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An Interview With Bala Cynwyd's Gilda Ellis

Profile of an interesting Bala Cynwyd neighbor.

Gilda Mann Ellis, a daughter of privilege (Fredric R. Mann was her father) and a beneficiary of multiple opportunities (she's been on all seven continents) maintains her enthusiasm for life and adventure.

The wife of Dr. Richard Ellis for 62 years, a mother of four and grandmother of three, Gilda Ellis spends her time with golf, art and friends. Her enthusiasm for art emerged during her college years.

"I was thrown out of the art room in 8th grade at Friends Select," she said one chilly afternoon as we chatted in her beautiful and sunny Bala Cynwyd home. "My teacher was deaf, saw my mouth moving, and thought I was talking. I wasn't. I was chewing gum. I tried to explain and was told that that was just as bad. So, I never had art in school. But I didn't care. I went to Plays and Players every weekend, during my teen years."

Gilda Ellis was the first studio art major at West Hampton College at the University of Richmond in Virginia, she said: "Girls were not allowed to wear jeans, but I did. I wore a very long raincoat over my clothes every day." She led the way for women's independence, defying authority, and foreshadowing the hippies.

When she could, she studied acrylic painting with Sam Feinstein in his Philadelphia studio.

A replacement hip and knee do not interfere with her current activities. But macular degeneration has slowed her down because "I can't see." Then she stopped herself: "I can see colors. ... I hope the stem cell research will provide a cure very soon."

She takes classes in pastels at the Main Line Art Center and goes to New York once in a while for paper making classes. Gilda Ellis studied paper making in China, Japan, Burma, and Thailand, "with the master." She described the process of starting with fibers, cooking them, turning them into a mash, putting them through a sieve, then on a mold and coloring them with liquid paper colors.

During the 70s and 80s, Gilda Ellis had major administrative positions with Artists Equity, the Rosenbach Museum, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Philadelphia Art Commission, and Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority Fine Arts Committee. The importance of art in education received a prominent position in her lectures, and TV and radio appearances. When asked, she recommended artists to help developers fulfil their obligation to provide public art. She was costume judge of the string bands at the Mummers Parade for 13 years. She judged the costumes on aesthetics and how the costumes reflected the overall theme.

Gilda Ellis won trophies as a tennis player, she said: "I was never as good as my daughter Eve who was on the pro tour but when I lost my vision, I could no longer see the tennis ball, so I took up golf. I never played golf before, but I took lessons."

She discovered the Blind Golfers Association, took more lessons, learned how to play golf, got a coach and enjoys the game. The coach sets up the ball, describes where the hole is and where to aim. "Putting is the easiest part of the game for me," Ellis said. "I used to play miniature golf as a kid and with my children when they were kids." The Blind Golfers Association is a volunteer organization: "They're always asking for money."

She met many famous and talented musicians. Fredric Mann entertained Artur Rubenstein, Zubin Mehta, Robert Merrill, Jasha Heifetz, etc. and Gilda Ellis knew them all.  "One night, Lenny Bernstein was performing and during dinner before his performance, he noticed a button was missing on his dress white shirt.  I sewed it on for him."

Her many trips to foreign lands almost always were for educational purposes - either architectural or art. She visited Yemen and Jordan by saying she was a Quaker when asked her religion. "I did go to a Quaker school," she said, "and we live on what used to be part of the Roberts' Estate and he got the deed from that famous Quaker William Penn. We were eating lunch at the Queen of Sheba's home in Yemen when our guides told us to get up, get our cameras, and get in the jeeps. We listened and  took off just as a group of men with AK47's showed up."  She laughed. "We made it out OK, as you can see."

Gilda and Richard Ellis are regular attendees at the Mann Music Center summer programs, she said: "My daughter, Jane Ellis Gitomer, is chair of the Guild of the Mann Music Center and I pay for my own tickets."  

Her photographs tell stories. A giant African elephant seems to be walking right out of the photo. The white hippo, with Richard Ellis, looks like a family pet. The bluefooted boobies from the Galapagos sparkle with colors. "The turtles at the Galapagos are guarded 24 hours a day."

Her fondest memory of Tahiti is the grapefruit. "I never tasted anything like that," she said. And Green Island Australia has an undersea observatory so those who do not snorkel can enjoy the beautiful underwater inhabitants in their colorful environment.

Although her limited eyesight slows her down a bit, she is an example of the indomitable human spirit.

"My other knee hurts me now. I'm probably going to have to have that one done too. Meanwhile, I take an Aleve, and go right on doing what I want," she said.

Gilda Ellis exemplifies the indomitable human spirit.

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