The Tony Awards Are World Famous, But Who Is Tony?

by Shirley Williams
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Tony Awards are known around the world and are highly sought after by world-class performers. Some of the best names in the industry have been graced with this prestigious award. Even though the honor is famous, not many people know where the name derives from. In fact, there aren’t many people who ask this question. The award itself has become more famous than the original person for which it was originally named.

In effect, the Tony Award impacts the world of Broadway in the same way an Oscar impacts the Hollywood film industry. The Tony Award is the industry’s highest possible honor and helps to cement a play as one of the most successful during its time. Surprisingly these awards, also known as the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Broadway Theatre, have only been given out since 1947 by the American Theatre Wing. This is quite surprising since many people assume that the award has been around for most of the 20th century.

The awards were originally named for philanthropist, stage director, and accomplished actress Antoinette Perry. The first award ceremony took place on April 6, 1947, on Easter Sunday. It was held in the Grand Ballroom of New York City’s famed Waldorf Astoria hotel. It’s amazing to think how much the award ceremonies have changed throughout decades of renditions.

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Unfortunately, Antoinette Perry passed away before the award could be associated with her name. In fact, it was Brock Pemberton, her former work partner, who suggested that an award be named after the late actress. Pemberton, a fellow director and theatre producer knew how impactful Perry was during her time. She trailblazed a path for women in the theatre industry, the impact of which can still be seen today. She didn’t let a field dominated by men stop her from achieving her dreams. She also accomplished a lot of philanthropic work as well, further cementing her as a role model.

The award itself used to even pay tribute to Perry. Herman Rosse designed the original medallion which featured a profile of the late actress on one side. This relief was later removed in order to make room for information regarding the winner including the year, the production name, award category, and more. The opposite side of the medallion depicts the iconic tragedy and comedy masks that have been associated with acting and theatre for a long time. The award underwent further changes in 1967 when it was fixed to a black base.

This is a great backstory, but it still doesn’t really explain why the current name that the awards hold. After all, there’s really no way to derive ‘Tony’ from the award’s original name. Well, the man behind the creation of the medallion also gave it the popular name by which it’s referred to today. Pemberton once off-handedly mentioned the award as a “Tony”. For reasons that will be lost to history, the name stuck. Perhaps Perry would be better known if her name would have stayed attached to the award which was inspired by her illustrious career.

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