How Lucky Can You Get?
By Dan Taylor
In my mind, I must have returned to Langley Hall a thousand times over the years. But when my two sons and I were driving down Langley Road and I suddenly shouted, “There it is!” it was the first time I had seen those tall iron entrance gates in 60 years. Richard, Peter and I had come from the United States to enjoy a week in England, a nostalgic trip topped by visits to Langley Hall and Silverlands, which were once my homes when they housed the Actors’ Orphanage. After we parked our rented car in the rear and walked into the building (which is now East Berkshire College), 1999 suddenly became 1931!
1931, passing through the front gates with my sister, Yettey, and our aunt who had brought us to Langley – a boarding school for orphaned children from theatrical families. Yettey was 9; I was 5. Our father had been a well-known comedian on the English stage. His career had come to a tragic end when, during a performance, his role called for him to make a stage entrance riding a horse. On this ill-fated instance, the horse threw him and he suffered severe injuries that eventually terminated his life in the theatre. He died some years later, in very poor straits, at the age of 55. I was one year old at the time. Shortly after we arrived at Langley Hall, our mother died of breast cancer at 41.
It used to be that when people heard the word “orphanage,” some would envision a Dickensian workhouse filled with raggedy, half-starved children. This was certainly not the scenario at the Actors’ Orphanage, which was funded by the Actors’ Charitable Trust, handled by a committee of leading English actors and actresses. We all had enough to eat and none of us went bare-footed. True, we did not have the freedom to come and go as we pleased (I don’t know where we’d have gone, anyway) and none of us were overloaded with pocket money for “sweets” or toys, but in the early days the school did allow us “threepence” each Saturday, or maybe it was once a month, for candy that one of the older students would pick up for us at the local sweet shoppe. “Three pennyworth of toffees” was always my order. We never actually saw the money, but we did, figuratively speaking, enjoy eating it.
The school was divided into two sections – the “boys’ end” that housed the older lads, and the “girls’ end” which included the very youngest boys when they first arrived at Langley Hall. The school grounds were well-kept and boasted a cricket pitch, two soccer pitches, two tennis courts and a gymnasium that contained fine stage facilities that enabled us to present traditional “pantomimes” during the Christmas season.
During those early years, the discipline was actually rather strict. About four of the senior girls were designated as “prefects” to help the teachers keep us in line outside the classroom, making sure that we understood and followed the rules: staying “in bounds” at all times, having our beds made tidily each morning, no misuse of any school property, no talking back to anyone in authority, no talking after “lights out” and many other “no’s.”
Punishments ranged from detention (confinement in some room, alone or with other miscreants, for an hour or so, no talking allowed) to a couple of light swats on the hand with a ruler, which was always the least-feared reminder of our transgression once we learned not to hold out our hand with a rigid palm. Then, of course, once we got reasonably proficient at handwriting, there was the popular (not with us!) penalty, the “100 lines.” In semi-seclusion, we would have to write--100 times--something like: “I must not throw food at anyone in the dining room.” Your next propulsion of food might get you 200 lines—and no dessert.
We ate all our meals in a large dining room with staff and teachers present. The food was generally good and there was enough of it. My one disenchantment was Friday, when the lunch offering was always fish, usually Boiled Cod which I absolutely loathed. Even the aroma nauseated me. Always present at meals was a rather rigid “matron” who insisted that we “clean our plates” before we left the table. To this day, I clearly recall sitting grimly at the table after everyone else had left for the afternoon class, glaring at that wretched Cod. Most the time, I eventually resigned myself to death by choking and ate the thing, but there were also times when I stubbornly outlasted my Friday nemesis. That was a victory to be savoured!
One of the most rewarding factors of our life at the orphanage, was our close relationship with the other boys our age. We seldom were bored because there was always someone to play with, and lacking most of the normal childhood recreational possessions, some rather imaginative pastimes were dreamed up, improved on and eagerly pursued. This fostered a family feeling that was so important at that age and which, I believe, has stayed with us ever since.
Sunday was “Visiting Day” and whenever she could, my aunt would come down from London to spend a few afternoon hours with Yettey and me. She was far from wealthy, but would always bring us something—candy (sweets) or cake, perhaps even a few coppers. In those days, sixpence looked like a fortune to me. She had not led an easy life, having lost a son in his infancy and been widowed quite early. However, things took a welcome turn when she married a retired Lloyd’s Bank manager. He was considerably older than she was, but a fine man who was very organized, if a little set in his ways. He had a nice house in a London suburb and, probably for the first time in her adult life, our Aunt Nan was able to live a normal, comfortable existence.
The best time of the year was Christmas. The dining room, the gymnasium and several other rooms would be decorated with colourful “Paper Chains;” we were all able to select an item from a toy catalogue as a gift from the school, and we were even allowed to have pillow fights in the dormitories on Christmas morning. (Just don’t repeat them on Boxing Day!) In the afternoon “Santa Claus” distributed presents from the gym stage. Nobody got more than two or three, but two or three was a bonanza for us.
