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  • After 32 years, Isabelle Stevenson stepped down as president of the American Theatre Wing, the organization co-founded by Antoinette Perry, a leading 30s and 40s actress, producer and director. The Wing is co-presenter with the League of American Theatres and Producers of the annual Tony Awards. For the past five years, Mrs. Stevenson has been board chair, the first time since Perry's death in 1946 that this position has been filled. [Perry's nickname was Tony and she's the namesake of the annual Broadway honors, which take place tonight from 8 to 11 P.M. EST on CBS.] Roy Somlyo spent 37 years on the Tony Awards - eventually becoming a producer and multi-Emmy Award winner - before stepping in to fill the Wing position of president. Both have vivid memories.

    Mrs. Stevenson, awarded a 1999 Tony for Lifetime Achievement in recognition of her Wing leadership, and Somlyo agree that their single, most moving Tony memory was in 1990 when the late Michael Jeter won Featured Actor, Musical for Grand Hotel. "It was an emotional moment," says Mrs. Stevenson, "as this tiny man leaped to the stage and stood there so humble. He said, ëI was an alcoholic. I was a drug abuser I was the lowest thing you can imagine. But I came back to win this and if I can do it anybody can. He was clutching his Tony as if he'd never let it go. You could hear a pin drop.'" Says Somlyo, "Whenever I see that moment, it brings tears to my eyes. Wow, what that man accomplished, but there he was speaking from the heart. It was much more effective than someone reading prepared remarks or a long list of thank yous."

    Mrs. Stevenson remembers being touched when, in 1998, Ron Rifkind won Best Featured Actor, Musical for the Roundabout revival of Cabaret, the first singing role for the Off Broadway and Broadway star. "Here was an actor who had struggled," says Mrs. Stevenson, "to achieve a certain status as an actor, then had to give it up and become a clothing designer to make a living. But the siren call of theater drew him back. Seeing him there was a powerful affirmation of the determination to succeed at something you love."

    The 1976 Tonys was the year of A Chorus Line [12 nominations in 10 categories and nine wins including Best Director]. "Early on, when Michael Bennett and Bob Avian's names were announced as winners for choreography, Michael bounded out of his seat and kissed his partner. That was a first, and for the rest of the evening the floodgates were open and everyone was kissing!!" She also cherishes Anne Bancroft's win at the 1958 Tonys, for Best Actress, Play for Two for the Seesaw. "Anne excitedly ran the gauntlet of tables and chairs to the stage. She arrived breathlessly to take her Tony from the hands of Laurence Olivier. She looked into Larry's gorgeous eyes and sighed, ëI wish you came with it!' It brought down the house."

    Somlyo reported one of the funniest moments came in 1967 on the first national telecast [hosted by Marty Martin and Robert Preston]. "Needless to say, it was a star-studded evening. Among those presenting were Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Zero Mostel and Barbra Streisand. It was the hip 60s and flashers were in the news. We were a class event with Alex dictating everyone appear in black tie - stars, ticket takers, ushers, TV crew, stagehands - but we still had our moment with a professional gatecrasher. Barbara Harris was at the microphone, accepting her Tony for The Apple Tree, and from out of nowhere this man ran down the aisle, jumped onstage and planted a big kiss on her." He then sprinted like a panther into the Shubert wings. Shy Harris, normally a nervous wreck even in calm circumstances, was visibly all shook up. Adds Somlyo, "Jerry Adler [later an actor, most recently on The Sopranos] was stage manager and Alex yelled ëStop that man! Stop that man!' Jerry said, ëWho?' Alex replied, ëThe guy in the tuxedo!' But he was out the stage door." [He was later identified as Stan Berman and it appeared that he had infiltrated the proceedings as an ABC-TV crew member.] The following year, laughed Somlyo, Cohen rescinded the decree that everyone had to wear black tie.

    1971 was memorable, he notes, because of the retrospective of 25 years of Tony-winning musicals and the stars in them. The following year was poignant when Richard Rodgers and Ethel Merman were honored with special Tonys and he played the piano and she sang.

    "Another moment that sticks in my mind is from 1994," states Somlyo, "when Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn were honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards. We all knew, and Jessica knew, it would be her last time to appear on a stage and their last time onstage together. It was one of the most moving times we've had. Sadly, in 2002, there was an echo of that when [producer extraordinary] Robert Whitehead was honored and died shortly after."

