Ellis, Mary, 1900-2003

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1900-06-15
Death 2003-01-30
Britons

Biographical notes:

Singer and actress Mary Ellis was born May Belle Elsas, June 15, 1897 (some sources say 1900) in New York, NY. She changed her name to Mary Ellis in 1918, when the Metropolitan Opera signed the soprano to a four-year contract. She made her Metropolitan debut December 14, 1918, in the world premiere of Giacomo Puccini's SUOR ANGELICA, and in 1919, she appeared in the premiere of Albert Wolff's operatic rendering of Maeterlinck's THE BLUE BIRD (L'OISEAU BLEU). In 1922, she left the Metropolitan for a David Belasco production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, and in 1924 she originated the title role in Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein, Rudolf Friml, and Herbert Stothart's operetta ROSE MARIE. Through the 1920s and into the 1930s, she performed in a number of plays with her third husband, Basil Sydney.

In 1933, Mary Ellis settled in London, where she began an association with actor-composer-writer-director Ivor Novello, eventually starring in three of his musical plays: GLAMOROUS NIGHT (1935), THE DANCING YEARS (1939), and ARC DE TRIOMPHE (1943). She also appeared in several films for Paramount Pictures, including PARIS IN SPRING (1935). A later theatrical highlight came with Terence Rattigan's PLAYBILL (1948), composed of the one-acts THE BROWNING VERSION and HARLEQUINADE, although she had a professional disappointment as Mrs. Erlynne in Noel Coward's AFTER THE BALL (1954), a poorly received version of LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN. It was Mary Ellis' last singing role. But she continued to appear in plays, giving her final stage performance in a 1970 production of MRS. WARREN' PROFESSION. A non-ghost-written autobiography, THOSE DANCING YEARS, appeared in 1982. Approaching her centenary in the 1990s, she took on a recurring role in the SHERLOCK HOLMES television series. Mary Ellis died January 30, 2003 in London, at the age of 105.

From the description of Mary Ellis papers. 1897-2003. (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 122686492

Singer and actress Mary Ellis was born May Belle Elsas, June 15, 1897 (some sources say 1900) in New York, NY. Her father, German-born Herman Elsas, was a successful businessman, and her mother, Caroline (Reinhardt) Elsas, was a talented pianist, so May grew up in a relatively priviliged, artistic household. Her first encounter with opera around 1910 set the young girl's vocational course, and she spent the next few years developing her lyric soprano instrument under the tutelage of Belgian contralto Frieda de Goebele and Italian operatic coach Fernando Tanara.

In 1918, the Metropolitan Opera auditioned May, signed her to a four-year contract, and, given wartime anti-German sentiments, mandated a name change. The newly dubbed Mary Ellis made her Metropolitan debut December 14, 1918, in the world premiere of Giacomo Puccini's Suor Angelica, part of a triptych of short operas also including Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi, in which she understudied leading player Florence Easton. In 1919, she appeared with Enrico Caruso in L'Elisir d'Amore, and also shared the Met stage with Fyodor Chaliapin in Boris Godunov . At the end of the year, she originated the role of Mytyl in Albert Wolff's operatic rendering of Maurice Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird (L'Oiseau Bleu), and in 1921 she appeared opposite mentor Geraldine Farrar in Gustave Charpentier's Louise, playing two comic supporting parts, including one billed as the "Street Arab."

Perhaps it was the theatrical acumen she displayed in the latter that attracted the notice of impresario David Belasco, who asked Ms. Ellis to play Nerissa in his 1922 production of The Merchant of Venice . The nascent actress' tenure at the Metropolitan was over, but her theatrical career was galvanized when she was cast in the title role of Rudolf Friml's 1924 operetta Rose Marie, becoming the toast of Broadway with a pianissimo high B-flat during "Indian Love Call." Yet after a year she changed course once again, leaving Rose Marie for a downtown Neighborhood Playhouse production of An-Ski's The Dybbuk . In 1926, Ms. Ellis began appearing with British actor Basil Sydney's company The Garrick Players (so named for the Garrick Theatre, where they often performed), starring as Katherine in an acclaimed 1927 modern-dress version of The Taming of the Shrew, among other productions. In 1929, she and Basil Sydney were wed; it was Mary Ellis' third marriage, following two short-lived unions, in 1919 and 1923.

