Mary Ellis

Mary Ellis
Mary Ellis

Mary Ellis, 1933
Born May Belle Elsas
June 15, 1897(1897-06-15)
New York City, New York
Died January 30, 2003(2003-01-30) (aged 105)
London, England
Years active 1934 - 1994
Spouse L.A. Bernheimer (div.)
Edwin H. Knopf (div.)
Basil Sydney (m.1929)
Jock Muir Stewart Robinson (1938-50)

Mary Ellis (June 15, 1897 – January 30, 2003) was a long-lived star of the British stage best known for her roles in the genre of musical theatre. After appearing with the Metropolitan Opera beginning in 1918, later appearing opposite Enrico Caruso, 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.



Ellis was born May Belle Elsas in New York City in 1897.[1] 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 the Broadway stage, Ellis had the roles of street urchin and errand girl in Louis in 1921, the role of Nerissa in the 1922 production of Merchant of Venice and appeared during 1923 in Casanova with Katherine Cornell. She gained additional notice by creating the title role in Rudolf Friml's operetta Rose Marie in 1924[2] and played in The Taming of the Shrew and The Crown Prince in 1927. In 1929 she acted the lead role of Becky Sharp in the Players' Club production of Vanity Fair, and played in 1930 in Children of Darkness opposite Basil Sydney. She also played Leah in The Neighborhood Playhouse's 1925 adaptation of S. Ansky's The Dybbuk.

In 1930 Ellis settled in London, having emigrated to England with her third husband, Basil Sydney, whom she had married in 1929. There she starred in Jerome Kern's Music in the Air (1933) and then went on to her best known singing roles as the heroine of three Ivor Novello operettas, Glamorous Night (1935), The Dancing Years (1939) and Arc de Triomphe (1943).[2] She also appeared in a film version of Glamorous Night in 1937.

For most of the Second World War, Ellis abandoned 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 with Anthony Quayle 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 Three 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.

Ellis published her memoirs in 1982 under the title Those Dancing Years. She died in London in 2003, aged 105.[2]


  • Bella Donna (1934)
  • All the King's Horses (1935)
  • Paris in Spring (1935)
  • Fatal Lady (1936)
  • Glamorous Night (1937)
  • The Astonished Heart (1949)
  • The Magic Box (1951)
  • The Three Worlds Of Gulliver (1960)


  1. ^ Some sources give her year of birth as 1900
  2. ^ a b c d e f Webb, Paul. "Ellis, Mary," Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, accessed 19 March 2011 (subscription required)
  3. ^ a b c Bebb, Richard. "Obituary: Mary Ellis - Long-lived actress who relished being 'good in a good play'," The Independent, 31 January 2003, p. 20
  4. ^ a b 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


  • Day, Barry (ed.) (2007) The Letters of Noel Coward, Methuen, London, ISBN 978-0-7163-8578-7
  • Payn, Graham and Sheridan Morley (ed.) (1982) The Noel Coward Diaries, Papermac, London ISBN 0-333-34883-4

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