Perry, Antoinette (1888–1946)

views updated

Perry, Antoinette (1888–1946)

American actress, producer, director, and activist who was honored by the American Theater Wing when the Antoinette Perry Awards, known as the "Tonys," were introduced in 1947 in her name. Born Antoinette Mary Perry on June 27, 1888, in Denver, Colorado; died on June 28, 1946, in New York City; only child of William Russell Perry (an attorney) and Minnie Betsy (Hall) Perry; educated through high school at Miss Wolcott's School, Denver; married Frank Wheatcroft Frueauff (a businessman), on November 30, 1909 (died July 1922); children: Margaret (b. 1913); Virginia (b. 1917, died in infancy); Elaine (b. 1921).

One of the most enduring figures in the American theater, Antoinette Perry is called to mind each spring with the awarding of the "Tonys," presented in her name to actors, directors, producers, writers, composers, and designers who have made significant contributions to the previous year's New York theatrical season by the American Theater Wing (which she helped establish during World War II). Perry was an actress and a director, but it was her interest in all aspects of the theater, as well as her selfless support of young talent, that truly set her apart.

Antoinette Perry was born in 1888 in Denver, Colorado, the only child of William Perry, an attorney, and Minnie Hall Perry , who with Antoinette's maternal grandmother Mary Hill Hall brought the Christian Science faith to Colorado in 1886. (Perry would remain a devoted Christian Scientist her entire life.) It was Perry's aunt, Mildred Hall , an actress, who influenced her career in the theater. During summers and school holidays, Perry would travel with Hall and her husband, actor George Wessells, as they toured throughout the East and West. After graduating from the exclusive Miss Wolcott's School in Denver, Perry embarked on her own acting career, making her debut in Chicago in Mrs. Temple's Telegram and repeating the role for her New York debut later that year. After a supporting role in Lady Jim (1906), she costarred with David Warfield in The Music Master (1906), appearing with him again in A Grand Army Man (1907). She also toured with The Music Master in 1906 and 1908.

In November 1909, Perry left the stage to marry Frank Wheatcroft Frueauff, a Denver businessman with whom she settled in New York. While raising three daughters (the middle of whom died in infancy), Perry became a patron of several young talents, notably composer Deems Taylor, for whom she sponsored the single performance of his experimental musical What Next!

Following the sudden death of her husband in 1922, Perry returned to acting, appearing in Zona Gale 's Mr. Pitt (1924) with Walter Huston. She subsequently performed in a string of plays, including Minick (1924), The Dunce Boy (1925), Engaged (1925), Caught (1925), The Masque of Venice (1926), The Ladder (1926), and Electra (1927). In 1928, Perry took up directing, and it was in this capacity that she made her most significant contribution to the stage. After a moderate success with Ransom Rideout's Goin' Home, she directed Strictly Dishonorable (1928), a comedy by Preston Sturges, which ran for 557 performances. Over the course of the next 18 years, Perry directed some 30 plays, many of them in collaboration with producer Brock Pemberton, who was also a lifelong friend. Among her most memorable productions were Christopher Comes Across (1932), Personal Appearance (1934), Ceiling Zero (1935), Red Harvest (1937), Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938), Lady in Waiting (1940), Cuckoos on the Hearth (1941), Janie (1942), and Mary Coyle Chase 's Pulitzer Prizewinning comedy Harvey (1944). Perry, a small woman with a beautiful speaking voice and a wicked sense of humor, viewed directing as all-encompassing, requiring one "to think in terms of architecture—which is movement—of ballet, of music, of emphasis." Her advice to her actors was to "think clearly, feel deeply, and know the strength of spiritual understanding."

Antoinette Perry was also extremely active in numerous professional theater organizations. From 1937 to 1939, she was chair of the committee of the Apprentice Theater of the American Theater Council, and as such conducted 5,000 auditions to encourage new talent. In 1941, she served as president of the Experimental Theater of the Actors' Equity Association, another early showcase of new talent. She also supported the Actors' Fund of America and the Musicians Emergency Fund. With the advent of World War II, Perry helped establish the American Theater Wing, which provided entertainment for military personnel on leave at Stage Door Canteens in various cities, as well as hospital entertainment for the wounded. Through the American Theater Wing, Perry staged a full-scale production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, starring Katharine Cornell , for Allied military audiences in Europe in 1944–45. Perry died suddenly of a heart attack in June 1946, age 58. Soon after, the Antoinette Perry Awards were established in her memory.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

About this article

Perry, Antoinette (1888–1946)

Updated About content Print Article