Her acting career continued in high gear. In 1930 she and Sydney had a hit with Edwin Justin Mayer's Children of Darkness, and took the play -- retitled Knave and Quean -- to London in 1931. Later that year, they returned to the West End with the Theatre Guild's production of Eugene O'Neill's groundbreaking, five-hour stream-of-consciousness drama Strange Interlude . The couple took up residence in England, a country Mary Ellis adopted as her primary home until her death. At His Majesty's Theatre in 1933 she sang professionally for the first time since Rose Marie in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Music in the Air, and noticed a more than normally attentive audience member during one matinee performance. It was Ivor Novello, the writer-composer-actor-director whose versatility and popularity rivaled Noel Coward's. Over the next decade, Mary Ellis acted as Novello's muse for three musical plays. But before their collaboration could get under way, she was summoned to Hollywood, where she starred for Paramount Pictures in three films, including Paris in Spring (1935). On her return, she played opposite Novello in his Glamorous Night (1935), a romantic musical confection encompassing kings and gypsies and early television. It ran for months at the Drury Lane to sold-out crowds--including, at one performance, King George V and Queen Mary--and was filmed in 1937. The next Novello musical, The Dancing Years (1939), was just as successful, even though its decades-spanning Vienna-set storyline touched on the brutality of Nazism. By this time, Ms. Ellis had split from Sydney, and married a fourth husband, wealthy Scotsman Jock Roberts, in 1938.

She took time off during the early war years for welfare and hospital work, but in 1943 Novello lured her back to the West End for his new show, Arc de Triomphe . Set in World War I Paris, the musical included an opera sequence, composed by Novello, featuring Ms. Ellis as Joan of Arc. In 1944, the actress appeared in Noel Coward's Point Valaine, and after the war, she had a particularly gratifying triumph in 1948 opposite Eric Portman in Terence Rattigan's Playbill, composed of the one-acts The Browning Version and Harlequinade .

The early 1950s were a difficult period for Ms. Ellis. She lost her husband, Jock Roberts, to a climbing accident in 1950, and in 1951 Novello also died unexpectedly. In 1954, she had a professional disappointment as Mrs. Erlynne in Noel Coward's After the Ball, a poorly received musical version of Lady Windermere's Fan . It was Mary Ellis' last singing role. But she continued to take on new acting challenges: as Volumnia in Coriolanus at Stratford-upon-Avon (1952); as Christine Mannon in Mourning Becomes Electra (1955); and as Eliza Gant in Look Homeward, Angel (1962). She also appeared in many television plays, and even brought the Queen of Brobdingnag to life in the 1960 film The Three Worlds of Gulliver . Ms. Ellis' last stage appearance was in a 1970 production of Mrs. Warren's Profession in Guildford. A non-ghost-written autobiography, Those Dancing Years, appeared in 1982, revealing a woman of lively intelligence and rich experience. Approaching her centenary in the 1990s, she came to the attention of a new generation of audiences when she appeared in Granada Television's Sherlock Holmes series.

Mary Ellis died January 30, 2003, at age 105. In obituaries, she was identified as probably the last surviving singer both to create a role in a Puccini opera, and to appear opposite Caruso. Her fame may not have endured beyond her death, but Mary Ellis' life and career intersected with some of the leading figures and defining achievements of 20th-century performing arts history.

From the guide to the Mary Ellis papers, 1897-2003, (The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.)

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Subjects:

  • Theater
  • Theater--Great Britain
  • Musical theater--20th century
  • Theater--United States
  • Opera
  • Operetta--20th century

Occupations:

  • Actors
  • Singers

Places:

  • United States (as recorded)
  • Great Britain (as recorded)