The highlight of the Christmas season was our traditional pantomime or “Panto” as we called it. Peter Jackson, a professional from London, would script his own version of a popular tale like “Cinderella” or “Robinson Crusoe,” come down to Langley Hall to cast, produce and direct the musical which was performed on our gymnasium stage, named “THE BIJOU” for the occasion. Practically the entire student body, about 60 of us, was involved in the production: performing on stage, working backstage, assisting with costumes, props and all other necessities for a presentation of this nature. It played to several full houses at Langley, and on two occasions we did three matinees at the Gaiety Theatre in London with one of the popular theatre orchestras in the pit. I loved being part of this. My favourite role was that of the cat in “Dick Whittington,” the popular fable of the man who rid London of all the rats—the four-legged kind. As his faithful cat, I didn’t have to learn any dialogue, not even a “meow.” The pantos remain some of the fondest memories of the orphanage.
Moving over to the “boys’ End” of the school was, at first, a rather uneasy transformation. We were the young “twerps” from the other side of the wall, invading the domain of our elders (ages ranging up to seventeen or eighteen) and some hazing was definitely in the offing. It started the first morning with the “Cold Bath,” which was part of the regular school routine at that time.
This barbarous practice took place every morning after rising. A bathtub was filled with cold water—very cold water—and you had to take a push-up stance in the tub, then immerse yourself completely. On those first few mornings, our grinning seniors would be stationed around the tub and as we completed our doleful dip and started to get back to dry land, on of them would say, “You didn’t get your head wet—do it again!” When you did it again, a hand would hold your head under water for a couple of extra seconds. ‘Twas quite an initiation. It went on for several days, but we quickly learned that if we showed we could “take it,” our welcoming committee would soon lose interest…and dream up something else!
Discipline was very strict and our headmaster must have been a throwback to an earlier scholastic era. Caning was prevalent in many English schools and probably all boarding schools, but “Moggy” kept himself in peak physical condition swinging that cane—at us! Seems we spent half our time lined up outside his office door, waiting to get “six of the best.” If they weren’t the best, they were pretty damn good! And they were administered for the slightest infraction of any of the many rules.
But one day, our un-adored headmaster went too far with his canings, and that evening there was a wild uprising. In the main classroom, his precious maps and pictures were thoroughly defaced or ripped from the walls, things were tossed around and the room was a mess. I went to bed that night fully expecting expulsions from the school in the morning. But there were none. Instead, the school president, Noel Coward, came down to Langley, fired the headmaster and gave us all a short lecture on appropriate behaviour (which did not include the previous evening’s activity) and promised us that changes would be made. They were. Within a few days we had a new headmaster, and there were no more canings at the Actors’ Orphanage. At least, as far as I remember.
Our masters (male teachers) were fair enough and we got along pretty well with them. We didn’t see too much of them outside the classroom, except for “Bomber” Howells, who was also our cricket and soccer coach, a no-nonsense individual who didn’t smile much, but he certainly had our attention! You didn’t talk back to “Bomber.” He was a capable coach, though, and we fielded some rather good, competitive teams.
One highlight of the year was the Actors’ Match, a cricket game featuring our school varsity team versus a group of actors, some of them well-known, who would come down to Langley Hall for the day. Autograph hunters had a great workout. Noel Coward was always on hand for the festivities, though he never donned the cricket “whites,” but he was a very suave host for the colourful event. There was also a residual benefit for us on Actors’ Match day—our meals took on a little extra luster. I always wished the game were played on Friday rather than Sunday; our luncheon fare surely would not have featured Boiled Cod!
In the late spring of 1938, we suddenly got the surprising news that the Actors’ Orphanage was being relocated in Chertsey, Surrey at a place called “Silverlands.” To this day, I’m not sure what occasioned the move. But, ours was not to reason why. Most of us, I believe, had mixed reactions. We’d had some bad times, but far more good ones at “The Hall,” and we were a family. We were also very young, and there was a sense of curiosity and excitement about the coming change in our lives which a lot of us would be sharing with the only friends we’d ever known.
Yettey and I spent our last summer vacation with our aunt and uncle in Golden Green. It was not a very happy one. They were having problems and things were uncomfortable, with the atmosphere ranging from chilly to over-heated. It was actually a relief to be returned to school, which now was SILVERLANDS.
Our first glimpse of our new school was quite impressive. Silverlands was a large mansion in a spacious estate, which had been built between 1814 and 1825. Heading up that long road from the front gate to the building itself, I don’t think Yettey and I said a word. It was certainly not what we had envisioned, so totally different from Langley Hall in every way, on appearance, at least. One of those differences gave me a few moments of consternation—where were the soccer goals and the cricket pavilion? Naturally, the soccer goals were installed at the proper time, but the cricket pavilion was to remain a memory of Langley. Later, Yettey patiently explained to her naïve brother why cricket pavilions were not exactly a requisite of private estates.
