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  • The Tony Award is theater's most prestigious and coveted prize. The 2003 Tonys, the 57th annual presentations, are Sunday, June 8, live from Radio City Music Hall in a three-hour telecast on CBS. "Tony is a strange name for a theater honor," is a statement you've probably heard many time. So who was this Tony? And why is this Tony important in the annals of theater?

    Tony, actually, Toni, was the nickname of beautiful Denver actress Antoinette Perry, who, after several years playing ingÈnues on Broadway, turned to producing and directing in an era when women in the theater were relegated to acting, costume design, or choreography. Today, she's, sadly, all but forgotten. But, in her prime, she showed innovative theatrical instincts and scored an enviable roster of hits. Amazingly, even well into the 1970s, she was the only woman director with a track record of hits.

    Her route to New York was circuitous - touring Shakespeare in her late teens - but, once here, she came to the attention of two very important theater figures: David Warfield, a popular actor, and his frequent producing partner, David Belasco. She was cast in featured, then leading roles. Her fast-track career rise was interrupted in 1909 when she began starring in the arms of Frank Frueauff, an old Denver beau who made a fortune in gas and electric utilities - companies that eventually became Cities Service [now CITGO]. They lived the type of life Noel Coward wrote and sang of: traveling the fabled steam liners to Europe and, on their infrequent stays in New York, entertaining in robber baron style at their Fifth Avenue apartment and home in Newport, R.I.

    Miss Perry up theater to become a full-time wife, mother and hostess. But theater's siren call entranched her again in 1920 when she became the silent partner of Brock Pemberton, a flamboyant press agent turned producer, in his production of Zona Gale's comedy Miss Lulu Bett. There was a gigantic pay-off. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

    Following stress-related heart problems, Frueauff died in 1922 and left a massive estate: in excess of $13-million. Think about it. That's $13-million in 20s dollars. Unfortunately, he left no will. And Mrs. Frueauff was left in limbo. Bitter court battles ensued, but finally his widow was awarded nine million dollars.

    "Mother generously lent money," recalled the couple's daughter Margaret Perry [who took her mother's maiden name for her acting career]. "There was plenty of money and Mother was a sucker for any hard luck story, especially if she heard them from actors and playwrights. She bailed quite a few out of financial hell. Mother also enjoyed the extravagant life."

    One vivid example was the summer of 1923, when Mrs. Frueauff took Margaret and her sister Elaine [an actress, stage manager, and producer/director who died in 1986], their governess, "Uncle" Brock, as the girls were instructed to call him, his wife Margaret and ten others to Europe for seven weeks. On coming home, Mrs. Frueauff, 34, soon became bored leading what she termed an unfulfilling social whirling dervish. "Life was downright dull," she said. "I need a change - something vital. Should I go on playing bridge and dining, going in the same old monotonous circle? It's easy that way, but it's suicide, too."

    Under her maiden name, she returned to the boards, starring in broad spectrum of roles in ten plays by Kaufman, Ferber and William S. Gilbert [of Gilbert and Sullivan]. In 1927, she suffered a stroke which left a side of her face paralyzed, she fell into a great depression and left theater. But theater was still in her blood. Inspired by actress/playwright Rachel Crothers, who directed her own plays, Perry decided she wanted to direct. She and Pemberton joined forces - not only as co-producers and director but also romantically.

    In 1929, they struck paydirt with Preston Sturges' Strictly Dishonorable, a cynical play about virtue and Prohibition. A critic praised Perry "for doing a man's job" as director. Movie rights were sold. A month later, the stock market crashed. "Mother awoke two million dollars in debt," recalls Margaret Perry. "It took seven years to recover."

    Perry and Pemberton shared an office in a theater [adjacent to the Imperial, on the site of the parking lot] and lunched daily at Sardi's, where Toni, which she was nicknamed, and Brock fueled tons of theatrical gossip. However, at the end of their business day, she'd go home to her daughters and he to his wife, one of Miss Perry's closest friends. "After the stroke," reports Margaret, "Mother tired easily. She came home, ate, read scripts and saw we did our schoolwork. Promptly at nine, Brock would phone and they'd talk for hours."

    In the late 40s, a new product became the female rave: Toni Home Permanent products, which promised to end hair torment and give even the straightest hair a luscious wave. Toni-sponsored print ads and radio variety shows were everywhere. Then came sisters Marge and Norma [Babcock], identical twins and a massive ad campaign: Which Twin Has the Toni? As beauty operators feared the ether-based Toni solution would ruin their business, Miss Perry decided it was time for a cosmetic change, too. She discreetly changed her "i" to a "y."

