The Secret Life of Tony
This is a yowza. I mean, seriously, this is a serious yowza. Even if you don't like theater or Broadway but care at all about popular culture, literature or history, stick with me here. It's -- there is some really special yowzarosity here.
This is a recording of the 1960 Tony Awards. By itself, that would be special enough -- because this is before it was even a national broadcast but was only shown in New York. Though the results were anticipated nationally, with Broadway in its Golden Age, the broadcast itself was pretty much a local secret. But that's not even close to why it's so special.
In fact, in many way, this is not especially good television. It's very dry, a bit stilted and there's no entertainment, just a presentation of awards. And half a century later, there will be people on stage here who most audiences won't recognize. Though make no mistake, it's still great history, and there are a lot of seriously impressive presenters and winners. Just for starters, it's introduced at length by Henry Fonda. But that's not the point here. The point is that, among all the dryness and great highlights, there are these two particular moments that are particularly special. One will be most-special to lovers of theater, though I think it will still hold meaning for many others. But it's the second one that leaps out above everything.
For me personally, aside from all that, the reason I especially wanted to watch this 1960 Tony broadcast when I saw it existed is because of its connection to what readers of this site know is perhaps my fave musical, Fiorello!, with a score by my recent pal Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. What I knew from the date is that this was the year that Fiorello! tied with The Sound of Music for Best Musical. (And get this, one of the shows that didn't win was Gypsy. That's how great this year was.) I really wanted to see that. As a result of it winning, though, what is so special in this broadcast is who gives the acceptance speech for Fiorello! It's the show's director, who is one of the legends in theater history -- George Abbott! At the time of this broadcast, the 72-year-old Abbott was already a legend -- but what's remarkable is that he lived for another thirty-five years, passing away at the age of 107, and still working (albeit as a consultant) until he was 100. So, it is a complete historical joy to see his speech, which comes around the 44:00 mark. (Later in the broadcast he wins for Best Director, but his speech is very short. Basically, "It's nice to be up here again.") George Abbott, for goodness sake.
But as wonderful as that is, and it's pretty wonderful, it's the other moment that is the topper. The Tonys decided to give a special award that year to honor a unique and beloved revue, A Thurber Carnival, which was based on short stories by James Thurber, probably one of the two greatest humorist in the history of U.S. literature, along with Mark Twain. (For those who haven't read his work, check out "The Night the Bed Fell" or Fables for Our Time, or know that the recent movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was loosely based on his story.) And because of that...the award they give here is to -- yes, James Thurber!!! I'm going to guess that as renowned as Thurber is, whether you've read him or just heard of his work, most people today have never seen James Thurber or even heard him speak. And this is your chance. And the thing is -- he's absolutely terrific. Not just charming and whimsical, as you'd hope he'd be, but also wonderfully serious for a reason I won't give away. But the warm, lovely speech turns bluntly pointed, yet is so very understated that it's all the more impactful. As you watch it, I'll just remind you to keep in mind when this ceremony occurred, and its time in history. Anyway, if all you want to see in this broadcast is Jame Thurber, that's plenty enough, and it comes around the 25:45 mark, so you can jump directly to it. (You should also know that Thurber was near-blind at this point in his life, which is why he's being lead around by his friend and the revue's director Burgess Meredith, who also gets an award.)
I'll note, as well, that If you do stick around through Thurber's speech and then Meredith's, the next presenter is Vivian Leigh. That's the kind of show it is.
As I said, much of this broadcast is bone dry, so most people might prefer to jump to some of the other highlights. For those folks, I'll give you a bit of a road map.
Another good moment is when Jackie Gleason wins as Best Actor in a Musical for Take Me Along which comes at 59:00. (Readers here with good memories will recall that I've written about this show a few times and posted several songs, most notably here and here.).
There's also a very nice sequence with Helen Hayes presenting an award at 56:00. (I was going to say, "the legendary," but this video is so overloaded with such folks that it would become redundant. For instance -- ) Not long after that, Mary Martin wins for Best Actress in The Sound of Music, which comes at 1:01:15. (Again, how great a season is this? She beats Ethel Merman in Gypsy., which may be the most famous performances by an actress in Broadway history. Boy, those were the years...). .
Jumping back to earlier in the broadcast, there is a Fiorello! moment I particularly liked, though I think many may find historically interesting, regardless. At the time he was cast to play the title role in Fiorello!, Tom Bosley was an unknown actor, but he moved out of obscurity when he won Best Supporting Actor in a Musical. Of course, 15 years later he would come to greater fame playing the father 'Howard Cunningham' on Happy Days. But his performance and Tony win for Fiorello! is the springboard that brought him his first major attention and launched his career, and his thrilled-speech comes at 37:00.
There are other highlights, but those are the ones which most stand out.. Mainly however, it's those first two segments that I know those with sense of theater and literature and history will utterly love. They're sort of amazing to see.
Most especially James Thurber. And if couple minutes is all you jump to and watch -- this is still a yowza. James Thurber!
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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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