The man who made the magic happen

PAT VELTKAMP SMITH
Last updated 10:00 31/08/2013

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When 80 years ago twins were born to the Ellis family in Dunedin, the nurse-nanny who went home with them briskly dubbed the boy Bill and the girl Judy, as was her way.

So although Murray Bryce Ellis died in the south this month, it was Bill Ellis whose passing was mourned, whose memories were celebrated, whose farewell service triggered such a mix of joy and grief along with the realisation of what was lost.

Much of the strength of theatre in the south was bedded in by the likes of Bill Ellis who came to live here, fell in love with Glenys Phillips, herself a star in many Southland shows, loved the south itself and made his mark from the word go.

Over the years Bill Ellis became president of each of Invercargill's main amateur performing arts groups: operatic, repertory, the symphonia and the ballet society.

He pioneered stage craft and systems from the front and then stepped back to manage the stage.

The man who had loved theatre since he first watched ballet, saw a circus and went to see the Ngaio Marsh Players while at Otago Boys High school, was intrigued by how it all worked.

He had no wish to perform on stage but wanted to make that magic happen, to facilitate music and drama and dance, and that he did, superbly, and along with it stage design and makeup.

After building sets for the Dunedin Repertory Society, he continued and extended that work with theatre when he moved to Invercargill in 1958.

His first show with the Invercargill Operatic Society, now the Invercargill Musical Theatre company, was as stage manager for the lavish 1964 production Showboat, with two full choruses of about 30 people each and a myriad character parts.

As stage manager for a repertory pantomime he accidentally set off a flash meant for the wicked witch as the fairy princess sang a love song. Glenys forgave him and they married within the year.

Their dancing daughters drew Bill into making stage sets for what is Dance Southland today, one of several organisations of which Bill Ellis is a life member.

Over 36 years with the Rotary Club of Invercargill North, Bill was a Paul Harris fellow, the recipient of several exchange visits to Tasmania and California and, ill health precluding his active involvement, an honorary member for the past four years.

His involvement with Invercargill City Council- backed arts events was well known, through arts festival committees and on the arts and recreation advisory committee for several years.

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He was involved with the assessment process before the total refurbishment of the Civic Theatre which he lived to see.

Bill is survived by wife Glenys, their daughters Sally and Melanie and their families in Australia and his twin "Judy" - Gwyneth Shaw who lives in Central Hawke's Bay.

- The Southland Times

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