My Days at The Actors Orphanage

by Judy (White) Staber

When I was not quite four my actress mother, Joan White, placed my sister Susannah and I in care of The Actors Orphanage, (now The Actors Charitable Trust or TACT). We went by train from Waterloo Station to Chertsey and took a taxi from the station to Silverlands, a stately Georgian mansion on top of Holloway Hill about a mile out of town. The war had resulted in our Father’s leaving the family for parts unknown and Mother, who had, up until then, made quite a name for herself playing child parts, found herself unable to care for us and needed to seek work outside of London. The Actors’ Orphanage had been created in 1896 for children just like ourselves “made destitute by the profession.”

Judy and Susannah White, Elizabeth and Caroline Eastham. c. 1947-8 at Silverlands

Mother had gone into “Junior Miss” right after I was born in 1943, playing thirteen year old Judy Graves. Judy was the last of a long string of young teenagers Mother was to play. She was, after all, thirty three at the time. She now had to cross the line and begin playing character parts and the best place to get good roles was in Rep.




Silverlands, as I remember it when I was a very little girl, was very, very big, like a giant’s castle. A grand entrance way, high ceilings, lots of fancy molding and a bust of Sir Gerald Du Maurier in the entrance hall along with a portrait of William Terriss and a large photo of the present Queen in her wedding dress. Being one of the little ones, I was placed in Matron’s care - Matey Irvine. My sister, four years older roomed with the older girls.

There were always about fifty or sixty girls and boys at Silverlands , ranging in age from three to about sixteen. All of them came from theatrical families; some were truly orphans, some were from “the wrong side of the sheets,”and some, like us , were simply hard up. Some of the children had been evacuated to America during the War and had returned, but many of us were new in 1947. I was to remain at Silverlands until I was sixteen. It was my home for almost thirteen years and during that time it underwent many changes.

When I was eleven, my mother emigrated to Canada and later the States. My sister followed a year later. Mother’s close friend and mentor, Tyrone Guthrie, had cabled her to come to Canada as there was work aplenty and so she went. At sixteen, I was given a round trip ticket to visit her in California where she was playing Mrs Higgins in the National Company of “My Fair Lady.” I had finished my “O” levels and was supposed to return and go to university in England. I fell in love with America, cashed in my ticket, got a job and an apartment of my own and never looked back. While I was grateful for the home and family Silverlands had been to me all those years, in England I was still a charity brat, and I became very conscious of that sobriquet growing up.

You see, unlike Dan Taylor who was educated within the Langley Hall and Silverlands grounds, we all went out to school. First the little ones went to Lyne Primary the local village school and the older kids to Stepgates in Chertsey. When Patrick Waddington, a former actor, became General Secretary, we were all sent to various other schools in the area. In the beginning it was a rather large group of “orphans” who went to the two nearest local schools and very often it became “us against them” in the playgrounds. Pat Waddington saw this and made sure that afterwards only a few of us attended each area school. I went to Frithwald, and passing my 11 plus, went to Sir William Perkins School for Girls in Chertsey where I had an excellent education. I was very lucky to go there, even though I was the only Silverlander and suffered from some of the prevalent prejudices against orphans and actors. I overcame that by becoming the class clown - which is probably why I ended up as a comedienne in my own theatre career. Comedy will see you through when nothing else will!

During the early years after the war, some of the staff were not very kind, many had returned from serving overseas and tended to treat us like small soldiers in boot camp. One or two were particularly brutal, but they didn’t last long, although they surely left their mark. Noel Coward was President, from 1934 until 1956, and on his frequent visits he spotted trouble and rooted it out. He was a kind man and when I look back and think how incredibly busy he was, and that he devoted so much time to us and our well-being, it amazes me.

Theatrical garden parties and the famous “Night of 100 Stars” were held to raise money for our upkeep, and each year on Open House Day members of the committee came down to see how we were all doing. I remember John Mills, Kenneth More, Jill Esmond, Lorne Lorraine and many others. As children of the theatre, we were often treated to tickets to London shows and especially the Windsor Panto, which was an annual event. When Coward left for Jamaica in 1956 he was succeeded as President, by Laurence Olivier and later by Richard Attenborough. “”Dickie” Attenborough, now Lord Attenborough Baron of Richmond, was a frequent visitor to Silverlands and as Chairman became very active on our behalf. He still is, to this day, very involved in The Actors Charitable Trust both for the children and for the elderly actors home, Denville Hall, where my mother died in 1999.


Silverlands (The Actors Orphanage) Reunion in Chertsey, Surrey. September 2000
Lord Attenborough is in the centre

Silverlands was run by a committee of actors and actresses. They oversaw the staffing and raised the money to keep everything going. Head Office was in London at Rutland Gate where, for a time, it was also a sort of half-way house for those children who had finished school and were heading out into the world. Pat Waddington, or “Prod” as we called him, ran the head office for a while and was a force for the good. He hired experienced and kind staff members like Mrs. Parker, Kath Dutton, Alisdair Fraser and most especially David and Kirsten Slater who arrived when I was eleven and were truly surrogate parents to many of us. I still write to them and visit when I’m in England.