The first thing that caught the eye on entering the building was the magnificent staircase that curled up to the second floor, highlighting an attractive lobby. The other rooms on the ground floor were spacious and practical. Who knows? In the middle of the 19th century, they might have been ornate. No matter, the children of the Actors’ Orphanage did not rate ornate. We didn’t even know what it was. Another interesting feature was the courtyard at the back of the building that encompassed several small rooms, which became classrooms and locker rooms. A larger enclosure had once stabled the owner's horses. At the far corner of the courtyard were stone steps leading up to an almost tower-like room, which became sort of a boys’ hideaway. I think we colonized it.
The move from Langley Hall to Silverlands was made without any problems, certainly not any major ones as far as the students were concerned, and we all settled in quite easily. The atmosphere was more relaxed, and the rules, which still had to be obeyed, didn’t seem as strict as they had been at Langley. Some of us could even get permission to leave the grounds and go to the cinema in Chertsey, a mile away, on occasional Saturday afternoons if there was no scheduled soccer or cricket match. Not having the price of admission was the most frequent deterrent.
As at Langley, we always found ways to enliven our leisure time. One of the popular diversions was sledding. Just off the school property was an extensively wooded area that in places was hilly, affording grand downhill runs when there was enough snow. There were a few sleds available and they got maximum usage, especially on our favorite run—the Death Trap. This descent was not too long, but practically perpendicular, or so it seemed to us. At the bottom of the hill we had two options; an abrupt swerve to the right for a soggy landing in a marshy area, or go straight and try to avoid ramming into a tree. We usually opted for the marsh, but often for the final run, we took on the tree. Curiously, the Death Trap never claimed any bone breakage!
A far more sophisticated endeavour was created by Lenny Mann. Lenny was the ultimate “Idea Mann,” especially in the realm of things mechanical and electrical. In one of the recreation rooms was a large wireless that we’d often sit around and listen to in the evenings. One particular evening, the listeners were surprised to hear some voices that initially, did-and-didn’t sound familiar, coming from that wireless. What they were hearing was Lenny’s “Freedom Radio” making its on-air debut.
Len had cased the nether regions adjoining the cellars and located a concealed area under the Recreation Room floor, large enough to accommodate three or four people and the basic necessities of radio transmission. He drilled a small hole in the floor, fed the wire through it and attached it to the wireless, giving that venerable instrument a new wave length. How he accomplished all this without being discovered was quite amazing. The broadcasts were fun to do—reading ghost stories, burlesquing news broadcasts and such—but I suspect that what we enjoyed most was imagining our listeners saying, “Where the heck are they?” I don’t believe that anyone “up there” ever knew we were just below their feet!
On September 3, 1939, a BBC broadcast aired an announcement that would soon alter our lives in many different ways—England was at war with Germany.
Quite honestly, I cannot truly recall what my initial reactions were to that grim news. It was not totally unexpected; the previous September, when Prime Minister Chamberlain returned from his Munich meeting with Hitler and Mussolini, waving that piece of paper and promising “Peace in our time,” we had all felt a sense of relief. But that sense of relief began to dissipate almost daily throughout the spring and summer of ’39 with reports of Nazi activity in Europe. Even a not-excessively-bright 13-year old can read a newspaper and listen to a radio news program with a fair amount of understanding—and a typically over-played youthful imagination.
In the first few months of the war there weren’t any drastic changes in our school routine, except for the start of food rationing which, of course, affected the whole country. There was less to eat, but there was enough. We also had the necessary air raid drills which previewed imminent acquaintance with the cellars of Silverlands, and the off-campus activities were somewhat curtailed.
Our normal sleeping quarters were on the top floor. When the nightly air raids first started, it was almost eerie being wakened by the warning sirens on a virtually soundless night, quickly donning the necessary attire and trooping down three or four flights to the cellars. When the raids became an every night occurrence, those cellars became our permanent bedrooms, with mattresses and blankets spaced around the floors and on wide shelves. The road to slumber now led down instead of up.
We would often fall asleep hearing German bombers passing overhead on the way to their targets, one of which was an airfield a few miles from us. The Dornier “pencil” bomber, in particular, had a jerky, throbbing engine sound that became quite familiar. This plane had a long, thin fuselage and carried a hefty load of bombs, but was quite slow and poorly armed defensively. Many were shot down during the Blitz. I hardly think that Chertsey was a prime target for the Germans, but bombs did fall in the neighbourhood and we could hear, on many a night, gunfire and explosions. Our immediate area was never hit, but there was always the chance that the raiders might be intercepted before they reached their targets, turn tail and dump their bombs indiscriminately to lighten their load as they headed home. Too, we were only about twenty miles from London, which was starting to take a pounding. The situation was not jolly.
In June of 1940, at a monthly meeting of the Executive Committee of the Actors’ Orphanage Fund (a fund started some fifty years previously for the purpose of “raising monies required to board, clothe and educate destitute children of actors and actresses, and to fit them for positions in afterlife”) it was decided that we should be evacuated from England to America, and be looked after by the British Film Colony in California. (Watch out! There may be a little name-dropping here.)
