William P. Ellis, CCBC professor and noted local actor, dies

William P. Ellis died of respiratory failure June 25 at his Homeland residence. He was 85.
William P. Ellis died of respiratory failure June 25 at his Homeland residence. He was 85.(HANDOUT)

William P. Ellis, an actor who taught English, speech and drama at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, where he was a co-founder of Cockpit in Court Theatre, died of respiratory failure June 25 at his Homeland residence. He was 85.

F. Scott Black, founder of F. Scott Black's Dinner Theatre in Towson, had known Dr. Ellis for more than 40 years.


"He hired me in 1972 to come to Essex. He was bringing in new faculty to run the theater program," said Mr. Black, who rose to become the dean of the School of Liberal Arts at CCBC-Essex.

"I later directed and acted with Bill. He was the consummate gentleman on and off the stage. He loved roles that had plenty of satire — like playing H.L. Mencken," said Mr. Black.

"Bill was talented, bright and always interesting, and was open to new ideas like encouraging the staff to start a summer theater," said Bob Stoltzfus, who taught speech and theater at the college for 30 years before retiring in 2000.

The son of Cletus A. Ellis, a waterfront worker who was a checker for various steamship companies, and Corrine Ellis Hewell, a legal secretary, William Patrick Ellis was born in Baltimore and raised in Waverly.

He was a 1948 graduate of City College and served with the Air Force in Korea from 1951 to 1952 until being medically discharged.

Dr. Ellis received a bachelor's degree in education from what is now Towson University in 1954, and a master's degree in speech from Northwestern University in 1957. He also completed his doctoral studies at Northwestern.

From 1954 to 1956, he was head of the English department at St. Paul's School for Boys and, after leaving in 1957, taught speech at the University of Maryland, College Park until 1961.

At that time, he joined what was then Essex Community College. There he taught English, speech and theater, and eventually was promoted to chairman of its humanities and arts division.


From humble beginnings, when the division was housed in a trailer on Kenwood Avenue, Dr. Ellis' tenure saw it expand to 44 full-time faculty and staff and become nationally recognized.

Mr. Black recalled that his arrival on the Essex campus coincided with Dr. Ellis overseeing the construction of the college theater he had championed.

"Bob Stoltzfus, Bill and me had this crazy idea: Why don't we start a summer theater? That was the beginning of Cockpit in the Court," said Mr. Black, who became director of the theater.

"We started Cockpit in the Court in the new theater and we wanted to do something with it. We thought it would be shameful to just let it sit though the summer," said Mr. Stoltzfus. "In its heyday, we were doing eight shows and had 30,000 admissions."

"The theater was named after the Cockpit in Court, the oldest English-speaking theater still existing in London," reported The Baltimore Sun in a 1988 article.

"Scott was just right for the job. Under his direction, Cockpit has flowered," Dr. Ellis told The Sun.


Dr. Ellis appeared in Cockpit's debut production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" and subsequently delighted audiences in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's "The Man Who Came to Dinner."

Veteran Baltimore actor J.R. Lyston worked with Dr. Ellis when both were students at Towson and later during their graduate school days at Northwestern. They also worked together after their return to Baltimore.

"I performed with him many times, mainly at Theater Hopkins and the Vagabonds, and he had big roles," said Mr. Lyston, who lives in Parkville.

"One of the best things he did was play Duke Mantee, the Humphrey Bogart role in 'The Petrified Forest,'" said Mr. Lyston. He said Dr. Ellis also excelled in the lead role in "In The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer."

Dr. Ellis had a wide range, including his performance in the role of the prime minister in George Bernard Shaw's "The Apple Cart."

"Bill was a good actor, disciplined and passionate," said Mr. Black, who lives in Towson. "He always took a very workmanlike approach and was always good to have in a cast because he had great leadership skills."

A role that he relished playing was that of Baltimore newspaperman and author H.L. Mencken. "I had Bill in mind for the Mencken character when I directed 'Inherit the Wind,' which he played," said Mr. Black.

In 1980, Dr. Ellis, a devoted Mencken fan, portrayed the writer in a joint Vagabond Players and Essex Community College production of "Mencken and Sara," written by Russell Aiuto and Charles Crupi. The play chronicles the brief but happy five-year marriage of the two writers, which ended with Sara Haardt Mencken's death at age 37 in 1935 of meningitis.

In 1985, Dr. Ellis played the Sage of Baltimore again in a one-man production of "A Mencken Carnival."

Other venues where Dr. Ellis performed included the Harford Opera Company and the Fells Point Corner Theater.

Dr. Ellis and Mr. Black expanded the role of the theater at CCBC-Essex when they took a small group of actors from the college to Russia, China, Japan, France and Germany to participate in an international theater festival.

Dr. Ellis retired from the college in 1995. CCBC-Essex later established the W.P. Ellis Theatre Scholarship in his honor.

After retiring, he remained an adjunct professor at Notre Dame of Maryland University and worked in the graduate program at the Johns Hopkins University.

He enjoyed reading, listening to the Metropolitan Opera, traveling and following the Orioles.

The longtime Paddington Road resident was a member of the Mencken Society and the St. George's Society of Baltimore.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. July 14 in the Arts and Humanities Building at the Community College of Baltimore County, Essex, 7201 Rossville Blvd.

He is survived by his wife of 52 years, the former Bonnie Wratchford; two daughters, Carrie Ellis Murphy of Towson and Emily Ellis Temple of Seattle; a sister, Rosemary Scholtz of White Marsh; and four grandchildren.