Brock Pemberton, Perry's frequent producing partner, chaired a Wing committee to propose a tribute. An idea of a monument like a plaque, statue, or building was rejected in favor of a perpetual honor—an annual award for theatre people presented by their peers. The Wing's board would determine the winners and the nominees would not be announced. This practice continued until 1956.
The Antoinette Perry Awards—also known as the Tonys for Perry's nickname—were first presented at a dinner-dance at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Easter Sunday 1947. The holiday was chosen because most shows would be dark and performers could attend. The Waldorf would host 11 subsequent Tony dinners.
Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes, Jose Ferrer, Frederic March, Patricia Neal, and David Wayne were the first Tony recipients. Male winners were presented with engraved gold bill clips; the ladies received compact cases. A special award was presented to Ira and Rita Katzenberg, a pair of ordinary theatregoers who never missed a Broadway opening night. Entertainment was provided in the form of songs from such then-running shows as The Chocolate Soldier, Street Scene, Brigadoon, Finian's Rainbow, Oklahoma!, Carousel, and Sweethearts. There was so much entertainment that the awards weren't handed out until after midnight. This first ceremony was broadcast on local New York radio station WOR and nationally over the Mutual network.
In 1948 the awards were telecast over the new medium of television on the short-lived Dumont network as well as heard on radio on Mutual. The popular wartime comedy Mister Roberts bested Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire for best play. The awards for women were changed from compacts to gold bracelets.
The next year, 1949, marked the first time the now-familiar Tony medallion was presented. Designed by Herman Rosse, it is four inches in diameter, with the masks of comedy and tragedy on one side and a raised profile of Antoinette Perry and the winner's name on the other.
In 1950 South Pacific became the only Broadway show to date to win in all eligible performance categories: Ezio Pinza (actor in a musical), Mary Martin (actress in a musical), Myron McCormick (featured actor), and Juanita Hall (featured actress). Featured performer categories did not distinguish between plays and musicals at that time.
The Tony Awards returned to television briefly in 1955 when a portion of the ceremony was included in an NBC spectacular called Entertainment '55. The next year, nominees were announced before the ceremony, which was shown in its entirety on local New York Channel 5 and on Dumont. Helen Hayes, president of the Wing, and comedian Jack Carter hosted amid quite a few mix-ups and glitches. Presenter Diane Cilento failed to show up and film starlet Linda Darnell was nearly grabbed out of the audience as a last-minute sub. Also, numerous winners received the wrong awards and later had to swap them with their rightful owners.
CBS was contracted to televise the 1957 Tony Awards, but a jurisdictional dispute between unions forced a cancellation of the program. Had it aired, viewers would have seen Rex Harrison win for My Fair Lady and Julie Andrews of the same show lose to Judy Holliday for Bells Are Ringing.
The Tonys stayed off the airwaves until 1959, when local New York station WCBS broadcast a 55-minute ceremony starting at 11:15 p.m. TV game-show host Bud Collyer was the emcee. However, newsman Walter Cronkite spoiled the suspense by announcing four of the winners on the late evening news before the event began. For the next three years, WCBS telecast the ceremony, and WOR picked it up for two years after that.
The 1960s began with controversy: Ethel Merman's dynamic portrayal of the ultimate stage mother, Momma Rose, in Gypsy, lost to Mary Martin's performance in The Sound of Music. Columnists like Earl Wilson and Leonard Lyons protested that the Tonys were not sufficiently representative of Broadway as a whole. Under the voting system of that time, the final winners were chosen only by the Wing's board of directors, some of whom were not even directly involved with productions.
To answer this charge, the rules were changed in 1961. Voting was expanded to include the entire Wing membership, not just the board. In addition, a committee representing Broadway as a whole would choose the nominees. In 1964, the Tony voting pool was increased again to include first- and second-night theatre critics and members of the League of New York Theatres and Producers.
By 1965, the Tonys were in trouble. The Wing was running out of money and had closed its theatre school. Wing president Helen Menken and her husband, Wall Street financier George N. Richard, were the principal backers of the annual Tony dinner, but Menken had announced her retirement. She was persuaded by the Wing's board to postpone leaving until the 1965 awards were handed out.