Wow! This was an incredible development none of us could possibly have envisioned! We had, of course, known that English children in some of the most heavily bombed areas of the country were being evacuated to safer climes both in the British Isles and overseas, but certainly never speculated that we would be part of the emigration. The original plan was for a committee of actors in Hollywood to arrange for suitable accommodations for us until the appropriate time for us to return to England. Each one of us would have a sponsor. Mine was Mary Pickford, who had visited us at Silverlands that same year and brought gifts for everyone. During our first Christmas season in the States she sent me a wonderfully chatty letter and a very nice fountain pen. Wish I had both today.
During the summer of 1940, one particular happening brought the war closer to us all. One of our most popular staff members, the young, attractive Miss Lennon, volunteered to escort a group of children being evacuated either to Canada or the United States aboard the Dutch liner “Volendam.” In a surprisingly short time, Miss Lennon was back with us. The Volendam had been torpedoed. We never heard all the details of the sinking, but Miss Lennon and her young charges were picked up by one of the ships in the convoy and returned to England. We were all relieved and thankful to welcome her back to Silverlands—especially Mr. Lewis, one of our masters, who married her a short time later.
On Friday, September 13, 1940, fifty-four children and their escorts, in two buses, took a last look at Silverlands, headed down the driveway and were on their way to London. In what sounds like a little touch-up fiction, but is not, the last thing we saw before boarding the train at the London Terminal was a straggling German plane being shot down. Seemed like a rather appropriate punctuation!
There was an air raid in progress at the time, and it was not exactly relaxing in that train car with windows closed and blinds drawn, waiting to feel those starting wheel movements. It probably wasn’t half as long as it seemed, but there was definite relief once we were on the way to Scotland and our embarkation port.
Bedded down in Glasgow that night, after the chatting was done, our thoughts must have been quite similar: excitement and anticipation for the immediate future, though we had no way of knowing what it entailed, and more sobering thoughts of relatives we may or may not see again. My own sister, Yettey, had graduated from our school and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (W.A.A.F’s). As it developed, the next time I saw her was on my honeymoon—fifteen years later.
Things were moving along swiftly. We soon were sailing up the Firth of Forth to our ocean-crosser, the Empress of Australia, which looked as big as a city block when we came alongside. I don’t believe many of us had ever seen a vessel this size other than in a book or movie and to actually be boarding one for a long trip was quite an experience. As I recall, we stayed in port for a few days while anti-magnetic mine cables were positioned around the ship; submarines weren’t the only threat to an Atlantic crossing in those days. We probably gave little thought to it, anyway. Everything that was happening to us was an intriguing “first” and we were really into the whole adventure.
One of the most appetizing items was that there was apparently no food rationing on the ship. That first morning out, in the middle of a fried egg breakfast, I was watching the horizon move up and down as I peered through a porthole near our table. Not smart! I became quite seasick and had virtually no wish for food for several days, but recovered in time for a “last night aboard” party.
In the initial stage of the crossing, we had a protective convoy for a couple of days. We did hear some gunfire one night, and were told the next morning that there had been a U-boat in the area, which drew some firing from one of our chaperoning destroyers. Shortly after, the convoy left us and we were on our own; apparently, our “Empress” was a speedy lady who was accorded a fair chance of out-running or out-zigzagging a submarine. Some of our queasy stomachs were not too happy with the latter ploy, but an upset stomach was infinitely more acceptable than a well-aimed torpedo.
The rest of the trip passed without incident. Some of our shipmates were Canadian servicemen, returning home, who were very friendly and fun to be with. Few of us, if any, had ever chatted with men in uniform, particularly in wartime, and we were most impressed. Many of them joined us at the last night party on board.
On arriving in Canada, we learned that our destination was now New York, not California as originally planned. A committee of actors in the Hollywood British Film Colony had been unable to find affordable accommodations for us in that area, but suitable quarters were located in New York.
On October 5th, after a scenic train trip from Montreal, we arrived at the Edwin Gould Foundation Clearing Bureau in the Bronx, New York, a subway ride from New York City. The Gould Foundation was a charitable organization that provided temporary care and housing for needy children. It was very well run, with comfortable living facilities and grounds, which included a swimming pool and a tennis court. Each of the six “cottages” had the adult supervision of a single person or a married couple. Naturally, there were certain regulations which had to be followed, but there was a relaxing atmosphere that we slipped into quite easily. Best yet, we were all still together.
Our group moved into a T-shaped building that was divided into three sections (A, B and C cottages) which made living arrangements convenient and uncrowded. The three cottages were separated by a short hall and a good-sized kitchen where a permanent cook prepared meals for us all. Not once did we see boiled cod!
I’ll never forget our first day at Christopher Columbus High School, which those of us of freshman age were scheduled to attend. While we were dressing that morning, we were given the choice of wearing “regular” long trousers or the short ones we had always worn in England. I opted to stay with the familiar shorts, seeing no reason to switch. Soon we were on the bus, clutching our lunch bags, heading for we knew not what. We soon found out.
