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Mercedes Ellington

Dancer and choreographer Mercedes Ellington was born on February 9, 1939 in New York City to Ruth Silas Batts and trumpet player and conductor Mercer Ellington, son of renowned composer and bandleader Duke Ellington. Ellington was raised by her maternal grandparents Louise Petgrave Silas and Alfred Silas, who enrolled her in dance and ballet classes at an early age. Ellington received a scholarship to attend The Metropolitan Opera School of Ballet, but decided to enroll at The Julliard School at her father’s insistence. She graduated with her B.A. degree in classical and modern dance in 1960.

Ellington’s first professional role was in a production of West Side Story in Australia. She also appeared in productions of On the Town and Pal Joey at the New York City Center. In 1963, Ellington became the first African American member of the June Taylor Dancers, the featured performers on The Jackie Gleason Show. She danced with the June Taylor Dancers for seven years, until she moved on to perform in Broadway shows like No, No Nannette, The Night That Made America Famous, The Grand Tour, and Happy New Year. In 1981, Ellington starred in Sophisticated Ladies alongside her father, who conducted the Duke Ellington Orchestra. In 1983, she co-founded BalleTap, later named DancEllington, with Maurice Hines. Ellington produced award-winning choreography in musicals such as Blues in the Night, Juba, Satchmo and Tuxedo Junction. The organization dissolved in 1992, and Ellington went on to direct the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Tribute to the Spirit of Harlem in 2001. In 2004, Ellington founded Duke Ellington Center for the Arts, a non-profit organization dedicated to scholarship, education, and performance connected to the legacy of Duke Ellington.

Ellington’s choreography and commitment to her grandfather’s legacy earned her numerous honors and awards, including the Actor’s Equity Association’s Paul Robeson Award and the FloBert Lifetime Achievement Award. She also served as a judge for the Capezio Dance Awards, and as a member of the Screen Actors’ Guild and the American Tap Dance Foundation. In addition, Ellington served on the local and national boards of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. In 2016, she also co-authored a book entitled Duke Ellington: An American Composer and Icon with Stephen Brower.

Mercedes Ellington was interviewed by The History Makers on August 12, 2016.

Accession Number

A2016.010

Sex

Female

Interview Date

08/12/2016

Last Name

Ellington

Maker Category
Occupation
Schools

The Juilliard School

St. Walburga's Academy

Our Lady of Lourdes School

First Name

Mercedes

Birth City, State, Country

New York

HM ID

ELL05

Favorite Season

Fall, Winter

State

New York

Favorite Vacation Destination

None

Favorite Quote

Don't Piss In My Vest Pocket And Tell Me It's Raining.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

2/9/1939

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Lamb Chops

Short Description

Dancer and choreographer Mercedes Ellington (1939 - ), the granddaughter of Duke Ellington, was the first African American member of the June Taylor Dancers on The Jackie Gleason Show. She also opened The Duke Ellington Center for the Arts.

Employment

DancEllington

The Jackie Gleason Show

BalleTap USA

'West Side Story'

'On The Town'

'Pal Joey'

'No No Nanette'

'Sophisticated Ladies'

'Blues in the Night'

'Juba'

'Tuxedo Junction'

Favorite Color

Cerise

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Mercedes Ellington's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Mercedes Ellington lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Mercedes Ellington talks about her maternal family's ballroom dances

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Mercedes Ellington describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Mercedes Ellington describes her maternal grandmother

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Mercedes Ellington remembers her maternal grandparents' home

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Mercedes Ellington describes her earliest childhood memories

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Mercedes Ellington recalls her early dance lessons and recitals

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Mercedes Ellington describes the sights of her childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Mercedes Ellington remembers New York City's Sugar Hill neighborhood

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Mercedes Ellington describes Our Lady of Lourdes School in New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Mercedes Ellington recalls being raised by her grandparents

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Mercedes Ellington talks about living with her maternal grandparents

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Mercedes Ellington describes her father's early interests

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Mercedes Ellington talks about her paternal grandparents' marriage

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Mercedes Ellington describes her relationship with her paternal grandmother

