Dancer Elaine Ellis (also known as Calamity Jane) was born November 30, 1917 in Panama. She moved to New York with her mother, Flossie Freeman McNeil, and father, Clifford McNeil, at the age of seven. As a young girl, Ellis learned to dance. She was instructed by friends who attended the Henry LeTang School of Dance. After graduating from Jamaica High School, Ellis taught touch typing and eventually became a traveling instructor. Interested in going into business for herself, Ellis owned and operated a dry cleaner and later a cosmetics counter in a local department store. Disenchanted with business ownership, Ellis answered an open call at the Cotton Club for Spanish girls, and although she only knew four Spanish words, was the last chorus girl hired in 1939.
When the Cotton Club closed in 1940, Ellis continued to perform at Café Zanzibar, Club Mimo, the Lenox Lounge, in Atlantic City and at the Apollo Theater. At the Apollo Theater, Ellis performed with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Duke Ellington, Don Redman, and Andy Kirk. A married mother of two, Ellis eventually quit dancing to begin a lucrative twenty-five year bartending career. Ellis tended bars all over Harlem and gained quite a following, winning awards for the most congenial and best bar maid.
In 1986, Ellis was invited by Geraldine Rhodes-Kennedy to join the Silver Belles. Ellis was honored to join a group of former chorus girls including Bertye Lou Wood, Fay Ray, Cleo Hayes, and Marian Coles. The Silver Belles performed at senior centers and regularly, at the Cotton Club. In 1986, the Silver Belles were featured in a documentary about their lives, "Been Rich All My Life" directed and produced by Heather Lyn MacDonald.
Ellis passed away on December 21, 2013, at the age of 96.
Elaine Ellis was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on October 25, 2007.
Ps 57 Crescent School
Jamaica High School
Que Sera, Sera.
Dancer Elaine Ellis (1917 - 2013 ) was a member of the Silver Belles, a senior dance group of the former Harlem Chorus Girls. Ellis performed with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Duke Ellington, Don Redmond, and Andy Kirk during her career.
Max Sued School
Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Elaine Ellis' interview
Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Elaine Ellis lists her favorites
Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Elaine Ellis describes her mother's family background
Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Elaine Ellis describes her father's family background
Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Elaine Ellis recalls living in Panama as a child
Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Elaine Ellis remembers moving to New York City
Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Elaine Ellis describes her early education
Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Elaine Ellis recalls learning to dance
Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Elaine Ellis talks about her neighborhoods in Queens and the Bronx, New York
Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Elaine Ellis describes her early work experiences
Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Elaine Ellis remembers dancing at the Cotton Club in New York City
Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Elaine Ellis talks about her son and husband
Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Elaine Ellis recalls working as a dancer in Atlantic City, New Jersey
Tape: 1 Story: 14 - Elaine Ellis recalls working at the Apollo Theater in New York City
Tape: 1 Story: 15 - Elaine Ellis recalls working as a bartender
Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Elaine Ellis remembers her bartending awards
Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Elaine Ellis recalls joining the Silver Belles dancing troupe
Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Elaine Ellis recalls her experiences as a dancer at clubs in New York City
Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Elaine Ellis remembers the Silver Belles documentary
Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Elaine Ellis narrates her photographs