Women of History: Antoinette Perry
Later this month, Broadway will present actors with its highest recognition of excellence. Did you know that the Tony Awards are named after a Christian Scientist—who was herself named after Mary Baker Eddy? The prestigious prize is officially called the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Broadway Theatre.
Mary Antoinette “Tony” Perry was born in Denver, Colorado, on June 27, 1888, to William Russell and Minnie B. Hall Perry.1 She belonged to a pioneering Christian Scientist family and was raised in their religion.2
Christian Science had healed Antoinette’s grandmother in 1885 of blindness and an inability to walk, through the prayers of Roger Sherman. He was a student of Mary Baker Eddy, whose Church of Christ, Scientist was growing rapidly throughout the United States at that time.3
Perry’s mother accompanied her mother and sister in taking Christian Science Primary class instruction, before she herself became a teacher of the religion, having studied with Eddy in Boston, in May 1886. Returning to Denver, she founded the Colorado Christian Science Institute and established a Students Christian Science Association in that city, a chartered branch of the National Christian Scientist Association.4
Antoinette Perry’s given name, Mary, was directly inspired by Eddy, who wrote to her mother after Antoinette’s birth, expressing gratitude to “our loving Father that all is so well with you and the dear nurseling and namesake.”5 As Perry grew, Eddy continued to remember her. When she was 13, Eddy wrote to her mother, “Give my kind wishes to your dear daughter I hope she too partakes of your spiritual joy.”6
Indeed, as a young girl Perry was involved with the Busy Bees, a group of children who helped raise funds to build the Original edifice of The Mother Church in Boston. In 1901 her mother wrote to Eddy that her daughter was “with me in full sympathy, one who has never known any but C.S. healing and teaching – a great comfort and blessing ….” 7 Perry took Primary class instruction from her mother, who also endorsed her application to join The Mother Church at the age of 13. She became a lifelong member on June 10, 1902.
In the 1920s Perry answered an open call from the Christian Science Board of Directors, donating to The Mother Church letters that Eddy had written to her mother. This correspondence, which helps preserve church history, is now part of The Mary Baker Eddy Library’s collection.8
Other members of Perry’s family introduced her to the world of acting—her aunt and uncle, Mildred Hall and George Wessels. At 15 she joined her uncle’s touring company and two years later made her New York City theater debut. This quickly led to a role in The Music Master, where she played the female lead opposite David Warfield, a prominent thespian of the day. He introduced Perry to famed producer David Belasco, and in 1907 he cast her in a starring role in his Broadway musical A Grand Army Man.9
In 1909 Perry married Frank Frueauff, a Denver businessman and vice president of Denver Gas and Electric. Two of their daughters, Margaret and Elaine, also pursued careers in theater. The family lived in New York City after Frueauff became a partner in Henry L. Doherty & Co. Although she took a hiatus from acting during her marriage, Perry never left Broadway completely behind.10 In 1920 she invested in producer Brock Pemberton’s production of Miss Lulu Bett. The play was wildly successful and won a Pulitzer Prize.11
Frueauff’s death in 1922 deeply affected Perry. Eventually she found solace in returning to the stage, performing in the play Mr. Pitt in 1924.12 After several more roles as an actress, she decided to become a director. Among her successes were the plays Strictly Dishonorable (1929) and Harvey (1944), which was made into a classic movie starring James Stewart.13
And yet Perry’s most enduring legacy in theater comes from her philanthropic work, particularly during World War II, when she was the secretary and chairman of the Board of the American Theatre Wing.14 This organization was inspired by similar work undertaken during World War I by the Stage Women’s War Relief. It helped raise money for the United Service Organizations (USO), to provide entertainment to American servicemen and -women, overseas and on home soil. A major part of the American Theatre Wing’s war efforts was the Stage Door Canteen, located in the heart of New York’s theater district, where stars of the stage worked to serve and entertain those in the military.15
Perry was also involved in New York City’s Experimental Theater, serving as its president. In an April 10, 1941, article in The Christian Science Monitor, she explored the development, incorporation, and early work of the organization. The Actor’s Equity Association and the Dramatists’ Guild, she wrote, had formed the Experimental Theater “for the purpose of giving acting and playwriting talent a chance to exhibit their respective abilities in public performances.” Through the Experimental Theater, Perry was dedicated to ensuring that “authors will have an opportunity to be heard and…eager, vigorous, hard-working actors will have an opportunity to play to an invited audience of producers and agents ….”16
After the war, Perry continued her support of American theater through financing new acting and playwriting talent. In 1946 she founded the American Theater Wing Professional School, which has trained numerous Broadway stars.17 However, she did not witness the fruit of this foundational work in American theater, passing away on June 28, 1946. Not long after, her producing partner, Brock Pemberton, worked with the American Theater Wing to establish an award in her honor that would recognize excellence on Broadway, which he dubbed the “Tony.” The first one was presented in April 1947.18
Like her name, Perry’s dedication to theater continues to live on through a lifetime of accomplishments.
- “Mary Antoinette Perry-Frueauff,” Denver Public Library, https://history.denverlibrary.org/colorado-biographies/mary-antoinette-perry-frueauff-1888-1946.
- Antoinette Perry’s mother was later known as Minnie B. Hall DeSoto.
- Roger Sherman was the son of Christian Science pioneers Bradford and Martha Sherman.
- William O. Bisbee, “Minnie B. Hall De Soto: Christian Science in Colorado,” Longyear Museum, 7 October 2013, https://www.longyear.org/learn/research-archive/minnie-b-hall-de-soto-christian-science-in-colorado/.
- Mary Baker Eddy to Minnie B. Hall De Soto, 23 July 1888, L05511.
- Mary Baker Eddy to Minnie B. Hall De Soto, 24 October 1901, L05513.
- Minnie B. Hall De Soto to Mary Baker Eddy, 10 December 1901, IC223a.37.016.
- “Mrs. Eddy’s Letters,” Christian Science Sentinel, 26 January 1924, https://sentinel.christianscience.com/shared/view/1nrbt8jwr3k?s=copylink.
- “Antoinette Perry,” Tony Awards, https://www.tonyawards.com/history/antoinette-perry/.
- Joseph Gustaitis, “The Woman Behind the ‘Tony’,”American History, April 1997, https://www.historynet.com/the-woman-behind-the-tony-april-97-american-history-feature.htm.
- “Antoinette Perry,” Tony Awards.
- Gustaitis, “The Woman Behind the ‘Tony.’
- “Antoinette Perry,” Tony Awards.
- Dale M. Cendali, “V was for Variety: The American Theatre Wing, Broadway, and World War II,” 1981, p. 11.
- “Our History,” American Theatre Wing, https://americantheatrewing.org/about/history/.
- Antoinette Perry, “New York’s Experimental Theater,” The Christian Science Monitor, 10 April 1941, 18.
- “Our History,” American Theatre Wing.
- “Antoinette Perry,” Tony Awards.