The following year, Menken died, and it looked like the end of the Tony Awards. Indeed, the League had taken over the administration of the awards from the Wing, which was nearly inactive due to funding issues. The 1966 ceremony was hosted by Ginger Rogers (then starring in Hello, Dolly!) and producer-director George Abbott, and held in the afternoon at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. The voting pool was also increased again. In addition to members of the Wing, the League, and the press, the Tonys would also be voted on by the governing boards of the Dramatists Guild, Actors' Equity, and the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. Despite the growing number of voters, the Wing's uncertain financial situation seemed to put the Tonys' future in jeopardy. Abbott joked, "Next year we are planning a nationwide television hookup. Suggestions should be made to the committee—if you can find them."
The joke proved prophetic: In 1967 the Tonys were televised. The broadcast revitalized the awards and the Wing, thanks to fees paid by the League for the use of the award.
Legendary Broadway producer Alexander H. Cohen sold the idea of promoting Broadway through a television special to the League and to ABC, which broadcast the one-hour special. Unlike the hokey diversions cobbled together for the Oscars or Emmys, the numbers performed on the Tony telecast had been tested before paying audiences. The first Tony Awards specifically produced for television began with Joel Grey as the Cabaret emcee bidding "Wilkommen" to a national audience. Co-hosts Robert Preston and Mary Martin performed "Nobody's Perfect" from the two-character musical I Do! I Do!, Barbara Harris and Larry Blyden were seen in the "Movie Star/Gorgeous" sequence of The Apple Tree, and Norman Wisdom led his company in the title song of Walking Happy.
Scripted by his wife and partner, Hildy Parks, Cohen's presentation was an immediate hit. "The first coast-to-coast telecast of the Antoinette Perry Awards was an auspicious occasion," hailed the New York Times. "It gave the Broadway stage more national television attention in one night that it had received in years."
It went so well that the second telecast in 1968 was expanded from one hour to 90 minutes and switched from ABC to NBC, which gave Cohen the extra 30 minutes. Peter Ustinov and Angela Lansbury served as hosts and musical numbers from the shows nominated for Best Musical—How Now Dow Jones, The Happy Time, and Hallelujah, Baby! (the fourth nominee, Illya Darling, had closed and didn't field a number)—were augmented by moments from Golden Rainbow (which was not nominated) and holdover hits like Hello, Dolly!, Cabaret, Man of La Mancha, and Fiddler on the Roof. Bette Midler made her TV debut as one of Tevye's daughters singing "Matchmaker, Matchmaker."
Responding to criticism that the Tonys downplayed straight plays in favor of musicals, Cohen included scenes from two nominated plays (Lovers and The Great White Hope) for the 1969 telecast. Scheduled for 90 minutes, the ceremony ran over by 35 minutes. All agreed that play excerpts were the most expendable element and nonmusical segments would not be included again until 1987.
The fourth Tony telecast, in 1970, was the most stellar yet. Not only were two of Hollywood's greatest ladies competing to win Best Leading Actress in a Musical—Lauren Bacall in Applause and Katharine Hepburn in Coco—but special honors were presented to three legendary stage luminaries: Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, and Noël Coward. (Bacall won, by the way.) Barbra Streisand received a Special Award as "star of the decade," even though she had not appeared in a legitimate Broadway production since Funny Girl in 1964. George C. Scott, who would refuse an Oscar the following year, agreed to present the best play Tony.
In celebration of the Tony Awards' 25th anniversary, the 1971 broadcast went even further in extravagance, entertainment, and star power. Cohen and Parks presented songs from each of the previous 24 best musicals, many with the original players. The broadcast switched back to ABC from NBC and went from 90 minutes to two hours, but that hardly seemed enough. The talent from a quarter-century of Broadway history could have peopled 20 or 30 TV specials. The Boston Globe declared it "a milestone in television history."
During their long tenure producing the Tonys—from 1967 through 1986—the Cohens employed themes and salutes to lure viewers from other channels. There were nods to Richard Rodgers and Ethel Merman (1972) and George and Ira Gershwin (1983); "Broadway around the world" (1973); a homecoming with film and TV stars returning to Broadway to present Tonys (1974); salutes to the Winter Garden (1975) and Imperial (1982) theatres; theatrical superstitions (1979); understudies (1980); and women in the theatre (1981).