    She remained strongly focused as a director. In one month in 1937, she directed (and co-produced) three Pemberton productions, "sometimes rehearsing in our living room," says Margaret, "once while peeling peaches for preserves."

    Of the team's 17 plays in 13 years, there were impressive hits, among them: Personal Appearance (1934) and Claire Boothe's Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938), a spoof of the search for Scarlett O'Hara. The latter had a stellar cast, including Helen Claire and Benay Venuta.

    Miss Venuta [who died in 1995] spoke of working with Miss Perry. "I was a tall, brash blonde, a big band vocalist who'd never read for a play, and I got the part of this gal attempting to get the role of Scarlett by sleeping with all the men involved with the film. The show was a smash. Helen wore a hoop skirt and pretended to be from the South with this accent that dripped magnolias." Noting that Miss Perry didn't mind ruffling feathers, she reported a pre-Broadway situation in Washington involving black actor Frank Wilson, who played a butler in Kiss the Boys. "We rehearsed at the very first-class Willard Hotel, right across from the White House. When Frank arrived, the doorman directed him to the trades entrance. We found that disgusting. Tony raised a ruckus, stating that Frank could either enter through front doors or the company would check out. With reporters and photographers present, the hotel backed down."

    Miss Perry, said Miss Venuta, may have had a deep affection for actors, but not for all playwrights ó especially if not of her political thinking. "Tony despised - no, hated Clare Booth! She was a Democrat with a capital D and Tony a staunch Republican. She'd do anything to avoid her!" She said that, when it came to acting, "Tony was a perfectionist with the philosophy that a director should work closely with everyone from the crew to the lowest actor on the totem. She felt a responsibility to audiences. Once, she said, ëBenay, do you realize that a theatrical performance is one of the few things which the public is willing to pay for in advance, sight unseen?'

    "She was a good communicator and wonderful at teaching timing," continued Miss Venuta. "I didn't know anything about acting technique. Tony taught me. She was tough and didn't mind screaming at me or the other actors. She wasn't one for overplaying a role! She told me, 'Don't go for every laugh. It's better to ride over the little laughs and go for the big one. Another time, at rehearsal, she yelled `Benay, what the hell are you doing?' I replied, 'I was taking a breath.' She said, 'No! If you hold your breath, the audience's going to hold its breath. Act out that pause.'"

    But, Miss Venuta observed, "Working with Miss Perry could be frustrating. She'd have us learn pages and pages of dialogue, then say, 'I'm cutting this, this, and this.' We asked why. 'Now you know what's essential,' she replied. And when we did the streamlined version, there was a bigger payoff." Interestingly, in that era of theatrical male power brokers, Miss Venuta said, "I never heard her criticized on the basis of being a woman."

    Tony's deft hand with comedy paid off co-producing and directing Mary Chase's Harvey (1944). It won the Pulitzer Prize over The Glass Menagerie and became a long-running smash with Hollywood begging for the rights.

    Daughter Margaret confided that her mother was an inveterate gambler. "The seed money for many a Wing activity or show investment came from her track winnings. Even during Wing board meetings, mother played the horses. She'd have her secretary tip toe in to give her the odds, then place a wager with a bookie."

    Ironically, in spite of her theatrical credentials, today Miss Perry is best remembered for her generosity and leadership in World War II as a co-founder of the Theatre Wing of Allied Relief, subsequently, the American Theatre Wing. The Wing operated the famed Stage Door Canteen in the basement of the (now razed) 44th Street Theatre, where stars worked as dishwashers, waiters, waitresses, and entertainers for the armed forces. Miss Perry was also president of the National Experimental Theatre and financed, with Actors Equity and the Dramatists Guild, the work of new playwrights. During and after the war, she underwrote auditions for 7,000 hopefuls. Her dream of a national actor's school was realized in 1946.

    "That year, Mother developed heart problems," Margaret explained, "but, as a devout Christian Scientist, she refused to see a doctor. Her dedication to the work of the Wing took a terrible toll. Often, the only thing that alleviated her intense physical pain was Brock's nightly call."

    On June 28, 1946, as Margaret and Elaine made plans for their mother's 58th birthday the next day, Miss Perry had a fatal heart attack. Margaret reports that she was $300,000 in debt and living on $800 a week from her Harvey royalties.

    A reporter once questioned Miss Perry's donation of so much of her money and time to "thankless theatrical activities." She replied, "Thankless? They're anything but that. I'm just a fool for the theater." And, said Margaret, "Theater was what Mother lived and breathed. If you were an actor, you were on that pedestal of pedestals."

    Pemberton proposed an award for distinguished stage acting and technical achievement be named in her honor. At the initial event in 1947, as he handed out an award, he called it a Tony. The name stuck.


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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