THE TONY AWARDS UNSANITIZED
The word “sanitized” dances in my head, thinking about the Tony Awards show tonight. As we so excruciatingly have come to understand, theater is the hazardous exchange of human microbes. This living, dangerous essence gets sanitized on the Tonys.
So what. The Tony Awards make a damn fine television commercial and Broadway couldn’t need one more right now.
Still, a few unsanitized thoughts about the Tonys. They originally weren’t made for television. The first twenty years of Tony presentations were face-to-face dinners in ballrooms (the Waldorf Astoria Grand Ballroom, at first, in 1947, the Plaza and Astor Hotel ballrooms later on, and even one daytime luncheon at the Rainbow Room, which must have been heaven). There were tables and a dance floor, an orchestra and food, plenty of drink, loads of very smart talk, I imagine, and live performances (by big stars, but not yet by nominated musicals). If this casual celebratory comradery sounds a bit like the Golden Globes, well I bet it was. But the Tonys were there first.
My two heroes of brash, unsanitized, raw Tony-ness are Alexander H. Cohen and the lady for whom the award is named, Antoinette Perry. Alex Cohen was the guy who brought the Tonys to network TV, beginning in 1967, producing the show annually for the next twenty years. This is not what I loved about him. Alex Cohen was a Broadway producer in the same way Max Bialystock was. In fact, some say that Alex Cohen was Mel Brooks’ role model for the character. Mr. Brooks, in his recent memoir, offers up a different name as his inspiration but, nonetheless, to know Alexander Cohen was to know many aspects of Max Bialystock.
I used to attend Alex Cohen’s Sunday A.M. Tony dress rehearsals. Perhaps these still go on at Radio City (I’m afraid I wouldn’t know). Back then the broadcasts were from a Broadway theater, a different one each year. In those balconies an avid bunch of us would cluster, gazing down on unpopulated orchestra floors pocked with handmade signs marking the seats where nominees that night would be sitting. My friend Ted, who’d started out working for Alex Cohen, was a stand-in for the winners. To time the broadcasts properly, the actual presenters would appear onstage and announce joke winners, as scripted by a tag-team of volunteers, including Ted (“And the winner is: Richard Nixon for ‘Same Crime Next Year’”). Ted, or one of his fellow place-holders, would then race up the steps and accept Tony after Tony with jesting faux acceptance speeches.
You really had to be there.
Alex Cohen’s Tony Awards broadcasts were not always the slickest. That was sometimes their charm, though there was one year (1973?) when the theme was internationalist — “The Wide World of Broadway” — and the show played out like one long, cheesy airline ad. His revolutionary innovation was to turn the stage over to each nominated musical’s cast for a revelatory live number or two. For a few years, the Best Drama nominees also performed excerpts. The non-sequitur character of these sequences, however, overwhelmed the kick of catching televised glimpses of actors like James Earl Jones or Annette Benning in action, and the drama portion of the program was soon dropped. Still, Alex Cohen gave us what today amounts to a veritable film archive of Broadway musicals to slaver over on YouTube, and his gift just keeps on giving.
Late in his life, I got word that Alex Cohen had decided to write his memoirs and wanted to discuss possibly hiring me as his ghost writer. I met him at his apartment, where a majestic heap of scrapbooks sat piled on a coffee table. Going through them was a rip in time. Alex was more a producer of great events than he was a producer of great plays and musicals (at least in the ratio of his successes) but, as a result, the glitz factor was staggering. His flops were legendary but his hits included the Broadway appearances of Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Nichols and May and, most decisively, Richard Burton in Hamlet. This 1964 smash transpired just as Burton’s marriage to Elizabeth Taylor was on every front page in the world. Alex presented himself to me as their personal producer, stage-managing their days and nights together between Hamlet performances, and I suspect that he was not exaggerating. Much.
The tangible physicality of Broadway’s long-gone glamour was present in these scrapbooks: solid-gold-edged opening night invitations printed by Tiffany, midnight supper summonses to long-gone boites; everything exquisitely designed and executed. Some in the theater community accused Alex of bankrolling such extravagance by lining his pockets with proceeds from his television work for the Tonys and other extravaganzas. Some suggested that, like Max Bialystock and his accountant partner Leo Bloom, Alex liked to keep two sets of books. I know nothing about this. All I do know is, when Alex and I were on the cusp of a deal for his book, I mentioned, in passing, that some of my hours would be spent fact-checking his stories — standard operating procedure for any journalist. Alex announced that would never do and, with a gruff, yet consummate grace, ejected me instantly from his apartment.
As for Antoinette Perry, though her ethereal kisser adorns the B-side of every spinny Tony Award disc, it is her unsanitized actuality that enthralls me. She was a great early-20th Century thespian who also had a flair for business; who made and lost her own fortunes more than a few times, almost always by backing her own and others’ Broadway productions; who successfully made herself into one of Broadway’s rare female directors early on; and who helped found (and bankroll) the Theatre Wing of Allied Relief (and its Stage Door Canteen) during World War Two, which became the American Theatre Wing after the war.
Madame Perry’s love for the ponies was such that she was known to slip race track bets surreptitiously to her secretary during Wing board meetings. She also carried on a twenty-five-year professional partnership (and probably romantic affair) with the legendary Broadway PR man and producer, Brock Pemberton. When she died tragically of a heart attack on June 28, 1946, at the age of 58, Pemberton proposed that the Wing create an award in her memory for “distinguished stage acting and technical achievement.” The night he handed out the first one, on April 6, 1947, Pemberton called it “a Tony.”