Columbus High was a Bronx public school attended by hundreds of students, thousands it seemed, as we tried to navigate our ways through jammed halls and staircases to our first classes. There were more people in my “homeroom” than in our Orphanage. There was a perplexing fascination to it all, I must admit. After my first class, heading to the next, I suddenly realized I had forgotten my lunch bag. Hustling back to the classroom I had just vacated, blushing like a bonfire, I told the teacher of my oversight and she said, “Well, go ahead and get it,” which I did, relieved to find it under the desk, unviolated. The room, which had been quite noisy when I walked in, suddenly seemed ominously hushed. As I clasped that little brown bag and walked to the door, a Bronx-flavored voice boomed out, “Hey, Shorty, where’s the other half of your pants?” (Exit, to derisive laughter.) The next morning, “Shorty” appeared with the other half of his pants!
I must confess that in the two years I attended Columbus High, I never really enjoyed being there, I just got used to it. I think most of us were quite uncomfortable at the outset; our English accents brought frequent smirks and sneers—I was less than eager to participate in class discussions—but we got over these mild distractions quickly, chatting and joking about them back in the friendly confines of “C” cottage. Soon we were walking to school each morning, perhaps without gleeful anticipation, but certainly without trepidation.
We got a wonderful introduction to American hospitality in Pelham, New York, a town in nearby Westchester County. Soon after arriving at the Gould Foundation, we had become members of Christ Church in Pelham Manor and instantly liked the people we met. On our first Thanksgiving Day, we were all invited to the homes of church members for the traditional dinner and a warm, thoroughly enjoyable holiday celebration. My host, Buddy Simmen, was a pitcher on the Pelham High baseball team and was telling me about the game with enthusiasm. I think that was the start of my obsession with the national pastime. That night, we all had a lot to talk about. We were starting to feel very much at home.
Soon after, we were invited to join the Boy Scouts of Troop 3, Pelham. I imagine it was rather unusual to have two British patrols in an American scout troop, but it seemed to work out very well. We were part of all the troop’s activities, played some key roles in competition with other troops, racked up our quota of merit badges and, above all, felt like we belonged and were treated as such. I’ll always have fond memories of Pelham.
One of those memories is “Gratefully Yours,” the musical revue we put on for an audience of friends who had been so generous to us since our arrival in the states. Peter Jackson, our Langley Hall pantomime impresario, was with us at the time and it was he who developed the presentation that was staged at Pelham High School. We all enjoyed being part of it and the response was warmly enthusiastic. Soon after, we did a repeat at the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse for the children of New York’s Lower East Side. It was a gratifying experience.
In December 1941, I was listening to a radio broadcast of a New York Giants football game when a news bulletin broke in to announce that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour. Time tampers with memory, but I do recall an instant mental flashback to that day at Silverlands in 1939 when a BBC bulletin told us that England was at war with Germany. Now we had heard the grim news on both sides of the Atlantic. The attack on Pearly Harbour was the more shocking of the two, a jolt that no one could have forecast. The other difference was that we didn’t expect to be hearing air raid sirens any minute. Life went on with few, if any, changes in the daily routine at the Gould Foundation and Columbus High School. We paid more attention to world news and letters from relatives in England, and felt even closer to our American hosts now that we were “allies.”
Very quickly, people everywhere were getting caught up in a patriotic mood to “do their bit” for the war effort. Happily, we got our chance, too. A committee of prominent theatrical people arranged to have our “Gratefully Yours” musical revue hit the boards again, this time in a matinee and an evening performance at the Imperial Theatre on West 45th Street in New York City. In another expression of thanks for American hospitality, these two stagings benefited the American Theatre Wing War Service and the British and American Ambulance Corps. A couple of skits were added—one written by the Broadway team of Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse—while one of the theatre’s most distinguished actresses, Gertrude Lawrence (I warned you there’d be name-dropping) did a delightful opening sequence with Constance Collier, a veteran of the British stage and American screen. I had last seen Miss Collier in the Bob Hope movie, “Monsieur Beaucaire,” one of my favorites. I think it’s safe to assume that “Gratefully Yours” may never be enshrined in a pantheon of the world’s greatest theatrical gems, especially if anyone had been logging the number of missed cues and blown lines, but we all had a great time being part of it. And the audiences were more than encouraging in their reactions.
That summer, through arrangements made by our Gould Foundation superintendent, we were given the opportunity to take summer jobs and earn a little money to help defray the cost of schoolbooks and other necessities. My particular assignment took me to Rhinebeck, New York, as a counsellor at a small summer camp for young children. Two of them belonged to Lucinda Ballard, the Broadway costume designer who had generously donated her talents to “Gratefully Yours.” Mrs. Ballard visited Crow Hill Camp a couple of times, and we had some friendly conversations.
Incredibly, when I returned to the Gould and was about to start the Fall semester at Columbus High, I was told that Mrs. Ballard, together with a Broadway producer acquaintance, had arranged a scholarship for me to a very fine private school—The Hill School—in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. I never knew all the details of this move, but one thing I do know: to that wonderful lady, I will always be “Gratefully Yours.”