    There was an unforgettable 1995 moment for Mrs. Stevenson and Frances Sternhagen. "After the last rehearsal at the Minskoff," recalls Mrs. Stevenson, "I exited the stage door nd there was Frannie beside herself. In her rush to get to the city, she'd left her Tony tickets at home. I tried to get her a ticket, but none were to be had. I told her that somehow I'd get her in. After all she was a nominee [Featured Actress, The Heiress]. Of course, everything was barricaded and the order was that no one could get near the theatre without a ticket. But when I saw her, I waved her over and introduced her as a nominee and took her in." Miss Sternhagen laughs, "It was a fluke bumping into Isabelle, but she was quite the trouper. And what a night.

    [It was Miss Sternhagen's sixth nomination; she'd won in 1972; Featured Actress, The Good Doctor.] Just imagine if they had announced my name and I was still trying to get in without a ticket! What made the night all the more special was that Cherry [Jones] won for Best Actress. We were, of course, disappointed that our director, Gerry Gutierrez didn't win for director. He was remarkable, and [after beating tongue cancer] quite a survivor."

    In this TV age of the 30-second "Thank You" speech mandated by strict time limits set by the network, "I'd be delighted if the actors' acceptance speeches could go on longer and they would not have to be drowned out [as even she was!] by music cues. Maybe this year, with an extra hour on CBS, things will be different."


    From the first national Tony Awards telecast in 1967 right through last year's presentation, there've been many memorable moments ó certainly too many to list. However, one sensational moment came in 1983 at the Uris Theatre in a lavish all-star salute to Gershwin [for whom the theatre was renamed at broadcast's end] featuring Ginger Rogers, Jack Lemmon, Diahann Carroll and, among others, Dorothy Loudon. Miss Loudon was, after winning a Tony for Annie and being nominated for Ballroom, adored. When she made her spectacular entrance, the house erupted in applause. The response even threw Miss Loudon for a split second, but conductor Elliott Lawrence kept the music going. As she began, in that famous growl of a belt, an obscure Gershwin/ Herbert Stohart song from 1925's Song of the Flame, "Vodka," the response approached pandemonium. Miss Loudon said later, "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was on Cloud Nine and could have floated offstage!"

    At the first Tonys in April, 1947, guests attended a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria. Jose Ferrer [Cyrano de Bergerac] and Fredric March [Years Ago] shared dramatic actor awards. Best dramatic actress honors went to Helen Hayes [Happy Birthday] and Ingrid Bergman [Joan of Lorraine]. An award for Best Newcomer, which later became Featured Actress, went to Patricia Neal in her Broadway debut in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, which was a prequel to The Little Foxes. Miss Neal is the only survivor of that first awards. There were no mounted silver medallions with the masks of comedy and tragedy on one side and a small engraving of Antoinette Perry on the other. Winners received a scroll and, for the women, an engraved compact; for the men, an engraved cigarette lighter. Miss Neal still has her compact, with her initials engraved inside, displayed in a place of honor. In 1996, at an event honoring Tony-winning actresses, she received the current "model." Says Miss Neal, "It was like winning all over again. Theater has always been my first love. I've been in it for over a half century. I've faced a lot of obstacles, but can honestly say that they were nothing compared to facing audiences on opening nights!"

    Marian Seldes, this year nominated for a fifth time [for the Dinner At Eight revival; she won Featured Actress in 1976 for A Delicate Balance], says, "I've experienced the same thrill each time, even when I didn't win." Even when she didn't when, she never thought of it as losing. "You're there, and you're with people you admire," she adds. "It's possibly a clichÈ, but it's thrilling to be nominated, to get the recognition for your work. To be nominated, to be singled out is meaningful if you've spent your life in the theater. I never thought about winning anything when I started out. What is wonderful when you are nominated is that it brings you together with people you love and admire and some you've never met - and some to whom you feel like a fan. Being included with such warmth and positive feeling is glorious. And you remember it always."

