“This is my first award, so please be kind” cooed Noël Coward after he sauntered down a spiral staircase to accept his 1970 honorary Tony Award from Cary Grant, while receiving a rare standing ovation during the ceremony.
After belatedly announcing the 2020 Tony Award nominations in October, the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing continue to dither about when and how to present them during this Covid-19 era. A visionary showman like veteran Broadway producer Alexander H. Cohen (1920-2000) would have crafted something unique this year, as he did 50 years ago.
Mr. Cohen pioneered the modern Tony Awards television broadcasts in 1967 and produced them for the next 20 years with his wife and the shows’ writer Hildy Parks (1926-2004). The 24th annual installment, is certainly among their finest achievements. Broadcast on April 19, 1970, by NBC from the Mark Hellinger Theatre (since 1989 the Times Square Church), the hosts were Julie Andrews, Walter Matthau and Shirley MacLaine. Presenters included James Stewart, Michael Caine, Claire Bloom, Jack Cassidy, and Patricia Neal.
It’s on YouTube without commercials and runs one hour and 33 minutes. In the present, the presentation with commercials struggles to clock out at three hours as it’s so laden with promotional musical numbers and other filler, that many technical awards are handed out before the televised portion to save time. In 1970, ALL of the awards were given out in one hour and 15 minutes while still having production numbers from the three Best Musical nominees!
Cohen’s command of swiftness and Clark Jones’ sharp direction and striking camera angles contribute to the brisk pace. As does Hildy Parks’ inspired script with its snappy informative patter. For most of the categories there were no images of the nominees sitting in the audience. Crucially, the winners uniformly gave gracious simple acceptance speeches in under a minute. “I don’t know what say. Just thank you!” After Best Musical was announced, there was then 17 minutes to bestow honorary awards. Many theater fans already know these winners. If you don’t, read no furthur if you plan to watch in suspense.
Prior to Grant and Coward, Maggie Smith and tipsy Robert Stephens paid tribute to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. New York Times drama critic honored Joseph Papp for his New York Shakespeare Festival. Earlier, David Frost gave soon to be 28 years old Barbra Streisand “Star of the Decade.”
The finale was Lauren Bacall singing “Welcome to the Theater” from Applause, then being joined by that show’s company for the title song. “I’ve never held one of these before!” roared the beaming and euphoric 45-year-old Bacall after she strode onstage in a slinky violet dress to a partial standing ovation when she won Best Actress in a Musical.
A notable coincidence was the relative youth of the acting winners. The four featured performers, Ken Howard (Child’s Play), Blythe Danner (Butterflies Are Free) Melba Moore (Purlie) and René Auberjonois (Coco) were all in their 20’s. Mr. Auberjonois would turn 30 in June. Best Actor in a Play, Fritz Weaver (Child’s Play) was 44, Best Actress in a Play, Tammy Grimes (Private Lives) was 36 and Best Actor in Musical, Cleavon Little (Purlie) was 30.
Witty Cecil Beaton won for his Coco costumes and droll Jo Mielziner won for both sets and lighting for Child’s Play. First-time director Ron Field won for his choreography and direction of Applause. Mr. Field died in 1989 at the age of 55, without having another major success. The extended pre-recorded Coco sequence captures Katharine Hepburn’s idiosyncratic charisma, striving to approximate singing and dancing with resolute forcefulness.
With its distinguished roster of celebrities, fabulous production and credible winners, The 1970 Tony Awards truly celebrated that Broadway season. This contrasts with the overstuffed editions in recent times packed with “stars.” Often on view in 1970 during audience shots was Best Actress in a Play nominee for Harvey, 69-year-old Helen Hayes, nicknamed the “First Lady of American Theatre,” and who had two theaters named after her during her lifetime.