onstage theatrically in their hometown of Denver, Colorado, Perry’s father did nurture his daughter’s talents by sending her to music school in NYC, where she was subsequently discovered and found a knack for acting. This led to her cultivating an initial acting career, which she began to cultivate in Chicago in a play called Miss Temple's Telegram. The work would bring her quickly back to NYC. 

Following many successful years in several New York shows, Perry transitioned into the next phase of her career as a producer/director, no easy accomplishment for a woman of any cultural or financial breeding in the late 1920’s. While Perry had many credits as a director, the play she is best known for is Harvey (often remembered best by Jimmy Stewart’s role in the 1950 Universal Pictures movie adaptation).

Perry, though, did have some career and financial setbacks, most of which were linked to the stock market crash of the early 1930’s. Luckily, she was still receiving royalties amounting to $800 a week from her Harvey success. She also sat atop a fortune that was left to her by her late husband and hometown sweetheart, Frank Frueauff of the now CITGO gas fortune, totaling $13 million. Despite falling into slumps of depression, Perry focused her energies and finances back into her true calling and passion, the American theatre. She took initiative by supporting the early war efforts of WWII by backing USO tours (thanks in part to a healthy horse race betting prowess) that traveled overseas to perform for the country's servicemen and women who were valiantly risking their lives. She became co-founder of the Theater Wing of Allied Relief under this canopy and the name would eventually be changed to the organization that we know it to be today, the American Theatre Wing, and creator of the Tony Awards. 

Perry’s relationship with the Wing lasted the rest of her life. Along with their USO work, it also helped create and fund the famous Stage Door Canteen.

Eventually, Perry began to develop heart disease later in life and, due to her staunch Christian Science upbringing, refused any medical treatment. After an untimely death on the day after her 58th birthday in 1946, Perry succumbed to the disease. But her longtime colleague and producing partner, Brock Pemberton, thought well enough to immortalize his friend with an annual award that would highlight distinguished achievement in the theatre.

The first Antoinette Perry Awards were held in the Waldorf Astoria hotel on Easter Sunday, April 6th, 1947. As Pemberton handed out an award in one of only seven categories that evening, he called it a “Tony,” in honor of his late friend. And thus, the Tony Award was born.

While each year's ceremony grows more and more exponentially, it is important to remember the lasting legacy of both the American Theatre Wing and its co-founder, Antoinette Perry. She would feel so esteemed to know that The Wing’s annual funding goes towards supporting artists of every background to realize their theatrical pursuits, just as she once had. The Wing supports and finances free programs across not just NYC, but the nation in providing free classes and seminars to America's youth and even provides complimentary tickets to Broadway shows. They also nurture the budding careers of playwrights, composers, actors, technicians and producers to bring the magic of live theatre to the masses. Although, Perry surmised her love of this crazy business best: “I'm just a fool for theatre. “