    M-G-M musicals legend Ann Miller hasn't forgotten. "It was a thrill to be on Broadway in Mame," said Miss Miller from her home in Beverly Hills, "but, of course, I came into it long after it opened with my old friend Angela Lansbury. My Tony moment came in 1980, when I was nominated for Sugar Babies. That was the year of Evita and Children of a Lesser God, so I didn't have high hopes; but, as they say in Hollywood, it was a thrill to be nominated! And really it was - especially for something I've loved doing all my life - tap dancing." 2001 was memorable, too. She attended the Tonys in a stunning red gown and dripping with diamonds. She was escorted by producer/director John Bowab, who was responsible [as associate producer] for bringing her to Mame. "I was awestruck seeing the cast of 42nd Street tap dancing down the aisles of the Music Hall and onto that great stage. I was so proud of [choreographer] Randy [Skinner, who was nominated for choreography] and how far he'd come. He was going to be one of my Sugar Babies boys, but that didn't work out. But we had a wonderful time on a tour of Anything Goes. He was our dance captain and one of Reno's boys."

    Italian journalist and playwright Mario Fratti - and later a letter from none other than Katherine Hepburn - convinced Fellini to agree to a musical based on his film , but when the successful show won its Tonys, Fratti was neither seen nor heard from. In fact, after seven years of writing, rewriting "and rewriting" and working with composer Maury Yeston [whom he met through Chorus Lineës Ed Kleban], he ended up with a curiously strange credit: Adapted from the Italian by Mario Fratti. Says Fratti, "Things began to fall apart during rehearsals when [director/choreographer] Tommy Tune and I didn't see eye to eye. He wanted to bring in Arthur [Kopit] to do some rewrites. I said ëHe's a good writer. Why not?' Musical have many collaborators. He did a good job, following Maury's and my guideposts. It wasn't a mistake to hire Arthur. During the five weeks he worked on the show, he added a new scene and polished the book.Nine is a musical by Maury Yeston, Mario Fratti and Arthur Kopit. We're all proud of it. No Italian translation was used. I wrote it, from A to Z, in English." He didn't get a 1982 Tony, but neither did Kopit [Best Book went to Tom Eyen for Dreamgirls]. However, he gets his share of the royalties.

    Broadway's biggest booster Rosie O'Donnell first hosted the Tonys in 1997. To say the road to the telecast was rocky between she and executive producer Gary Smith is to err on the polite. Says Smith, "We came to fisticuffs." Problem: he was in charge, she wanted to be. In 1998, Smith was gone. There was a new exec producer in co-producer Walter Miller and O'Donnell was producer. "We never patched things up," says Smith. "I tried." During the commercial breaks, O'Donnell was merciless to her Grease producers, Fran and Barry Weissler. Audience members were dumbstruck at her crude humor. For unknown reasons, O'Donnell passed on hosting in 1999, but was back in 2000 as co-exec producer and co-hosting with surprise guest Nathan Lane. Once again, she poked fun at the Weisslers, but not in the way many in show business did. She came down so hard that you wondered if they were in on the stabs. If not, they were amazingly thick-skinned. However, the question that haunted many that Tony night was who convinced O'Donnell she should wear that black duster. It was one-thing to see her in a dress, but why that gown? She came across as Morticia from The Addams Family.

    1985 was a dark year for the Tonys. The season was so musically weak that the Tony nominating committee elimated the Best Actor and Actress, [Musical] and Best Choreography categories. For theater writer/author Ken Mandelbaum, two Tony moments to forget came in 1978, when the awards were nicknamed "The Bonnie Franklin Tonys" because they were "seen" through the eyes of the actress -- who had made a splash in 1970's Applause and gone on to become a TV sitcom star -- from her prime orchestra seats; and 1991, when presenter Anthony Quinn was onstage to present the Tony for Best Musical Director and didn't catch the fact that he had been given the wrong envelope -- without skipping a beat, he announced the winner for Best Play [Neil Simon, Lost in Yonkers].

    Original Tony telecast exec producer Alexander Cohen could always be depended to say exactly what he thought. That was especially true in 1984, two years before he stepped down. At the end of the dress rehearsal, a source close to the awards recalls, Cohen came out on the Gershwin Theatre stage as everyone was getting up to exit. One particular newspaper critic had really riled him that year. He said, "Just in case you're wondering what the theme of this year's show is, it's ëF**k you, Frank Rich!'"


    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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