By 1985, relations between the League (now called the League of American Theatres and Producers) and the Wing were strained. For one thing, the League, which put up the greenbacks for the annual Tony telecast, was losing money on the show, partly because of a licensing fee the League paid the Wing, owner of the Tony trademark. Some League members advocated starting their own awards. The Wing, meanwhile, complained it was underrepresented on the Tony Administration Committee, which sets eligibility rules and had just three Wing members on it. The situation was exacerbated by Cohen, who resigned from the League the day after the 1985 Tony ceremony.
The Tonys' 40th anniversary was marked in 1986. In addition to the nominated musicals, snippets from all past Tony winners for Best Play and Best Musical were performed. Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News declared it "the best Tony Awards show I've ever seen."
But it was the last show for the Cohens, whose 20-year producing contract was expiring. The rift between the League and the Wing was mended with the producer and his writer-wife left out in the cold. Cohen tried to persuade the Wing to present the Tonys on its own, but the Wing decided it could not proceed without the League's backing. As a condition for continuing its relationship, the League required Cohen to be dropped.
Television impresario Don Mischer took the reigns for the 1987 Tonys, hosted by four-time winner Angela Lansbury. Mischer was best known for his slick specials, including The Kennedy Center Honors and Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, but could a producer with no theatre credits produce Broadway's biggest night? The ceremony was warmly received, even winning an Emmy for Outstanding Musical, Comedy or Variety Special. Lansbury and Mischer each returned for two more years.
Joseph Cates took over for the departing Mischer in 1990. His inaugural Tony telecast was given the theme "The Year of the Actor" and featured monologues about acting from classical plays interspersed with scenes from that year's nominated plays and musicals. The result was a talk-heavy special that drew low ratings. In 1991 and 1992, Cates switched gears, relying purely on musical entertainment.
Liza Minnelli hosted the 1993 awards for new producer Gary Smith. The theme was "Celebrate 100 Years of Broadway," but it could have been subtitled "Beat the Clock." Smith was under pressure from CBS to keep the show under two hours. If the winners' acceptance speeches went longer than 30 seconds, the orchestra played "Give My Regards to Broadway," a not-so-subtle signal to wrap it up. Many resented the indignity of having to race through speeches, but the ceremony ran only four minutes overtime, an unheard-of accomplishment for the Oscars, Emmys, or Grammys.
Broadway fell on lean times in the late '90s as musical revivals predominated and fewer original tuners were produced; ratings for the Tony Awards continued dwindling. Nathan Lane provided barbed comments as a co-host in 1995 (with Glenn Close and Gregory Hines) and sole host in 1996.
Then Rosie O'Donnell rode to the rescue in 1997. Even though her sole Broadway credit up until then was a revival of Grease, she hosted the Tonys and drummed up interest on her daily talk show. Further, it was O'Donnell's idea to hold the event at Radio City Music Hall and to make tickets available to the public. In another innovation, the program was split between networks—PBS broadcasting the first hour (containing design, direction, musical score, and book awards) and CBS broadcasting the final two hours. Certain vets squawked at having a TV personality host Broadway's biggest night in a non-Broadway house, but complaints were swept aside when higher ratings came in.
O'Donnell and the Tonys returned to Radio City in 1998, but the next year, both the hall and hostess were unavailable and the 1999 Tonys were held at the Gershwin Theatre. O'Donnell and Radio City returned in 2000, but with heavy competition from basketball playoffs, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and Sex and the City, the Tonys suffered in the ratings.
Still, the Tonys stayed at Radio City in 2001, which saw the spectacular success of The Producers and its stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, co-hosting. Bernadette Peters and Gregory Hines were the 2002 hosts. Then Hugh Jackman, a sexy action-film star who took Broadway by storm in The Boy From Oz, took over in 2003, 2004, and 2005.
Good times and bum times, the Tonys has seen it all—as it continues bringing Broadway into living rooms across the nation.