With the long-delayed 74th Tony Awards set for Sept. 26 at the Winter Garden and streaming on Paramount + and a CBS special, let’s take a deep dive into Tony Awards history and look back at the first decade. Broadway was bristling with excitement post World War II. Young playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge breathed new life into the Great White Way. And new talents electrifying audiences included Marlon Brando, Julie Harris and Gwen Verdon. It was the perfect time for the creation of the Tony Awards in 1947. The Antoinette Perry Awards or Theatre Excellence were named after the legendary theater actress who was co-founder of the American Theatre Wing; she had died in 1946.
The first annual Tony Awards took place on April 6, 1947 at the Waldorf Astoria and was broadcast on radio on WOR and Mutual Network radio. There was no categories for best play or musical, but Miller won a special award for “All My Sons” and Elia Kazan won the best director category. The first lady of the American theater, Helen Hayes won for her star turn in the play “Happy Birthday,” as did Ingrid Bergman for “Joan of Lorraine.” Jose Ferrer prevailed for his signature role of “Cyrano de Begerac” and Fredric March was honored for “Years Ago.” Ingenue Patricia Neal received supporting actress for “Another Part of the Forest” and David Wayne earned the Tony for supporting actor for the tuner “Finian’s Rainbow.’
One of Williams’ masterworks was “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which opened Dec. 3, 1947. The searing drama made a superstar out of Mr. Method Actor himself, Marlon Brando. The play, which also boosted the careers of Jessica Tandy, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter, was directed by Elia Kazan. Mike Nichols told me in a 2010 L.A. Times interview that seeing the play with his girlfriend on its second night as the catalyst for his career. “There had never been anything like it, I know that by now,” he noted. “It was, to this day, the only thing onstage that I had ever seen that was 100% real and 100% poetic,” adding that he and his girlfriend wouldn’t get up at the intermission. “We were just so stunned. Your heart was pounding. It was a major experience.”
Yet, it barely got any Tony love at the second annual ceremony on March 28, 1948. Only Tandy received a Tony for her indelible performance as Blanche DuBois. And she wasn’t the only lead actress winner that evening. Judith Anderson also was a recipient for “Macbeth” and Katharine Cornell earned the honor for “Antony and Cleopatra.” (“Streetcar” was embraced by the Pulitzers that year.) The Tony “award” had yet to be introduced, so female winners received a gold bracelet replete with a charm with their name and the award transcribed. Male winners earned a gold bill clips. The silver Tony medallion was introduced the following year.
Miller’s masterpiece “Death of a Salesman” dominated the 1949 Tony ceremony winning six including play and director for Kazan. But Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock who were praised for their haunting performances as Willy and Linda Loman didn’t prevail. The only actor from the production to win was Arthur Kennedy for his featured turn as the Lomans’ son Biff.
Humphrey Bogart, who got his start on Broadway, hosted the 1950 Tony Awards which saw the classic Rodger and Hammerstein musical-drama “South Pacific” taking home nine Tony Awards including Best Musical, director for Josh Logan, score, libretto and all four acting categories for Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza, Juanita Hall and Myron McCormick. Veteran Broadway star Shirley Booth won for top actress for Inge’s first hit, “Come Back, Little Sheba.” Two years later, she made her film debut in the movie version and won the Oscar. Bogey wasn’t the only major name at the 1950 Tonys. Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt handed out a special award to Phillip Faversham, a volunteer worker at the Theatre Wing’s hospital program.
Two beloved musicals — Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls” and Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam” — battled it out at the 1951 ceremony with “Guys and Dolls” the big winner earning five including musical, actor for Robert Alda, supporting actress for Isabel Bigley, director for George S. Kaufman, and choreography for Michael Kidd. “Madam” picked up three: actress for Ethel Merman, supporting actor for Russell Nype and musical score for Berlin.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were the big winners at the 1952 Tonys hosted by Dean Martin. Their “The King and I,” won five including top musical, actress for Gertrude Lawrence and supporting actor for Yul Brynner, who would go on to win the best actor Oscar for the 1956 film version. Lawrence died six months later of cancer at the age of 54. Julie Harris won her first of five lead actress honors for “I Am a Camera.” The 1966 musical version “Cabaret” would win eight Tonys at the 1967 ceremony. Judy Garland won a special Tony for her “important contribution to the revival of vaudeville through her recent stint at the Palace Theatre,” as did Charles Boyer for his “distinguished performance in ‘Don Juan in Hell,’ thereby assisting in a new theatre trend.”
The first Williams’ work to win Best Play was “The Rose Tattoo” in 1952; the 2019 revival is up this year for music and costume design. The drama won three more awards for supporting turns by Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach and production design.
Rosalind Russell received her first best actress Oscar nomination for the delightful 1942 comedy “My Sister Eileen” and she won the Tony Award for “Wonderful Town” the Leonard Bernstein–Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical version at the seventh annual Tonys in 1953. In fact, it was the big musical winner at the ceremony earning five including outstanding musical. “Hazel Flagg,” the musical version of the 1937 screwball comedy “Nothing Sacred,” won two including supporting actor for Thomas Mitchell. And “Wish You Here,” based on the 1937 play and 1938 movie ‘Having Wonderful Time,” also received two including supporting actress for Sheila Bond and best stage technician.
The ceremony was still being covered by only by radio at the eighth annual ceremony on March 28, 1954. “Ondine” was the major winner on the dramatic side earning four including best director for Alfred Lunt. It was a magical evening for Audrey Hepburn, who won the top actress prize for the play. Just three nights earlier she received the Best Actress Oscar for 1953’s “Roman Holiday.”And Gwen Verdon won the first of her eventual four Tonys in the supporting actress category in a musical for Cole Porter’s “Can-Can.”
Frank Sinatra no less hosted the ninth annual ceremony at the Plaza Hotel in 1955. History was made that night as Bob Fosse got his first of eight Tonys for choreography. He won for the best musical recipient “The Pajama Game.” Carol Haney also won for supporting actress for the blockbuster show The home invasion thriller “The Desperate Hours,” which featured a young Paul Newman, won the Tony for best drama. And actor Robert Montgomery, who had helmed such films as 1946’s “The Lady in the Lake,” won for his direction. The play closed in August after 212 performances. Two months later the hit film version, directed by William Wyler and starring Bogart and Fredric March, was released.
The Tonys grew up on the tenth anniversary of the awards on April 1, 1956. For the first time, in Tony history, the nominees were announced in advanced and the show was broadcast on DuMont channel 5 in New York City. Ironically, DuMont was history that August. Jack Carter hosted the first part of the evening with Hayes taking over for the second half. “The Diary of Anne Frank” won Best Play; Julie Harris won her second Tony for “The Lark”; Paul Muni won lead actor and Ed Begley distinguished supporting actor for “Inherit the Wind.” “Damn Yankees” was the big musical recipient earning seven Tonys including the top award; Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston for lead actress and actor; Russ Brown for supporting actor; and Fosse for choreography.
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