Mary Ellis

Mary Ellis (born May Belle Elsas, June 15, 1897 – January 30, 2003) was an American actress and singer appearing on stage, radio, television and film, best known for her musical theatre roles, particularly in Ivor Novello works. After appearing with the Metropolitan Opera beginning in 1918, she acted on Broadway, creating the title role in Rose-Marie. In 1930, she emigrated to England, where she gained additional fame and continued to perform into the 1990s. She also became known for film roles, including in The 3 Worlds of Gulliver in 1960.[1]

Mary Ellis
Mary Ellis in 1920
May Belle Elsas

(1897-06-15)June 15, 1897
DiedJanuary 30, 2003(2003-01-30) (aged 105)
London, England
Years active1918 – 1994


Ellis was born in Manhattan, New York City, to German parents, Herman Elsas and Caroline Elsas (née Reinhardt), who was a pianist.[1] She first became interested in performing around 1910, and under a vocational course trained her lyric soprano under the tutelage of Belgian contralto Freida de Goebele and Italian operatic coach Fernando.Tanara. She made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera on December 14, 1918, in the world premiere of Puccini's Il trittico, creating the role of Genovieffa in Suor Angelica, the second of the evening's three one-act operas.[2] Later in the run, she also played Lauretta in the third opera of the triptych, Gianni Schicchi.[2] She also appeared in the premiere of L'oiseau bleu by Albert Wolff, singing Mytyl, in 1919. While in the Metropolitan company she sang Giannetta in L'elisir d'amore to Enrico Caruso's Nemorino and Fyodor in Boris Godunov to Feodor Chaliapin's Boris.[2]

On Broadway, Ellis played the roles of street urchin and errand girl in Louis in 1921, Nerissa in the 1922 production of Merchant of Venice and The Dancer from Milan in Casanova (1923). She gained wider notice by creating the title role in Rudolf Friml's long-running operetta Rose-Marie in 1924.[2] She played Leah in The Neighborhood Playhouse's 1925 adaptation of The Dybbuk, and her later Broadway roles included Anna in The Crown Prince (1927) , Kate in a long-running revival of The Taming of the Shrew (1927–1928), The Baroness of Spangenburg 12,000 (1928) and Jennifer in Meet the Prince. In 1929 she acted the title role in Becky Sharp in the Players' Club adaptation of Vanity Fair, and played Laetitia in 1930 in Children of Darkness.

In 1930 Ellis emigrated to England with Basil Sydney, her third husband, whom she had married in 1929. In London's West End, she starred in Jerome Kern's Music in the Air (1933) and went on to her best remembered roles as the heroines of three Ivor Novello operettas: Glamorous Night (1935), The Dancing Years (1939) and Arc de Triomphe (1943).[2] She also starred in several films in the 1930s, including a film version of Glamorous Night in 1937.

For most of World War II, Ellis was absent from the theatre, performing welfare work in hospitals, and from time to time giving concerts to entertain members of the armed forces.[3] Returning to the stage after the war, Ellis was successful in Noël Coward's 1947 melodrama, Point Valaine, playing a hotel keeper in a sordid, clandestine relationship with an abusive West Indian.[4] In 1948 she gave one of her most praised performances as the embittered Millie Crocker-Harris in Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version.[4] In 1952 she played Volumnia in Coriolanus for the nine-month Stratford season.[3]

In 1954 Ellis was cast as Mrs. Erlynne in Coward's musical After the Ball, but her singing voice had deteriorated drastically, and much of her music had to be cut.[5] Coward blamed her performance for the relative failure of the show.[6] She appeared in the 1960 movie The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and made her last stage appearance in 1970, playing Mrs Warren in Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford.[3] She appeared in 1993 in the television series Sherlock Holmes and again in 1994, playing Mary Maberley.

She became a centenarian in 1997 and died at her home on Eaton Square in London on January 30, 2003 at the age of 105.[1]

Memoir and autobiography

Ellis published her memoirs in 1982 under the title Those Dancing Years. A further autobiography Moments of Truth followed in 1986.[7] She was the last surviving performer to have created a role in a Puccini opera and the last to have sung opposite Caruso.[2]


See also


  1. "Mary Ellis, London Star of Stage and Screen, Is Dead at 105", The New York Times, 1 February 2003
  2. Webb, Paul. "Ellis, Mary", Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, accessed 19 March 2011 (subscription required)
  3. Bebb, Richard. "Obituary: Mary Ellis - Long-lived actress who relished being 'good in a good play'," The Independent, 31 January 2003, p. 20
  4. Hurren, Kenneth. "Mary Ellis: Versatile actor who brought glamour to Ivor Novello musicals," The Guardian, 31 January 2003, p. 26
  5. Payn, pp. 233–34
  6. Day, p. 582; and Payn, p. 235
  7. The Daily Telegraph, January 31, 2003 Obituary


  • Day, Barry (ed.) (2007) The Letters of Noël Coward, Methuen, London, ISBN 978-0-7136-8578-7
  • Payn, Graham and Sheridan Morley (ed.) (1982) The Noël Coward Diaries, Papermac, London ISBN 0-333-34883-4
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