I was still in a bit of a fog when Mr. Griffin, our superintendent, drove me to Pottstown, about two hours from the Gould Foundation. For all of us, the unexpected had become the norm. It was hard leaving the friends with whom I had spent my childhood and most of my teens. But we were only a couple of years away from having to make decisions that would shape our futures—in England or America, probably in the Armed Forces at 18—and we’d have to make those decisions for ourselves. Without really knowing it, I think I was making an early decision.
I liked Hill School from the moment I saw it. All the buildings showed a touch of age, but were well kept and comfortable. Everywhere you looked there was green, from the spacious athletic fields to the manicured, grassy quadrangle around which were classrooms, student living quarters, a library, assembly hall and chapel. This time I didn’t inquire about a cricket pavilion. Yettey would have been proud of me. However, to my surprise and delight, I quickly learned that soccer was a regular feature of Hill’s athletic schedule. Getting “used to” The Hill was easy and pleasant. As a Langley Hall and Silverlands, we had “forms,” “masters” and similar general school rules and expected behavioral practices. Many times in that first year, I felt very fortunate to have had the Actors’ Orphanage upbringing. It enabled me to slip into my new scholastic life quite comfortably.
My first and best friend at Hill was George Forbes, who was the same age as I, but year ahead of me scholastically. George, from Rockford, Illinois, and his brother Harry, who was in his last year, were wonderful people, easy-going and friendly, excellent athletes and fun to be with. Their slightly older brother, Pat, had already graduated from Hill and was in the Service. He had the same appealing personality as they.
That first Christmas, in 1943, George invited me to spend the holidays with his family in Rockford. It was a memorable experience for me. His parents treated me as if I was another son and they simply could not have been more genuinely kind and hospitable. Their friends, too, made me feel very much at home in Rockford. I was also invited to spend the following summer vacation with the Forbes. George and I spent a lot of the time working out with a soccer ball; he had never played before, but enjoyed watching the games at Hill. Natural athlete that he was, he soon picked up the basics and we both played on the Hill team that fall. Had a fine season, too. George graduated at the end of the school year and went into the Service.
My last year was cut short because I turned 18 and was eligible for the military draft. Those of us in the same situation were put into an accelerated program where we attended classes throughout the summer and graduated in December instead of June. I had decided that I wanted to stay in America, so being drafted was imminent. I spent a couple of months back at the Gould Foundation—a few of our lads were still there, though most had already left for England. It seemed strange with out them. Then, on March 15th (the Ides of March) I headed for the Army reception center at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Then it was down to North Carolina for basic training at Fort Bragg. I had volunteered for the Paratroops and was assigned to one of two platoons scheduled to become part of an airborne field artillery battalion. Along with the regular weapons training and other army basics, we got a lot of physical conditioning which helped prepare us for the rigorous Jump School to follow at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Since the day I left Hill School, I’d had time to do a lot of thinking about my future and the path I would like to take. It began on June 5, 1945, in the Fayetteville Courthouse where I proudly became a United States citizen. Incredibly, just a few days later, I got a wonderful letter from George Forbes’ parents inviting me to become part of their family and to know that I had a home in Rockford. Needless to say, in all my musings of the future, good fortune like this could never have entered my mind. What a difference that letter suddenly brought about in my life!
On May 7, 1945, the Germans surrendered to the Allies and the War in Europe was over. I felt so relieved and thankful that there would be no more air raid sirens heard in Britain. Meanwhile, things were still hot in the Pacific and when we left for Fort Benning, three months later, we had no doubt where we’d be heading once our jump training was completed. Dropping in uninvited on the Japanese mainland didn’t quite sound like a good afternoon’s sport.
We were in the middle of Week #4—where we made the requisite five jumps to earn our “wings”—when it happened. History’s first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima! Three days later, the second virtually demolished Nagasaki. On September 2, 1945, the Japanese surrendered. With shocking finality, World War II had come to and end.
The following week, we “graduated” from Jump School and, to our unashamed relief, were not heading to the West coast for overseas shipment, but back to “’Fort Bragg, where we remained for a year and became eligible for discharge from the service or re-enlistment. We made four more jumps and did some glider exercises with the howitzers, but things were pretty relaxed. I spent most of the 1946 spring and summer playing baseball with our battalion team.
That September, I made my last jump on a Friday, then went back to Fort Dix on Monday for the official service separation routine. In a few days, I was on my way to Rockford, Illinois to my new home and family, feeling like the luckiest guy in the world. I still lay claim to that title!
Living in that fine home with “Mom” and “Dad” Forbes for a year was a wonderfully warm and new experience for me. Getting to know their family and friends each day gave me a deeper sense of belonging; it was hard to believe that this was happening to me. George, Harry and Pat were attending Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut and they brought a lot of fun with them when they came home for the Christmas and summer vacations. Meanwhile, I worked at Dad Forbes’ steel foundry in Rockford, probably the least-skilled core-maker gunite had ever known. However, the core-room foreman was most patient and adept at keeping a straight face so I believe that I eventually became reasonably efficient.
