A couple weeks back, we had a yowza of a video here -- the 1960 Tony Awards, when it was still just a local broadcast, and included most-memorably a special award and wonderful acceptance speech by James Thurber. Today, we have a worthy companion piece. It doesn't have anything quite at the level of a Thurber (or the legendary George Abbott), but it's still pretty impressive on its own -- the very next year, the 1961 Tonys.
Again, this is still just a local New York broadcast. And similarly, there's no entertainment, just speeches, many winners who today are little know to the public, and a pretty dry broadcast overall, so this is really for major theater buffs and theater historians to watch all the way through. But -- not to fear! For all others, it's still a remarkable treat to scroll through and watch for appearances.
Oddly, perhaps the most-memorable thing here is not who won, but who comes up on stage to deliver acceptance speeches for winners who couldn't be there that night. Today, awards shows have gotten out of the habit of using time to let someone else accept an award "on behalf of" the winner who isn't in attendance, but this is before that time. And usually, that's was an understandable disappoint for viewers to not get to see the winner but merely "someone else," whoever they were. But here -- the "accepting on behalf of..." is almost preferable, because we get such acclaimed subordinates as Lilian Gish, Julie Andrews, Richard Burton (this is the year of Camelot, as you might have guessed) and the rarely seen on film legend, Beatrice Lilly. Again, these are people who did not win the awards they're accepting! Just willing to get up on behalf of others.
(All are identified by the announcer, except for some reason Lilian Gish. So, I can't be 100% that's her, but I'm 95% certain.)
This year is notable also for being a terrific example of the strange Tony rule for who is eligible in what acting categories, the result of which meant for decades (until it was finally changed) that stars of shows often weren't eligible for the 'Leading" award, but would get nominated as Best Featured performer instead. (To be a leading actor, your name had to be either above the title or if below, specially set off by the words "Starring,") That meant, for instance, that if a cast was presented as an ensemble below the show's title, the star could only be nominated in a Featured category. One of the turning points for changing the rule came after William Daniels famously took his name out of contention for being nominated as Best Featured Actor in 1776 for his role as 'John Adams.'
There are several such instances in this year's awards, but the most interesting is Dick Van Dyke in Bye, Bye Birdie getting nominated as Best Featured Actor in a Musical, when it was the starring role that launched his career. And though it's disappointing that he too is among those "unable to attend," what's fun is seeing that his award is accepted by his understudy -- a very young Charles Nelson Reilly. And how young is he? He's introduced as "Charles Reilly."
There are some other notable moments. One is an award to the legendary producer David Merrick, who was unlikable enough even back then to get humorously-chided by host Phil Silvers. (Hey, just having Phil Silvers as the show's host is pretty good on its own...) And also intriguing is the category of Best Leading Actor in a Musical, since not only is one of the nominees Richard Burton for Camelot, but also -- Phil Silvers himself, for Do Re Mi. And when Burton wins (hey, I'm not giving much away -- this is Richard Burton in Camelot, after all. And it was 57 years ago!), it's fascinating to see how gracious he is to host Silvers, and how Silvers handles it all when he has to go back out to host after not winning.
(By the way, it was by all accounts a wonderful performance that Phil Silvers gave in Do Re Mi, including his memorable "11 o'clock" soul-searching number, "All of My Life," I wrote about the show and embedded that song here, if you want to hear it and know more, along with the final with Silvers joining in on the show's most famous song, "Make Someone Happy.")
All that aside, here's the 1961 Tonys.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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