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Mercedes Ellington remembers Duke Ellington's mistresses, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Mercedes Ellington talks about Duke Ellington's world tours

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Mercedes Ellington remembers Duke Ellington's affairs

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Mercedes Ellington shares her hope to bring Duke Ellington's music to Cuba

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Mercedes Ellington talks about her parents' relationship

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Mercedes Ellington recalls her relationship with her mother

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Mercedes Ellington describes her siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Mercedes Ellington describes her father's musical talents

Tape: 2 Story: 13 - Mercedes Ellington talks about her early dance influences

Tape: 2 Story: 14 - Mercedes Ellington recalls enduring discrimination in dance school

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Mercedes Ellington remembers the limited opportunities for dancers of color

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Mercedes Ellington recalls her family's advice about her career

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Mercedes Ellington talks about The Juilliard School

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Mercedes Ellington describes the Martha Graham modern dance technique

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Mercedes Ellington recalls living at The Juilliard School's International House

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Mercedes Ellington recalls living with her father

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Mercedes Ellington remembers her first professional role

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Mercedes Ellington recalls her grandfather's influence

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Mercedes Ellington describes her father's second marriage

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Mercedes Ellington describes her father's death and his will

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Mercedes Ellington lists her performances in New York City

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Mercedes Ellington recalls auditioning for 'The Jackie Gleason Show'

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Mercedes Ellington remembers being selected as a June Taylor Dancer

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Mercedes Ellington describes her experience as a June Taylor Dancer

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Mercedes Ellington recalls her salary on 'The Jackie Gleason Show'

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Mercedes Ellington describes Jackie Gleason's big band show

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Mercedes Ellington recalls joining the cast of 'No, No Nanette'

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Mercedes Ellington talks about the filming of 'The Jackie Gleason Show'

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Mercedes Ellington recalls her first Broadway performance in 'No, No, Nanette'

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Mercedes Ellington describes her union memberships

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Mercedes Ellington talks about female empowerment on Broadway

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Mercedes Ellington recalls her paternal grandfather seeing her performance

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Mercedes Ellington remembers Duke Ellington's death

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Mercedes Ellington describes the production behind 'Sophisticated Ladies'

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Mercedes Ellington describes her additional sources of income

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Mercedes Ellington lists her volunteer activities

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Mercedes Ellington recalls competing in ballroom dancing competitions

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Mercedes Ellington recalls the cast of 'Sophisticated Ladies'

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Mercedes Ellington describes the hectic performances of 'Sophisticated Ladies'

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Mercedes Ellington remembers Gregory Hines's termination from the production of 'Sophisticated Ladies'

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Mercedes Ellington talks about the success of 'Sophisticated Ladies'

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Mercedes Ellington describes her father's role in 'Sophisticated Ladies'

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Mercedes Ellington describes the creation of BalleTap USA

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Mercedes Ellington recalls touring with BalleTap USA in Japan

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Mercedes Ellington talks about choreographing 'Blues in the Night'

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Mercedes Ellington recalls choreographing 'Juba'

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Mercedes Ellington talks about the inspiration behind 'Juba'

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Mercedes Ellington recalls choreographing 'Tuxedo Junction'

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Mercedes Ellington talks about her philosophy for performances

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Mercedes Ellington describes her hopes for Duke Ellington's legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Mercedes Ellington describes her brother's management of the Duke Ellington estate

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Mercedes Ellington talks about her engagement

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Mercedes Ellington shares her views on marriage

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Mercedes Ellington describes the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Mercedes Ellington talks about her father's role in the Ellington family legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 9 - Mercedes Ellington describes her siblings

Tape: 7 Story: 10 - Mercedes Ellington reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 11 - Mercedes Ellington describes 'Duke Ellington: An American Composer and Icon'

Tape: 7 Story: 12 - Mercedes Ellington reflects upon her life

Tape: 7 Story: 13 - Mercedes Ellington shares her advice for aspiring dancers

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Mercedes Ellington narrates her photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$4

