The silver medallion of the masks of comedy and tragedy, known as the American Theatre Wing's Tony Award®, is theatre's most prestigious and coveted prize. But, you may wonder, how in the world did a theatre award get the name 'Tony'? Who was this Tony, and what's his or her claim to theatre history?
Tony -- actually Toni -- was the nickname of a stunningly beautiful but tough-as-nails Denver actress, Antoinette Perry, who later turned successfully to producing and directing in an era when women in the business were usually relegated to acting, costume design or choreography.
Miss Perry, from age three, showed innovative theatrical instincts. Once established in New York, she scored an enviable roster of hits and became one of theater’s most influential women. She's still one of the most revered. Amazingly, well into the 1970s, Perry was the only woman director with a track record of Broadway hits.
Reflecting on her career in 1935, Miss Perry wrote, "I wanted to be an actress as soon as I could lisp. I didn't say I was going to become an actress. I felt I was one. No one could have convinced me I wasn't."
She went on to become the dynamic wartime leader of the American Theatre Wing that established an awards program to celebrate excellence in the theatre. Miss Perry had recently passed away when The American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards® made their official debut at a dinner in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria hotel on Easter Sunday, April 6, 1947.
Vera Allen, Perry's successor as chairwoman of the Wing, presided over an evening that included dining, dancing, and a program of entertainment. The dress code was black tie optional, and the performers who took to the stage included Mickey Rooney, Herb Shriner, Ethel Waters, and David Wayne. Eleven Tonys were presented in seven categories, and there were eight special awards, including one for Vincent Sardi, proprietor of the eponymous eatery on West 44th Street. Big winners that night included José Ferrer, Arthur Miller, Helen Hayes, Ingrid Bergman, Patricia Neal, Elia Kazan and Agnes de Mille.
During the first two years of the Tonys (1947 and 1948), there was no official Tony Award. The winners were presented with a scroll and, in addition, such mementos as a gold money clip (for the men) and a compact (for the women).
In 1949 the designers' union, United Scenic Artists, sponsored a contest for a suitable model for the award. The winning entry, a disk-shaped medallion designed by Herman Rosse, depicted the masks of comedy and tragedy on one side and the profile of Antoinette Perry on the other. The medallion was initiated that year at the third annual dinner. It continues to be the official Tony Award.
Since 1967 the medallion has been mounted on a black pedestal with a curved armature. After the ceremony, each award is numbered for tracking purposes and engraved with the winner's name.