Mary Ellis papers

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Collection Data

During her long life, Mary Ellis (1897-2003) was a successful singer and actress in opera, theatre, film, radio, and television. Working first in her native United States, then from the 1930s in her adopted home of England, she played dozens of roles and crossed paths with hundreds of theatrical personalities. This collection, which includes correspondence, personal items, production files, photographs, scrapbooks, and clippings, spans Ms. Ellis' life and documents both her career and something of the artistic environment in which it flourished.
Ellis, Mary, 1900-2003 (Creator)
Beaumont, Hugh, 1908-1976 (Correspondent)
Belasco, David, 1853-1931 (Correspondent)
Brent, Romney, 1902-1976 (Correspondent)
Coward, Noel, 1899-1973 (Correspondent)
Farrar, Geraldine, 1882-1967 (Correspondent)
Gershwin, George, 1898-1937 (Contributor)
Hammerstein, Oscar, II, 1895-1960 (Correspondent)
Harbach, Otto, 1873-1963 (Contributor)
Lang, Fritz, 1890-1976 (Correspondent)
Morris, Mary, 1915-1988 (Correspondent)
Puccini, Giacomo, 1858-1924 (Contributor)
Rattigan, Terence (Contributor)
Stothart, Herbert, 1885-1949 (Contributor)
Wragg, Arthur, 1903-1976 (Correspondent)
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1897 - 2003
Library locations
Billy Rose Theatre Division
Shelf locator: *T-Mss 2003-017
Musical theater -- 20th century
Operetta -- 20th century
Theater -- Great Britain
Theater -- United States
Ellis, Mary, 1900-2003
Novello, Ivor, 1893-1951
Sydney, Basil, 1894-1968
Metropolitan Opera (New York, N.Y.)
Farrar, Geraldine, 1882-1967
Friml, Rudolf, 1879-1972
Biographical/historical: 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.
Content: The Mary Ellis papers span the years 1897 to 2003, from a newspaper published on the date of her birth to the obituaries following her death. The collection, which consists of correspondence and personal papers, production files, photographs, scrapbooks, clippings, and a few items of ephemera, documents the singer-actress' life and career in opera, theatre, film, and television, both in her native United States and in her adopted home of England. The correspondence series of the collection is particularly strong, containing hundreds of items of a predominantly personal nature from many friends and colleagues, including Peggy Ashcroft, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Helen Hayes, Gertrude Lawrence, Vivien Leigh, and Laurence Olivier, over a period spanning more than eight decades. Dozens of letters from opera singer and longtime friend Geraldine Farrar; from actor and friend Romney Brent; and from actress Mary Morris, who lived with Ms. Ellis for a time in the 1950s, are characterized by their use of pet names and their affectionate tone. Ivor Novello, who wrote and composed three musical plays for her, is also well represented. Not contained in the collection is correspondence from any of Ms. Ellis' four husbands, with the possible exception of a letter from third husband Basil Sydney. There is also a smattering of professional correspondence from various stages of Ms. Ellis' career, including her time at the Metropolitan Opera. Highlights of Ms. Ellis' personal papers include a copy of the "Rhapsody in Blue" score personally inscribed by George Gershwin, a signed portrait of Ivor Novello, and a number of items relating to Novello's death. Also included are stray pieces of artwork, souvenirs, and news items. Financial records are mostly absent from the collection. Production files include scripts and programs, some with annotations or autographs, along with a few pieces of sheet music that were kept with the collection; a number of bound vocal scores were moved to the Music Division. There are also a few pieces of ephemera related to specific productions, notably a lace fan Ms. Ellis carried in Rose Marie . Another strength of the collection is the photographs series. Portraits and snapshots cover Ms. Ellis' lifespan with few gaps, and also encompass a number of friends and family members. In addition, the actress' theatre and Hollywood film credits are particularly well represented by hundreds of black and white production stills. Two volumes in the scrapbooks series provide excellent coverage of Ms. Ellis' time at the Metropolitan Opera, and of her largely American-based acting career through 1932. Another scrapbook contains some information about the actress' activities during the 1930s in London and Hollywood, while a fourth volume documents the 1935 production of Glamorous Night, mostly through photographs. The bulk of Ms. Ellis' career in England is not represented here, although it is well documented in the clippings series. Finally, two printed photocollages among the collection's oversized materials demonstrate at a glance the breadth of the subject's life. Some material was removed from the collection in October 2004 by Joshua Liveright, Ms. Ellis' nephew, and shipped to the Theatre Museum, London. These transferred items relate primarily to Ms. Ellis' career in England, and include mostly duplicate photographs, clippings, serials, scripts, scrapbook, and programs.
Acquisition: The Mary Ellis Papers were donated to the Billy Rose Theatre Division by Ms. Ellis' nephew, Joshua Liveright, in June 2003.
Physical Description
Extent: 13.625 linear feet (19 boxes)
Type of Resource
Still image
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b16480002
MSS Unit ID: 21783
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 5a48e7a0-8c87-0137-215c-096535744cef
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