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Stories of Stockbridge: Judy Staber’s Beginnings in the American Theatre

Judy White, Paul Ballantyne, David Vaughan, and George Vogel in The Happiest Days of Your Life at Berkshire Theatre, 1960.

Judy White, Paul Ballantyne, David Vaughan, and George Vogel in The Happiest Days of Your Life at Berkshire Theatre, 1960. Photo credit Louis Hansen.

Judy’s Journey with Berkshire Theatre:

When I arrived in America in July 1959 I was Judy White, fresh off the plane after finishing school in England. My mother, Joan White, was completing a National Company Tour of My Fair Lady as Mrs. Higgins. That fall she and I, along with my new stepfather, Robert Paine Grose, moved to New York City.

That winter Mother and Bob saw an advertisement saying that The Three Arts Society in Stockbridge was looking for an Artistic Director and a Manager to run the venerable Berkshire Playhouse. Mother had experience directing and acting at The Grand Theatre in London, Ontario. Bob was a highly respected scenic designer and taught at Rollins College. They met with Billy Miles who recommended they apply. They did, and were hired to do the 1960 summer season. They invited me along as an apprentice and to do a variety of jobs: box office, publicity, and when needed backstage. I was rather green, but I loved the work and was a quick learner.(Pictured below: Judy White and David O’Brien in See How They Run at the Berkshire Playhouse, 1962. Photo credit Louis Hansen.)

Judy White and David O'Brien in See How They Run, 1962.They hired Bert Gruver as Business Manager that first year and he was my boss. From him I learned all about the running of Front of House and much more. Bert had written The Stage Manager’s Handbook, still considered the bible of production and backstage work. He taught me how to treat audience members, to always be neat and polite, how to do quick calculations in the box office, if by chance we had sold the same seat to two people or, if we were sold out. We had one grand lady patron who always bought four tickets and she and her chauffeur would sit in the middle two, so she did not have to sit next to people in shorts with “hairy legs.”

I made my acting debut on the Berkshire Playhouse stage in The Happiest Days of Your Life playing a Scottish schoolgirl with Margaret Hamilton as the headmistress. I had to lift up my skirt and say “We’re girls, see!” Got a laugh every night. That’s when I knew I wanted to be an actress. That year, I also played the court stenographer in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, which starred Keir Dullea. Keir later went on to star in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey as astronaut David Bowman, whose line “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” is now part of cinema lore.

Mother and Bob cast good actors, some Playhouse favorites from Billy Miles’ day: William Swan, Gaye Jordan, Eleanor Wilson and Mac Morgan; some who became repeat performers each season such as Drew Eliot, David Vaughan, Pauline Flanagan and Kendall Clark. To bring in the audiences, they contracted big stars of the day by offering them rooms at The Red Lion Inn and other amenities. Margaret Hamilton, who returned several times to the Playhouse, there was Gloria Swanson, Sylvia Sidney, Anna Russell, Geoffrey Lynn, Joan Copeland and Gloria Grahame. Many of them, like Maggie Hamilton, returned another summer season. (Pictured below: Avis Lennard, Drew Eliot, and Margaret Hamilton in The Happiest Days of Your Life, 1960.)

Avis Lennard, Drew Eliot, and Margaret Hamilton in The Happiest Days of Your Life, 1960

That first summer in 1960 Stockbridge was nothing like it is today. I had a tiny room on Elm Street above Mrs. Drake’s hairdressing establishment. We mostly went to Lee to eat because Rossi’s restaurant had all you could eat for $1.99 and there was always Friendly’s. The telephone system was very simple most numbers were just Stockbridge (now 298) and then three or four numbers. Once I was calling Bob Grose and the telephone lady cut in and said “He’s not home dear, I just saw him cross the street and go into the Red Lion.” Many of the apprentices lived on the top floor of The Red Lion, before Jack and Jane FitzPatrick took it over and spruced it up. Norman Rockwell lived in town and Tanglewood was an easily accessible music center.

That was the first summer and we had a lot of fun putting on the productions. There were guest directors, but mostly Mother directed and sometimes acted and Bob designed the sets and directed the musicals.

After the summer of 1960, I went back to New York, studied with Herbert Berghof, acted or worked backstage Off Broadway, earned my Equity Card and in late 1963 went on tour as first Assistant Stage Manger with A Man For All Seasons. Right before rehearsals started for that, I went to Stockbridge to play Ida the maid in the crazy British farce See How They Run.

Life After the Playhouse:

After the tour was over, I married Colgate Salsbury, who had played Will Roper. We went to Stockbridge for the summer of 1964 as a package deal – he was resident leading man and I was character-actress-cum-publicity person. That summer, which was to be Joan White and Robert Paine Grose’s last in Stockbridge, I grew larger and greater with child. I played Mrs Hopkins in My Fair Lady, Phoebe in As You Like It (Mother had played Phoebe in the 1936 film with Laurence Olivier), and Dora in Night Must Fall which starred Enid Markey. Colgate played the murderer and I had another memorable line, “Aow, come quick! There’s a ‘and in the rubbish dump.” (Pictured below: Joan White in You Never Know at the Berkshire Playhouse, 1962.)

Joan White in You Never Know, 1962.

[Just a little side bar here: Daisy Walker (director of HAIR and last year’s Lost Lake) is my god-daughter and her parents were in the Company for Mother and Bob’s last season. Dan Walker played the Detective in Night Must Fall and Dina Harris was costume designer for the season.]

We returned to New York and I stopped acting to raise our two daughters. We moved to the Berkshires in 1971, because we had loved it here. In 1982 we divorced.

My daughters are well and happy and neither one is interested in the being in the theatre. I first worked for The Berkshire Courier and I went to review the first production at Shakespeare & Company A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I stayed on to do Public Relations and Marketing from 1978 through 1985. That’s where I met Kate Maguire. Later when I was working for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as Cultural Tourism Director, Kate was looking for a change and I recommended that she try Stage West in Springfield. She met Eric Hill and the rest is history. I got married again in 1991 to John Staber, who was working for the Berkshire Scenic Railroad, and moved to Columbia County. I was director of the Spencertown Academy for almost nine years, produced fifteen British American Pantos, wrote a book about my childhood at The Actors Orphanage, and have generally kept busy in the Arts.

I am now writing a biography about my mother, Joan White, who worked in the theatre as an actress, director, producer and teacher for sixty-five years from 1930 until 1995. She died at the age of eighty-nine at Denville Hall near London in 1999. She never stopped working — doing what she loved. Stockbridge was part of that life.

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