HINTON BATTLE set the small, cloth pouch on the coffee table in his mother's Northwest Washington house, arranging the surprise. "I brought you a present," he told her, pointing. Carrie battle picked up the pouch, unloosed the strings and gently pulled down its cover. There was the precious prize. The Tony.
The flattened silver globe turned on its axis with the double faces of comedy and tragedy on one side, and on the other, the following inscription: ". . . Hinton Battle, Outstanding performance by a featured actor in a musical, 'Sophisticated Ladies' . . ."
"Ah, gorgeous!" she gasped. ". . . Are you going to let me keep it?"
"No," said Battle, shaking his head and laughing. "You can't keep the Tony. You can have the nomination plaque, but not the Tony. That's mine."
For Hinton Battle, 24, dancer, singer and actor, coming back to Washington is coming home because this is where his family is -- his mother, two sisters and two brothers -- a family that has stood by with pride as the oldest son danced his way to the Tony.
There are few childhood friends for Battle here in Washington, and no "old hangouts," except his former dance school, Jones-Haywood School of Ballet, where he received a scholarship during his grade-school days.
Attending Meyer Elementary School, he starred in "The Nutcracker," and was discovered by then assistant principal J. Weldon Greene.
"I had every bit of confidence that he would be a star," Greene recalled. "Because if a kid could dance like he danced without any dance training at all, he could go places with some formal training. So it just blew my mind . . . and I knew he had talent to be a star."
Still, it wasn't all easy. One day, for example, Battle and his sisters were late coming home from school. His brother found him in the alley fighting with a neighborhood boy. "I asked Hinton why was he fighting," his mother said. "And he told me he was fighting because this boy kept calling him names, and he took him in the alley to beat him up because he didn't want his teachers to see him fighting in the streets."
Battle remembered, "I used to get teased going to dance school; the guys would want to see my ballet shoes. But the guys who used to kid me and say, 'Oh, there goest Twinkle Toes!' are really happy for me now. so it's really great."
He had to mature fast as he danced through a brief youth in Washington. He left when he was 13 to study at the School of American Ballet in New York on a scholarship.
And while his years of work may be paying off at last, "I used to want to quit," he said. "I would tell Mom every year that I wanted to quit. And she would say, 'Stick it out another year. Then the next year I'd say okay, I'm ready to quit, and she'd say 'Stick it out another year.' This went on for about three years, then I said . . . 'I'm not getting out of this.'
"I got the scholarship to New York, and then I said, 'Oh, I like it now. I don't want to quit." He laughed again. "I wanted to go to New York."
During that first summer in 1969, he took 10 classes a week; during the winter he took three or four classes a day. "I lived in ballet tights and shoes," he said. After three years, he returned to Washington. But New York still drew him. And when his sister Lettie, also a dancer in New york, called him about coming back to try out for a part in "The Wiz," he went. He was 17.
"I went up and tried out and got a part in the chorus," he said. "The show opened up around December. Then we went to Baltimore, then went to Detroit, then Philadelphia."
By the time the group made it to Philadelphia, Hinton had decided he would leave "The Wiz" to go back to New York to study dance. But someting happened. The actor portraying the Scarecrow got sick, and Hinton was pulled from the chorus and asked to take over the role.
"It was crazy," he remembered, throwing his hands in the air. "All these people were screaming at me: 'Hold your head up! Let me get this eyelash on here!' One guy was putting on makeup, another one feeding me lines, someone was putting on my wig, and Stephanie [Mills] was trying to tell me good luck." He paused then sighed. "Everything happened so fast I didn't have time to be nervous."
After two years with "The Wiz" as the Scarecrow, he decided to go back to his old love -- ballet. And after a short stint in Chicago with the Lyric Opera Ballet and some free-lancing with the Capitol Ballet Company, he headed back to Broadway.
"I'd like to do it all. I'd like to touch on all bases and get involved with as much as I can -- film, television, recording. I think that it's important not to say that I want to dance and only dance. That's why I left classical dance and went to Broadway, because I dance, I sing and act. But classical dance is to dance."
Back in New York, he heard about "Sophisticated Ladies" last summer while he was performing in the musical "Dancin'". He decided to try out -- and got the part of a featured dancer. Getting the part, said Battle, was not much of a surprise. It was the Tony nomination that knocked him off his feet.
"I was at [a party] and Greg Hines [star of "Sophisticated Ladies"] was also invited. He walked up to me and said, 'Have you heard?' I said, 'Heard what?' He said, 'You were nominated for a Tony.' I had a glass of champagne in my hand; it was almost knocked out. I remember leaving the party early and going out to get a paper to see it in writing."
Then he called his mother to let her in on the good news. "I wasn't sure she knew what the Tonys were. I said, 'Mom, I've been nominated for a Tony.' She said, 'What? That's great!'" He started laughing.
The night of the Tony ceremonies, Battle sat calmly with his date -- dancer Debbie Allen -- surrounded by other stars, all anxiously awaiting the results. "She asked me just before they got to my category, 'Did you prepare a speech?' and I said, 'No, I don't expect to win anything.'
"And then when I heard my name I felt like all the wind was knocked out of me. I just sank down in my chair. I said, 'That was my name.'" He laughed, then recalled almost whispering, "I said to myself, 'Okay Hinton, you have to get up now. You have to walk up there.' It was like the whole time I was walking toward the stage, I Said, 'What am I going to say when I get up there? It was one of the most exciting moments I've ever experienced. I was taking deep breaths and trying to think of something.' I thought I was dreaming for a minute. I pinched myself."
"I guess when [the Tony award] first happened, it was kind of funny. I wasn't used to people stopping me or recognizing me on the street," he said. "It doesn't bother me; I'm really rather flattered when people stop me. It shows that they have seen my work and admire it.
"It's a great way to communicate to people, because when you perform and it's really what you feel through dance, speech or whatever, I just think it's a wonderful thing to be able to do. And when [the audience] applauds back it's like they're saying thank you, and you feel like you're accomplishing or fulfilling something."