REMEMBERING PHIL GELLIS
Long Island’s theater community lost a giant when Phil Gellis died on Dec. 26 in Harrisburg, Pa. Born in Long Beach and a resident of Long Island until 2011, Gellis was a travel agent by trade but a man of the theater in heart, body and soul.
The past three decades of Long Island’s theater history would be hard to recount without mentioning his name repeatedly. He was best known for his association with the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island, but there were few companies on the Island with which he did not appear at least occasionally as an actor, singer, director, music director or some combination of the above.
Gellis joined the Light Opera Company in 1981, and went on to serve as its president, vice president, treasurer, corresponding secretary, business manager, director, music director and conductor, as well as singing nearly every tenor or baritone role in all 13 surviving Gilbert & Sullivan operas, as well as numerous revues and special productions. One of his favorites came in 1994, when he played Scrooge in the world premiere of A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol, with his son Jacob creating the role of Tiny Tim.
Gellis’ strong, penetrating tenor was his hallmark—none who were there will ever forget his devastating performance of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” at the debut performance by the South Shore Syncopators in 2007—and he was a mainstay in Long Island musical theater. He was also a gifted comedian, however, with impeccable timing that never faltered, and had a knack for simple, direct performance of dramatic scenes. Whether in a comedy or a drama, his acting was straightforward and true to the role he was playing, free of frills or gimmickry.
As a director his first and greatest loyalty was to the playwright whose work he was interpreting. His productions could be imaginative, but they were never arbitrary or different for their own sake. A specialist in the works of Neil Simon and W.S. Gilbert, he could and did move further afield. His last production on Long Island was a Spotlight Players staging of Inherit the Wind, in which he directed a large cast with assurance while also playing the key role of Matthew Harrison Brady.
As a music director, Gellis was a clear and masterful conductor, always prepared and always in command of his singers and orchestras. He asked a great deal from those who worked with him, and gave a great deal in return. Any singer who ever performed for him knew that he or she was never alone on the stage—Phil and his baton were always there to steer them safely home.
Gellis wasn’t the easiest person to like. He wasn’t one to suffer fools gladly, and his sarcasm was a force of nature. He expected the best from the people he worked with, and when he didn’t get it he let them know it. Few who worked with him through the years emerged without an occasional bruise to their pride—often the more so because they knew it was deserved.
He was, however, loyal, brave and generous to a fault. He would tackle almost any role or almost any show, almost always succeeded and was never reluctant to share the credit. He wasn’t above singing in the chorus if he liked the show or the people doing it, and he didn’t mind stepping into somebody else’s production at the last minute if he was needed. His memory was phenomenal, his speed of memorization legendary, and his work ethic was second to none.
Phil Gellis was a big man who cast a long shadow, and every show he was involved in—and there were literally hundreds of them, more than even he could count—was the better for it. I am proud to have been his friend and colleague for 30 years, and I know that I speak for hundreds of veterans of Long Island’s theater community in saying that I wish he could have taken one more curtain call. He deserved it.
For those of you who wish to honor Phil's memory in a more substantial way,
please consider making a donation to this Company in his memory.
This was Phil's expressed wish, in lieu of sending flowers, etc.
Just click the link above to start the process.