There was simply no end to the Forbes’ generosity. In the autumn of ’47, I found myself at Wesleyan University with my new brothers for the first of four great years. My initial nervousness soon got lost in the relaxed campus and classroom atmosphere, and especially in the DKE fraternity house. The fact that Pat, Harry and George were already members didn’t exactly hurt my chances of being invited to join. With my fellow “pledges” I ate all my meals in the fraternity house for the first year, then lived there for the next three with a roommate who became a close friend until he died eight years ago. Johnny Miller was very special.
I was able to defray somewhat the cost of living in the fraternity house by waiting tables in the dining room and washing dishes throughout my four years there. Had a ball doing it, too. There was always something amusing going on. We had a very lively group in the DKE House. Between the parties, the inter-fraternity athletic and other competitions, there was always something for everyone to get involved in. In athletics, Harry starred on a Wesleyan football team that went undefeated for three straight years; he, George and Pat were on the golf team; Pat and George were fine swimmers, and George and I played soccer. I also brought the grey to our baseball coach’s hair with my “cricket swing.”
In the classroom, where I never had been a giant intellect, my long-time lack of math and science acumen resurfaced in the Biology lab. I was getting decent grades in my English, French and other courses, but Biology was the boiled cod of my academic life. I worked harder on Biology than any other course in my senior year, including group study sessions at the DKE House with others who were in the same class, but I still couldn’t whip it. So, on our class Commencement Day, I was unable to don cap and gown. Disappointing, but I was able to pick up the missing credits at Rockford College that summer, taking two other courses that qualified for the diploma Wesleyan sent to me. Mom, Dad and I had a great time jokingly planning a fictitious graduation ceremony at the Rockford Post Office.
While at Wesleyan, I had become quite intrigued with television, which at that time was still pretty much in its infancy, and decided that I’d like to be part of that mushrooming medium. Not in a performing capacity, of course, though I’m sure Bob Hope and Milton Berle would not have felt threatened. Mom and Dad were very supportive of my plan to go to New York and give it a shot, and I still remember their warmhearted “Stay in touch and come see us when you get a chance.” Beautiful people!
After a smooth flight to New York, tow things had to be done immediately—find a place to live in Manhattan and find a job. The money I had saved was not exactly bulging my wallet out of shape, and I needed to be on a payroll, however modest, as soon as possible. I took care of the lodging right away, renting a room at a YMCA near Central Park. It resembled a small detention cell, but the price was right and I wound up staying there a short while. Fortunately, I landed a job rather quickly—at least, before I heard too many times; “Nothing at the moment, but if you’ll just leave your resume…”—in the CBS-TV Film Department. I was assistant to the Film Librarian, cataloguing kinescopes of the network programs which were circulated around CBS affiliate stations for re-broadcasting on a delayed basis.
Actually, while the job was somewhat routine, I did find it interesting and learned a lot about the CBS programs I normally wouldn’t watch—“soaps,” quizzes and most of the sitcoms—that would really be a big help in the near future. When my boss moved to another department, I became “Keeper of the Kines” (kinescopes, that is) and, not long after, I travelled cross-town to CBS headquarters for a job with the Network Advertising and Promotion Department, producing on-air promotional film spots for our affiliate local stations around the country. I was right where I wanted to be.
At that level, salaries were still far from lavish, but at least I was able to afford living in small city apartments, splitting the rents with other fellows. But, the best thing that happened to me was meeting, falling in love with and marrying a lovely mid-westerner from Iowa, Marianne Stephan, who was working for TWA in Manhattan. Marianne and I were married in her home town, Fort Dodge, and thanks to her affiliation with TWA, we were able to take a honeymoon trip to Rome, Zurich, Paris and West Wittering, England, where we spent a week with Yettey, husband Derek and their two children, Jill and Jeremy.
It was good to see Yettey after fifteen years. She was just as I remembered, lively and full of fun, the spark of her circle of friends. She got a giggle out of my accent when she met us at the airport—“You don’t sound British and you don’t sound American.” But she put up with it, anyway. We had a most enjoyable week, one of the highlights being an evening at the Shakespearean Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon where Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were starring in “Macbeth.” Magnificent!
Back in the states, Marianne and I settled into our apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens, where we lived for three years before CBS transferred me to California. During that time, our first child, Stephanie, was born. Stephanie is now Mrs. Don Scott, with two fine children, Katie and Greg. When “Steph” was about a year old, Yettey came over for a return visit and was quite intrigued with the new family member. So were we!
Meanwhile, things were going along smoothly at CBS and I was enjoying my job in the Promotion Department, writing copy and producing film trailers for the network programs for airing by our affiliate stations, some 204 of them. What with deadlines, occasional ratings dips, artistic temperaments, etc., things got pretty sticky at times, but certainly never dull. In 1958, I was re-assigned to CBS-TV City in Los Angeles, our West Coast headquarters, to try and double up the number of promos produced for shows that were taped or broadcast live from the Coast.
