Story by Sara Paul
Paul Ellis’s first pep rally at Rutger’s University was a true eye opener for the young artist. It was then that he learned that not only could he not have his own car on campus, but that of the 7,500 freshmen at the energetic event, not one was a female student. It was unbeknownst to Paul until that time that the Rutger’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Science campus was solely for men.
“So, I only lasted three semesters. I figured no girls, no car… I’m out of here,” laughs Paul, who returned to a life with his own car, a new found sweetheart, and artistic-political experiences that could fill volumes.
Though his experiences in political movements as draft counselor and an organizer of rallies outside naval bases coupled with the arts and the stage are varied and vivacious, the Rutger’s story is somehow the most telling of Paul’s personality. He leaps into life, he dives into opportunity, and he knows when it’s time to move on.
“I have never been out of work because I make my own work. I do the job, and then it’s on to the next gig,” said Ellis, now a Warwick resident and accomplished Renaissance man.
With a tendency towards the political-social and the story-telling method, his recent artistic adventure, Air Pirates, debuted in 2008 at the Lycian Theater in Sugar Loaf. With six actors per play, the productions depend on audience participation as attendees create all necessary sound effects.
“It is simply hysterical. The cue card girl tells them the sound, and they use props to make the sounds,” said Ellis, whose radio show themed performances have included such titles as “It Isn’t Over ‘Til the Fat Lady Swings” and “Time Wounds All Heals.”
This summer, he directed one of the 24 plays in the Orange County Third Annual Ten-Minute Play Festival. The performance, which was structured around four women playing a game of Bridge, was the culmination of the collection, writing (by Paul) and performance of individual, original stories in just three days.
“This was really my dream come true. I looked up, and there were my seasoned, professional actors alongside my young students, just working together on stage and having so much fun doing it,” said Paul, whose production included nine people.
Paul Bernhardt Ellis was born in Wayne, NJ in 1949. His middle name was given in honor of his great-grandmother’s cousin, actress Sarah Bernhardt. Ellis attended school in Pequannock Township and graduated high school in 1967. His mother Lorraine was a horse woman, hence Paul, with his twin brother, Rick, and younger brother, Curtis, grew up surrounded by all things horses in their very own boarding stable.
After he left Rutger’s, where he studied animal science and equine studies, Paul became heavily active in the anti-war movement, serving as a draft counselor with the War Resisters League, an organization founded through the Quakers to inform potential draftees of their legal rights.
It was during this tumultuous time that a long-haired, hippy-ish Paul happened to be on a bus from New York City when he struck up a conversation with a stage manager from the Meadowbrook Dinner Theater in NJ, just 10 miles from Paul’s then residence. Within days, he was general assistant of a production, hauling equipment, painting scenery, and just doing what he was told.
Show Biz Beginnings
“I knew nothing about show business, but I got turned on to it there. Everyone was so nice, and if I asked a question, they answered it,” said Paul, who eventually landed two lines of dialogue and got two laughs.
With passion in heart and show business newspaper in hand, Paul declared to his father, Joseph, “I’m going to be an actor.”
He admits now that, “I knew nothing about theater, but I went to NYC anyway and auditioned for two theater company plays. One was with a classical Greek Repertoire and one was a Grotowski oriented experimental theater. I got both parts and thought, ‘if I gotta learn theatre, it started with the Greeks,’” said Paul, who accepted and attended an 18 week training in NYC with the Repertoire group.
Formally trained in classical, contemporary and experimental theater, he also studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in NYC, with Julian Beck and Judith Molina of the Living Theater, also in NYC, and with Jean Claude Van Itallie at Princeton University.
With a taste for the stage, the young rebel put politics and theatre together, holding political street rallies and skits all over the country.
“I got in a lot of trouble, and it was fun. I had long hair, and it was just like in the movies. But I also realized I had a knack for making money,” he said.
In 1972, after five years of playing “hippy political revolutionary theater,” Paul joined an NYC workshop with Richard Schechner, in, ironically, a Grotowski based performance group, doing more experimental theater, including an award winning children’s play.
Soon after, he began work as a scenic designer and coordinator for the Playhouse on the Mall, a professional theater company in Paramus, NJ. The venue had seen such legends as Shelley Winter, Bette Midler, Alan Alda, and Robert Alda. He was involved in popular productions like Hair and Superstar.
Other Professional Accomplishments
Paul’s next artistic-professional venture in the late 1970s represented a shift into the world of non-profit theater. Now performing administrative work, he started with an inherited 18 month grant from the Bergen County Office of the Aging. He became the director of the project, working with a group of senior citizens. He developed theater games to encourage participants to tell their stories.
“It was the beginning of the trend in theater called oral histories. These folks had stories from the 1890s! So, I made them into play, and the piece was really incredible,” recalls Paul.
His next opportunity knocked in 1978 when he was hired in the Office of Cultural Affairs in Bergen County as the Community Arts Producer. The charge was to get the Office some good publicity and a permanent line in the city’s budget. Within nine short months, Ellis had accomplished the goals he was hired to achieve and then some. He made a deal with the Office to work with the seniors, this time producing a play entitled, “The Dead Husband Sessions.” Once again, his work was successful.
The next decade, from about 1981 to 1991, was filled with a wide array of jobs including managing a classical chamber orchestra, a talk show, multiple theater projects in NYC and NJ, as well as teaching, and writing. Most notably though during this time, was Paul’s work with well-known poet laureate Pedro Pietri with whom he directed more than a half a dozen plays, including “After, After Hours,” which played for 18 months at the Westbeth Theater Center in NYC.
In 1986, Paul and his wife Peggy built a house in Sugar Loaf, and in 1991 the freelancer accepted his longest-term gig to date as Director of Cultural Affairs for the Town of Montclair, NJ. His 15-year stint was highlighted by lasting traditions, such as the Jazz and Reggae festivals, a family oriented New Years celebration, youth programs and holiday parades.
Finally in 2006, after years of commuting all over the Tri-State area, Paul decided to work out of his home. He has never looked back.
“Commuting sucks, and there are just way too many distractions,” says a now casually dressed Ellis, who, in his leisure time, can be found riding horses, sporting weathered jeans, snake skinned boots, and fantastically bulky southwestern jewelry, just as coolly as one could be.
After 35 years of blissful marriage to Peggy, “… the woman who taught me everything I know,” Paul lost his wife due to complications related to cancer. The couple had one son, Max, now 37, and one grandson, five-year-old Calvin.
In his rustic, peaceful home, amidst a sea of sprawling plants, original art, and priceless relics, Paul’s Dachshund-Chihuahua mix, Ellie, is barking loudly, while Paul calmly reflects on all things art, life, love, and politics.
He sinks into his favorite leather chair and ponders past, present, and, of course his inevitably meaningful future.
“My life has been an interesting ride. The best part are the stories. Our lives are all special, and we all have stories to tell, to share. I guess the bottom line is sharing; our experiences, our ideas, our thoughts, these are the things that bind us. The closest held feelings are the ones we all have in common. I guess what I’d like is for everyone to know we are all one and are stuck together on this island and need to understand that our hearts and souls are united in the long quest for contentment,” Paul said.
The Warwick Valley Dispatch would like to feature local artists who are passionate in their creative pursuits. These individuals can be established artists or those who are getting started in their trade. We ask that if you know of any artists who would be appropriate for these human interest pieces that you contact Sara Paul at email@example.com or 718-702-3091.