The 71st annual Tony Awards air June 11, 2017 from Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The ceremony honors achievement on Broadway for the 2016-17 season, and we’ll certainly be tuned-in and on-edge as they announce the big winners. Like us, perhaps you’ve wondered “why are they called the Tonys?” We did some research, and the answer uncovered a rather fascinating story.
Let’s start here, at the American Theatre Wing.
Actually, that’s not the beginning.
Let’s start here: 1917, and America is about to enter World War 1.
Somewhere in New York, seven established women in theater meet to discuss how they could provide war relief. If they could provide aid, what would they do? What did they have to give?
They form the Stage Women’s War Relief, an organization that raises more than seven million dollars for the troops and sews countless articles of clothing for soldiers. They become one of the most significant relief organizations in the world.
The war ends, life goes on, yet here comes World War II looming on the historical horizon. By 1940, the Stage Women’s War Relief revamps with an extra personality in tow: Antoinette Perry.
You can see where we are going, yes?
They regroup and form the American Theatre Wing, which sponsors Stage Door Canteens throughout the United States and in London and Paris. Theater stars work the canteens as wait staff and dishwashers, also putting on shows and other entertainment to keep up the troops’ morale. Money from a movie made about the canteens funds the production of touring hit shows for the troops. On the home front, the Wing’s Victory Players inspire civilians and their “Lunchtime Follies” entertain defense plant workers.
By the end of that war, Antoinette Perry is the driving force of the American Theatre Wing and spearheads the American Theatre Wing Professional School, a rigorous veterans’ art program to train anyone who served in the Allied Powers stagecraft and theater performance. Students include Charlton Heston, George Burns, Geraldine Page, Pat Hingle, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Tony Randall, Bob Fosse and many, many more notable notables of stage and screen.
On June 28, 1946, just a few days before her 58th birthday, Antoinette Perry suffers a devastating heart attack and dies. She and others had decided that American theater needed a set of awards dedicated to honoring excellence. For Antoinette’s service to her country, to Broadway and to the theater community as a whole, the new award was named after her.
The night of the first award ceremony, a small dinner banquet at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, a presenter handed out an award, calling it a “Tony.”
The name stuck, and that’s why they’re called the Tony Awards.
Want to know what Antoinette Perry was doing before World War II? Trust us, you’ll want to know. Get the scoop from a Playbill interview with her daughter, Margaret, in 1998. For the Tony Awards’ history of Perry, check out their bio by Ellis Nassour.