Flashback to first Tony Awards ceremony: Only eight categories but two ties

After a 15 months delay, the 74th annual Tony Awards honoring the best of Broadway will be held September 26 on CBS and Paramount +. And there a lot of familiar faces expected at the ceremony at the Winter Garden Theatre including six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, who is nominated for the revival of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”; Jane Alexander, who won her first Tony Award 52 years ago for “The Great White Hope” and contends for “Grand Horizons”; and 90-year-old Lois Smith, who made her Broadway debut nearly 70 years ago, is up for “The Inheritance.”

The Tony Awards first ceremony, held April 6 1947 at the Grand Ballroom of the famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, was a vastly different affair. Awards were handed out in only eight categories. Producer, director and Tony founder Brock Pemberton was the host of the evening which was broadcast on WOR and Mutual Network radio stations.

Best Actor was a tie between Jose Ferrer for “Cyrano de Bergerac” and two-time Oscar-winner Fredric March for Ruth Gordon’s “Years Ago.” “Cyrano” became Ferrer’s signature role. He also won the lead actor Oscar for the 1950 film version beating out such strong competition as William Holden for “Sunset Boulevard” and Jimmy Stewart for “Harvey” and becoming the first Latino performer to win an acting Oscar. And in 1956, he was Emmy nominated for a TV production of “Cyrano.”

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The prolific Puerto-Rican actor/director had made his Broadway debut in 1935 with “A Slight Case of Murder,” which ran for 69 performances. He had scored a big success in drag in 1940 in the comedy “Charley’s Aunt,” directed by Josh Logan. And he played Iago in Margaret Webster’s legendary production of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” with Paul Robeson in the title role and Ferrer’s then-wife Uta Hagen as Desdemona. The play, which opened in 1943 and was revived in 1945, ran 296 performances.

Ferrer, who died in 1992 at the age of 80, went on to earn Tonys in 1952 for Best Actor and director for “The Shrike,” as well as for directing “The Fourposter” and “Stalag 17.” And in 1981, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and in 1981 became the first actor to receive the National Medal of Arts in 1981. Ferrer, who was nominated for the supporting actor Oscar for 1948’s “Joan of Arc” and lead actor for 1953’s “Moulin Rouge,” also directed himself in several films including 1955’s “The Shrike,” 1956s “The Great Man,” 1958’s “I Accuse!” and “The High Cost of Loving.” And in 1986, Ferrer bid adieu to his beloved “Cyrano” performing a passage from Rostand’s play on the Tony Awards.

March, who made his Broadway debut in 1924’s “The Melody Man,” would win his second and final Tony in 1957 for Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” He would receive one more Tony nomination for 1962’s “Gideon.”

Lead actress was also a tie with Ingrid Bergman earning her first and only Tony for “Joan of Lorraine” (she would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for 1948’s “Joan of Arc”) and the First Lady of the Theater Helen Hayes picking up her first honor for “Happy Birthday.” Hayes, who was just nine when she made her Broadway debut in 1909 in “Old Dutch,” would receive another Tony for 1958’s “Time Remembered” and earned a Tony nomination for her last Broadway outing in the 1970 revival of “Harvey” with Jimmy Stewart.

Supporting actress went to newcomer Patricia Neal for “Another Part of the Forest.’ She would head to Hollywood in two years, eventually winning the Best Actress Oscar for 1963’s “Hud.” And affable David Wayne won supporting actor as a leprechaun in the hit musical “Finian’s Rainbow.” He would receive another Tony playing a Asian translator in the 1954 Best Play winner, the comedy “The Teahouse of the August Moon.”

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Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan received Best Director for Arthur Miller’s play “All My Sons.” Two years later, he would win the Tony for directing Miller’s masterwork “Death of a Salesman” and then in 1959, Kazan earned his third Tony for directing “J.B.”

Other winners included costume designer Lucinda Ballard for five shows including “Happy Birthday”; choreographer for Agnes De Mille (“Brigadoon”) and Michael Kidd (“Finian’s Rainbow”) and composer Kurt Weill for “Street Scene.”

Special awards were handed out including one for Miller for “All My Sons” and for Vincent Sardi Jr. for providing a transient home and comfort station for theatre folk at Sardi’s for twenty years.” It is still providing home and comfort 74 years later.

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