Phil Gellis was a member of the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island for more than 30 years, but—unlike many of the company’s most devoted members—his interest in theater didn’t end there. An actor, singer, director, music director and producer, Gellis loved Gilbert & Sullivan because it was great theater, and great theater was what he loved best. He was a travel agent by trade, but a man of the theater in heart, body and soul.
Beyond his association with the Light Opera Company, for which he appeared in hundreds of performances of a dozen shows, Gellis worked at least occasionally as an actor, singer, director, music director or some combination of the above for almost every theater company on Long Island. Among the other groups with which he worked were the Bellport Playcrafters, his own Bethpage Actors Company, Creative Arts Ministries, the Cultural Arts Playhouse, the Gilbert & Sullivan Yiddish Light Opera of Long Island, Grey Wig at Hofstra, the Minstrel Players, the New Punctuation Army (for which he appeared Off-Broadway in I.D. at the American Theatre for Actors, as well as in three Long Island productions), Plainedge Playhouse, Plaza Playhouse, Plaza Productions, the Spotlight Players and The Stage in Merrick. He also sang regularly with the South Shore Syncopators big band.
Gellis fell in love with theater at Long Beach High School, where he starred in How to Succeed in Business. When he missed the experience and decided to look into community theater in 1980, a chance encounter with the Light Opera Company led to a 30-year association that included multiple stints as its president, director and music director, as well as singing nearly every tenor or baritone role in all 13 surviving Gilbert & Sullivan operas.
Branching out into other genres of theater in the 1980s, Gellis quickly amassed a long resume with his impeccable comic timing, a simple, direct dramatic sense and the ringing tenor voice that was his trademark. Among his favorite roles were Reginald Bunthorne in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience and Sancho Panza in Man of La Mancha. One of his favorite experiences 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.
By the mid-1980s Gellis was increasingly interested in directing and music directing. 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 2011 Spotlight Players staging of Lawrence & Lee’s 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 direct 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—Gellis and his baton were always there to steer them safely home.
His talent was such that he might have had a career in professional theater, but Gellis was most at home on the community stages of Long Island, whether in a full theater at a high school or performing-arts center, in the open air at a town or county park, or on an improvised stage in a library basement.
“Nobody comes to see the theater,” he often told his actors. “They come to see the play. They come to see you. If they go away saying, `That was amateur theater,’ that’s on you, not the room.”
A survivor of multiple battles with cancer, Gellis left Long Island in 2011, shortly after his third marriage, to seek a less-stressful life in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t an easy decision, especially because it meant leaving behind his other passion, the New York Mets, but one thing about his life didn’t change: Shortly after arriving in his new home, Gellis became a familiar face to audiences at Theatre Harrisburg, a community theater where he was seen as the adult Ralph in A Christmas Story and, only a month before his death, in The Music Man.
Gellis’ legacy lives on in his widow, Judy, and the stepchildren he loved, as well as in Jacob Gellis and in his ex-wife, Christa Perz of Hammondsport, New York, who remained a close friend and theatrical collaborator after their divorce. It also lives on in the untold thousands of people who worked with him in the theater or were in the audiences of his shows.
That includes me. I worked with and for him for 30 years and, while we occasionally disagreed on important issues, I considered him a good friend. Phil had his faults, as he would be the first to agree, but he was fiercely loyal to his friends, to the companies he worked with and to the artists whose work he was bringing to life.
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 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.