Patricia Wright Ellis has starred in movies, TV shows and commercials, won awards for educational videos she has created and was the first weather girl in Los Angeles.
On July 5, she reached yet another milestone: Her 90th birthday.
The Newport Beach resident celebrated on July 8 with over 100 friends and family members at a speakeasy themed party at the Turnip Rose in Costa Mesa.
Throughout the gala a slideshow displayed photos from throughout her life, video clips from films, TV shows and commercials she acted in, wrote, directed or produced, print ads she appeared in as well as photos of awards she has received.
“It was quite the party,” she said.
Ellis, who grew up in Washington state, was extremely shy as a young girl so her parents decided to send her to elocution classes. She gained a lot of skills from the classes, she said, but was still very shy.
As she grew, she gained more confidence and became more outgoing.
In college she was in a sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, which helped her break out of her shy girl shell and slowly helped her shine.
“There’s a lot of social training in a sorority,” she said.
She told her father that she wanted to major in theater and he reluctantly agreed, if she would also major in business as a back-up career.
So she did and she got a job as a secretary – for the head of the drama department at her school. An arguably more stable job, yet still surrounded by the theater.
After graduating from Washington State University, she moved to Hollywood to pursue her dreams of working in the entertainment industry. Her initial goal was to work in film production.
Not long after arriving in southern California, she got a job at an ad agency. She worked as a secretary production assistant on radio. She also worked as a secretary production assistant for the Bob Hope Show, among other shows.
The ad agency had new 15-minute “strip shows” for the radio and needed a director, she said. The agency hired a friend Ellis had recommended for the job, but on the day of the opening show, he panicked.
She covered the show for him, trying to prove to the executives she could direct it herself. They told her she was too young and pretty, she said.
For a woman in a man’s industry in those days, Ellis said, it was tough.
So she told her fiancée and he recommended that she become an actress, a job that being young and pretty is practically a requirement.
“So that’s how I became an actor,” she said, “and I really wanted production all along.”
Her first movie role was as Lenore in the Three Stooges film “Cuckoo on a Choo Choo,” she said.
“It was really hard work,” Ellis recalled. “It was a low-budget farce with timed gags.”
And the stooges took their comedy seriously, she added.
Then she got a contract with Paramount, she said.
“They were going to groom me,” she said. But before much of anything could come out of it, she was in a terrible car accident that took years to recover from and included reconstructive surgery.
“I was out of the business for at least two to three years,” she said.
After she fully recovered, she started doing commercials. They were high quality productions, she said, and they didn’t take long to make and they paid well.
“I was happy to do all those commercials,” she said. “One commercial [for Purex] paid my way through grad school.”
She did a few movies during that time as well.
“They were terrible films,” she joked.
Even back then she knew they weren’t that great, she admitted with a laugh.
One of these films, “Scandal Incorporated” from 1956, she played the on-screen wife of Robert Hutton.
She also did a film starring Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, “Chained for Life.”
“They were darling ladies,” she said about the twins.
The movie is considered a cult classic now, Ellis said, because “it was so weird.”
Soon after, when she was about 28 or 30, she decided to go to graduate school at University of California, Los Angeles.
“Just getting on camera and reading a script wasn’t enough of a mental challenge,” she said.
For her thesis project. Ellis wrote, directed, filmed and acted in “Design in Movement: The Hand is Meant to Feel,” a film about how children learn by touch and the movement of the hand.
It won an award for best educational documentary at the Argentine Film Festival and was distributed to schools as an education tool.
“It was a huge success,” she said.
While attending school, Ellis took a job at Fox News and became the first weather girl for Los Angeles.
The news show’s executives weren’t sure about a woman doing the weather, she said, so they put her in the 10 p.m. slot.
“Eventually, the business accepted women,” she said.
She then worked at CBS as a producer, writer and director of educational multimedia.
CBS cut the department after determining it wasn’t making enough money, she said.
“That was a big mistake,” she said. “They could’ve made big bucks eventually… They fired the whole department in one fell swoop.”
It was a very forward thinking program at the time.
She then started working on her own and was hired on contract to produce educational films.
After that she accepted a position teaching at California State University, Los Angeles. She also taught at CSU Long Beach and worked and taught interior design.
She was also the 3M company spokeswoman and announcer for the hit show “Queen for a Day” in the 1950s.
Ellis has also acted in “Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.”; “The Adventures of Kit Carson”; and “Craig Kennedy, Criminologist”; “Trail Guide” with Tim Holt and has worked or been involved with the movie “River of No Return” starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe and worked on the “Ray Milland Show” and Ralph Edward’s “This is Your Life.”
Ray Milland was one of her favorite actors to work with, she said.
“He was such a gentleman,” she said.
Now, she’s happily retired, she said, but still stays active.
She’s a part of Splash Dancers, a group that gets together every morning and does swimming exercises to music. She is involved with art and theater related community groups. She also works out with a private trainer.
The industry has changed a lot over the years, she said.
“They’re so different now days,” Ellis said about current day flicks.
Both advancements in technology and society’s overall way of life have really changed how movies and TV shows are made.
The tempo is much faster in films now, she said, and fast cut frames.
“It sociologically shifts our attention so much that it’s making us a quick change society,” she said.
Setting up the shot used to take much longer, she said, they would be very precise with the lighting, and setting up the scene, and makeup and hair could take a couple of hours, she said.
It would be a full day’s work for a few scenes, whereas now they seem to cram as many scenes as possible into extra long days.
“Those poor kids nowadays have to work 12 or 14 hour days,” she said. “They have figured that it’s cheaper to have run into overtime than it is to work a second day.”
It’s all very rushed, she said. The actors are pushed to churn out more work faster than ever, she said.
It used to be that everybody was groomed, she said, a production company would train, beautify and prime their actors.
Many actors could sing, dance and act. Live TV shows were the norm back then, she said, now everything is pre-recorded.
Talent, natural beauty and hard work created the Hollywood allure.
“They’ve taken the glamour away from it,” she said.
She doesn’t condemn the younger generation in the entertainment industry, she said. It’s changed along with society and there are some very talented and hard working movers and shakers in today’s entertainment industry.
She can also understand the drive and the passion the young performers have.
The business can be hard and actors are under a lot of pressure, she said, there’s a lot of rejection.
“It’s important to forget all the negatives,” she said, in this industry, “happiness is a short memory.”