For the next five years, another writer and I spent most of our working hours in film studies and editing rooms, turning out sixty and twenty-second trailers for our night-time programs. We were busy! There were three shows, in particular, that I most enjoyed working on: “The Red Skelton Show,” “ The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone.” The most fun I ever had at TV City was watching Red Skelton’s dress rehearsals. Occasionally, he would stick to the script, but not if he could help it. He’d break up his most hardened guest stars with an ad lib or a facial expression that was perfectly timed. What a performer!
Marianne and I were not over-ecstatic about Los Angeles, itself, but we were quite content with our living arrangements and did make some fine new friends. Best of all, our two sons, Richard and Peter, put in their initial appearances, much to the delight of their co-producers. We have been blessed with a wonderful family.
For the next five years, I spent most of my working hours on sound stages or in editing rooms, producing 60-, 30- and 20-second trailers.
In 1963, I was brought back to New York to become manager of CBS affiliate program promotion. This meant that I’d be assigning and supervising the activities of our copy editing; helping to plan our new season on-air and advertising promotion campaigns, holding regional meetings to brief the affiliates on program and advertising plans and the materials we’d send to support them. I really enjoyed the travelling involved, which was basically concentrated in a fortnight in June when we’d hold meetings in 4-5 cities, each attended by about thirty local stations in those sections of the country. Over the years, I got to visit many different different cities, meet interesting people and see many sights I never thought I would see in this fascinating country. And CBS was paying for it!
In the summer of ’99, Richard and Peter and I took a trip to England—actually, they took me—which was definitely one of the highlights of my life. In the course of a busy week, we spent the first full day watching the tennis finals at Wimbledon, roaming the grounds and stores, having a super time. Next day, we drove to Streatham to visit my parents’ grave. I had never known where they were buried until Richard, on a Stanford University semester’s study in Britain, did the research in his free time from classes, located the cemetery and the gravesite, which was unmarked, and some years later arranged for a memorial plaque to mark the spot where his grandparents were resting. Not many words were spoken as the three of us knelt and cleared the weeds off the plaque, made it as clean as we could, just as Peter and his family had done on a previous vacation in England, then put fresh flowers around the plaque. It was a deeply emotional experience.
From Streatham, we drove to Langley Hall (now East Berkshire College) where we were greeted and treated so graciously by a wonderful lady, Angela Bernardi, who was assistant to the director for the college. She was extremely interested in hearing about life way back when Berkshire College was the Actors’ Orphanage—and that was, indeed, way back. The building still looked pretty much the same from the outside, but once inside, of course, it was hard to recognize very much. Sixty years does tend to bring about a few changes. Angela gave us a lot of interesting materials—photos from the Orphanage days, lots of written information about changes in the occupancy of the property and other items that are good to have. She also extended the same warm hospitality to Stephanie and her family when they dropped in a year later. Angela has kept in touch with us and sent more materials our way in the last couple of years. She made our visit to my first real home unforgettable.
We also went to see Silverlands. It was currently a school of Nursing, though the nice lady who took us on a tour said that the building and grounds might soon be sold to a hotel chain. Silverlands looked just about the same as I remembered it, but was really showing its age, especially the courtyard and the walls around it which were in stages of deterioration. The hotel chain would have quite a renovating job on its hands. However, the rooms in the main building, except for some top-floor bedrooms still looked good. Regardless of appearance, everything I looked at jolted a flood of memories. This, too, was a memorable visit.
I retired in 1988 after 38 interesting years with CBS Television, not as a millionaire or a major network mogul, but simply as someone who had enjoyed the job he was doing and, for the most part, the people he worked with. Sure, there were some rough spots, as in any job that has a pressure element that can sometimes be hard to handle, but they would get the juices going and it beat being bored.
And I certainly haven’t been bored in my retirement. For the first five years, I was engaged in freelance writing, starting with a couple of promotional assignments for CBS and NBC, then a steady job with a friend in Chappaqua which involved scripting “poems for all occasions.” ‘Twas fun and brought in some modest, but steady money until I got tired of meeting deadlines and happily joined the ranks of the ancient unemployed.
A really welcome surprise recently was a letter, followed by a phone call from Lenny Mann, who I have not seen in over sixty years. Within a few seconds, we were chatting away as if we were picking up a conversation we had started in 1943 at the Gould Foundation. Nothing quite compares with moments like these. It was Lenny who suggested that some of us put down on paper remembrances of our Orphanage life and of the adult years that followed. Did the first, in any substantial way, influence the second?
Without the slightest hesitation, the answer from me is an unqualified “YES.” At the age of five I had no parents. But at Langley Hall, I came to realize that I did have a family—a family of friends who shared the same advantages and disadvantages as I, who were going through the same good and bad times, the chuckles and the canings, the delights and disappointments. There was always someone to share the best and help you through the worst. To this day, the most important items in life to me are a close-knit family and friends. This I learned at the Actors’ Orphanage.
How lucky can you get? I don’t really know, but I certainly got!
SEE ALSO - MY LIFE AT THE ACTORS ORPHANAGE by Judy Staber
See Also - Pantomime in Spain by Sue White
This page was last updated 26th August 2006