The Beginnings of the Tony Awards

Since 1947, the Tony Awards – formally known as the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theater – have been presented each year at a ceremony held in New York City. Named in honor of the late Antoinette Perry – actress, director, producer, and American Theater Wing co-founder who had passed away only recently before…

Since 1947, the Tony Awards – formally known as the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theater – have been presented each year at a ceremony held in New York City. Named in honor of the late Antoinette Perry – actress, director, producer, and American Theater Wing co-founder who had passed away only recently before the first Tony Awards ceremony was held – the tribute of the Tony Awards was the celebration of honorees associated with Broadway performances and productions, and the recognition of excellence in live American theater.

In 1939, the American Theater Wing, the co-presenters of the Tony Awards, had been established in Manhattan as a non-profit organization whose mission was to support excellence in theater, and in 1947 held the first Tony Awards ceremony to recognize achievements specific to Broadway theater. While about 5000 guests attend the celebratory theater gala today, and millions more join in spirit as they watch the television broadcast of the awards show, about 1000 attendants made an appearance at the inaugural Tony Awards ceremony, which took place in the Grand Ballroom of New York City's Waldorf Astoria hotel. After a night of dinner, dancing, and other organized entertainment, the first Tony Awards were presented at the midnight hour. During this and the next year's awards ceremony, winners received a scroll, cigarette lighter, and money clip (for male winners) or compact (for female winners). There were only eleven awards announced that year, but today the Tonys offer awards in about 27 categories honoring plays and their actors, creators, directors, and technicians.

It was not until the third ceremony, in 1949, that the first Award medallions were presented to the winning nominees in Antoinette Perry's name, and in honor of her commitment to perfection and the absolute highest standards of quality when it came to the theater.

The medallions awarded to honorees are designed with the masks of comedy and tragedy on one side, and the profile of Antoinette Perry on the other side. The medallion is composed of a nickel-plated brass and bronze mix and suspended on a nickel-plated pewter swivel above a black acrylic glass base – an addition that was not made until 1967. After each ceremony, each awarded medallion is number for tracking purposes and engraved with its winner's name. Other unique crystal awards can be found online for companies looking for that special recognition for its highest performers.

In 1965, Helen Menken, president of the American Theater Wing, announced that she would retire. Worried that her retirement could bring an end to the Tony Awards, the League of New York Theaters began a partnership with the American Theater Wing and convinced her to remain on board. However, when Menken died the following year, the 1966 awards ceremony was held at the Rainbow Room without entertainment or public audience, for the one and only time in Tony Award history.

The next year, in 1967, the American Theater Wing's new president, Isabelle Stevenson, invited The Broadway League as co-presenters of the awards ceremony, which was held in a Broadway theater rather than its traditional hotel ballroom setting. This marked the first time that the rewards would be televised nationwide, at that time for an hour long compared to today's three hour long Tony Awards broadcast.