DAStory

8$4

DATitle
Mercedes Ellington recalls her early dance lessons and recitals
Mercedes Ellington remembers being selected as a June Taylor Dancer
Transcript
But you also learned to read at a very early age, correct (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) Yes, yeah I learned to read and learned to dance at an early age too, because they had a recital, they had a dance and exercise school or it--it was really a dance school. But I ne- I remember my first shoes, again with the shoes, was rhythm shoes and these were like suede shoes with el- elastic across the top. And I wanted ballet shoes because I was a ballet fiend, fan from the very beginning. I used to cut out pictures in the newspapers and anybody had an old magazine I was really crazy about ballet pictures and I'd paste them in the book. And so I would--these rhythm shoes we--we used them to, to have our recitals. And it was a big deal because these were things that people in the neighborhood [Sugar Hill, New York, New York] really had to stretch their budget to afford to buy because it wasn't a necessary thing, it was, you know, a luxury to be able to afford dance shoes and sometimes at the recitals to pay for the dance costumes. And my first costume that I remember was as a snowflake in 'The Nutcracker,' and this white puffy tutu. And later on though, I--there some people in the neighborhood that were ballet teachers and my [maternal] grandmother [Louise Petgrave Silas] found out about them. There was--there were two people, the Facey twins, Marjorie [Marjorie Facey] and Marion Facey and they taught dance. And they--their claim to fame was that they were taught by Aubrey Hitchens who was a partner of Pavlova [Anna Pavlova]. So that--with that reputation, you know, everybody was wanting to take from these people, because it was as if they, themselves, were you know, had taken from Pavlova, which of course it's the same type of dance, it's the same style. But of course nobody ever saw Pavlova in our--our neighborhood. But there was also another guy who taught dance and his name was Sheldon Hoskins, yeah, Sheldon Hoskins.$$And this was all when you were a little girl?$$Yeah.$$So dance became important starting from nursery school?$$Yes.$I looked at--down the line and there was like maybe eighteen people left and I figured that maybe she [June Taylor] had forgotten about me, but then Gleason [Jackie Gleason] came in the room and he was--he had the producer, Jack Philbin and the director and a lot of reporters came in. And they sat there and she put her head together with Gleason and they were talking for a moment amongst themselves and then she stood up and said--made the announcement, "Ladies you are the new June Taylor Dancers." And there were two swings at that point because June Taylor Dancers are only sixteen people, and I--I remember like--I--I said well maybe I didn't hear her correctly or maybe again, maybe she just forgot about me. But I was in the lineup and I was very--I don't know I kind of in a fog, I--I--I can't even think of how I felt. I--I said well if this is true, that means I will have money to do this and do this, and I kept--I just started calculating in my head, I can pay my rent, I can do this, I can buy these--these shoes. But then, she came and talked to me afterwards and she said, "If you're not--if you don't live up to this job, I'm go--I'm going to fire you--I'll fi-," because she--she had a habit of firing somebody every week anyway if they didn't live up to the job. Because the thing was it was live TV, they never stopped for anybody, you could fall down and they wouldn't stop. So what--it just had to be, you know, you just kept going and she said, "Well, this is it, you--you've, you know, you've become, but if I was you, I would maybe hone up on my tap dancing a little bit." So what I would do after every rehearsal I would go around the corner, across the street and take an hour of tap da--tap lessons, and this was like practically every day.$$And how long were the rehearsals?$$All day, they were at ea- eight hours. Usually eight hours.$$So you are cast, now you're the first and only African American in--in her group, correct?$$Yes.$$What does that mean? Can you place this in context, 'cause it's television, it's live television, Jackie Gleason was a huge celebrity back then, was he not?$$Yes, very big, very big. Now we're talking about JFK [President John Fitzgerald Kennedy] is president. And during my first year tenure is when he was assa- assassinated. And it was--I mean a lot of things were happening, politically and in the entertainment business with all of these people and the change of--of in the arts in general, not only in television but the concert stage, the opera stage, the ballet stage, where things were getting to be a little bit more equalized. And--and here we had this guy--this wonderful guy in the office as the president who was actually concerned and interested in the arts and concerned with arts. It was almost like you were living in a, you know, utopia for a moment. And course after the assassination and everything else, you know, after that was.