I have written a book about my childhood called “Silverlands: growing up at the Actors’ Orphanage.” It has received friendly comments and praise, but no publisher as yet. In 2000, my sister organized our first reunion in Chertsey, which was very well attended. In 2005, Liz Eastham and I organized a second one, again in Chertsey, and we are currently organizing one to be held in May 2008. We hope to have fifty people there, but we are all getting older and quite a few live in North American, Australia and New Zealand.


Puss In Boots Bristol Old Vic. 1948.

l-r John Neville, Stuart Burge, Teddy Burnham, Pam Alison, Newton Blick, Joan White,Gudrun Ure, Dilys Laye

Now about my Mother. Joan White went to RADA and after joined Tyrone Guthrie’s Cambridge Festival Players. She
came to London with them in 1931 and from then until 1954 she worked constantly, first in teenage and child parts on the West End, and later in character roles both in London and in various Repertory companies. Her longest running roles on the West End were as Button in “Housemaster” and Judy Bingley in “Little Ladyship” with Lilli Palmer. In 1936 she was cast as Phoebe in the film of “As You Like It” which starred Elisabeth Bergner and Laurence Olivier. During her appearances in Rep she appeared in Pantos at The Salisbury Playhouse, the Bristol Old Vic where she played the Empress in “Puss in Boots” with Newton Blick. Also in that cast were Donald Sinden and Donald Pleasance playing the two nasty brothers. At Birmingham Rep she played the Fairy in “Aladdin.” She left for America in 1955, and appeared in many productions in Canada and the United States. In New York City, she was in “A Passage to India,” “Sergeant’s Musgrave’s Dance,”and “Stephen D.” as well as appearing in many Hallmark Hall of Fame dramas for television. She ran the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge Massachusetts for five seasons, and taught speech and drama at the University of Washington in Seattle for eight years. She returned to England in 1983 and continued working there, most notably in “Bed” at the National Theatre, and in “The Singing Detective” with Michael Gambon for BBC-TV. In 1994, she retired to Denville Hall, at the age of 85 having spent sixty five years on the boards, almost continuously with a little time out for child-bearing.

Once I was settled in America I worked in theatre, as stage manager, properties, box office and actress until I married an actor and moved to the country to raise our children. I then jumped the footlights and worked in Arts management for twenty-seven years, retiring from that in 2004. Seven years ago, another transplanted Brit asked me if I had ever thought of putting on a Panto. I said, “Why Not?” and the PantoLoons were born. We did “Cinderella” first, and it was a smash hit. It was a very pick up sort of thing at first. I wrote the script, others wrote the lyrics, we borrowed shamelessly from the popular tunes of the day. Another cast member designed the sets (out of cardboard) and a wonderful woman came and volunteered to design our whacky costumes. We had a pianist who was a one woman band and Lo we had a Panto - complete with hissing, “It’s behind you” and the walk down. Seven years and six pantos later we are a cohesive group of Loonies (hence our name) and we pack them in for three weeks starting on Thanksgiving weekend. So far we’ve done “Snow White,” “Puss in Boots,” “Aladdin,” “Robin Hood,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” We’re revising “Cinderella” this year and have added new schtick and new songs and of course new current political jokes. Americans love Pantos, at least our Americans do around here, I cannot think why it hasn't caught on elsewhere in the land. There are really only three or four troupes in the whole of the U.S.A.

Judy Staber as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella 2000 - a role she will repeat this November/December.

PantoLoons production of Aladdin 2003 - full cast.
l-r Ron Harrington as Princess Celestial Seasonings, Charlotte Fennell as the Sultana Golden Raisin, Judy Staber as Scheherezade, Rupert Fennell as the Sultan of Pekoe, Hu Kwa and Social Tea, Walter Bauer as Peri Patetic Slave of the Rind; Robert Zukerman as Genie Tetrazinni, front: Rick Rowsell as Widow Twankey, Nancy Rothman as Spinbad, Johnna Murray as Lo Phat, and Sally McCarthy as Aladdin.

The PantoLoons production of "The Emperor's New Clothes"
2005 l-r  B.S. Spinner (Judy Staber), Muchi Gucci Pucci (Paul Murphy), music director Paul Leydon, Emperor Modisto the Chic (Rick Rowsell also designs sets), Empress Esmee Louder (Robert Zukerman), Hot Cocoa, (Joanne Maurer also does our costumes), The Valet Tino (Sally McCarthy), Fashion Writer Tammy Fulfigger (Charlotte Fennell), May Bellini (Ron Harrington) Armano Giorgini Fashion Photographer. Seated: Lordan Tailor (Johnna Murray), Fitz Weaver (Nancy Rothman)


SEE ALSO - How Lucky Can You Get? By Dan Taylor


SEE ALSO - Pantomime in Spain! By Sue White

This page was last updated 25th October 2006

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