Presented by: Professor Frank Sanderson
Honorable Pro-Chancellor, I have pleasure in presenting Norah Button for the award of an Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University.
Norah Button, Co-Principal of Liverpool Theatre School, has had to date a hugely successful career as a dance performer, teacher, director, and producer. A dancer since the age of three, she has taught thousands of young dancers and actors, many of whom have gone on to highly successful stage and screen careers.
Norah was born in Liverpool to Kathleen and Wilbert Button. Wilbert, a sailor from Newfoundland, died when she was 16.
One of Norah's earliest memories is of a bomb exploding outside her home on Upper Parliament Street, shaking the building and shattering the windows. And her gran, Anastasia Morrisey, running out of the house threatening Hitler "with all the leprechauns of Ireland".
Norah has her grandmother to thank for her amazing career which began at the age of three in an ENSA show. Anastasia, a vaudeville performer who founded the Liverpool Theatre School in the 1930s, introduced Norah to song, dance, including of course – Irish Dance – and theatre generally.
Years later, after leaving Notre Dame High School, Norah enrolled at the Springwood Dance and Drama School. Then came the opportunity to study in London and New York under Matt Mattox who had starred in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Roles in the chorus of many shows followed, including three Royal Command Performances. During this period, she continued with her dance teaching, ultimately becoming a fellow of the International Dance Teachers' Association in ballet, modern jazz and tap.
Before she became a dance teacher full-time, Norah raised funds for her school with work as an air hostess and by competing in beauty competitions. Blessed with good looks, an outgoing personality and a great sense of theatre, Norah won 19 beauty competitions including Miss Ireland, Miss TV Times, the fashion Queen of Great Britain and in 1962, Miss Liverpool.
One of the judges was Ken Dodd who then hired Norah to train and choreograph shows for his Diddymen, a role which lasted eight years. When her grandmother fell ill, Norah took over the running of Liverpool Theatre School. Over the years, it has had various homes and is now located on Aigburth Road in a former nightclub run jointly by Norah and co-principal and former pupil Maxine Ellis.
Her students have included comedian Les Dennis, actors Danny McCall and Sam Kane, Sugarbabes singer Heidi Range and West End star Graham Bickley. Many have become teachers themselves, or entertainers in musical choruses, on cruise ships, holiday camps, and seaside piers.
One of the School's biggest successes was in 2001 when it became one of only a handful of Schools in the UK to be funded by the government to provide a three-year National Diploma in Musical Theatre, with the syllabus including ballet, jazz, singing and drama.
The funds enable the most talented students to have free tuition, with others paying fees which are only a fraction of those charged by the London-based schools such as the English National Ballet School. There are currently about 400 students with increasing numbers from other parts of the UK as the reputation of the school as a training provider grows. Indeed, the national impact of Norah and her School was acknowledged with an official visit from HRH Prince Edward in 2008.
Norah lives in Mossley Hill with husband Jim, a former professional tenor. Jim and other members of the family are here today, along with Norah's co-principal Maxine Ellis. Known as Miss Norah by her students, Norah clearly loves her role in helping people succeed.
The best part of her job, she says, is sitting on the front row at a theatre in the West End watching one of her students in the leading role. Her happiness would be complete if Liverpool's mothballed Neptune Theatre was reopened as a venue for dance and drama schools and amateur groups.
As well as being a Fellow of the International Dance Teachers Association, Norah is: a board member of the National Training Organisation, Metier, and a champion of access to the industry via Metier and its successor, EQ. She is an External Verifier for the leading awarding body OCR. She is also currently Chairperson of Equity North West; and she was a member of its Educational Research and Development Board. And she has co-written a new national musical theatre syllabus to help students access training.
Away from the performing arts, she can often be found working with charity groups for animals. In a totally new direction, Norah is now training as a veterinary nurse and is in the second year of a three-year course.
Describing herself as a Liverpudlian through and through, Norah has a drive, an enthusiasm for helping others succeed, and an infectious energy which has helped sustain the school through both good and difficult times.
A few years ago the arts editor of the Daily Post, Phil Key, described Norah as "one of the great unsung heroines of Merseyside showbusiness history." Since then, her great contribution to the performance industry has been acknowledged with the Carl Allen Award for Services to Dance and she has been honoured for her contribution to Liverpool with the Freedom of the City – the only woman alive and only the second woman ever to receive this great honour.
Norah Button, this extraordinary 'Maker of Stars', is a most worthy recipient of an honour today.
Thus I have pleasure in presenting Norah Button, this most distinguished daughter of our city, for admission to our highest honour of Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.