By Dianne O’Connor-Grande
For the Herald/Review
Who would believe an 8-year-old boy, raised in a small town in Kansas, confined to bed with casts on both legs and a ukulele in his hand, could imagine a place where people could come and hear the music he loved so very much, and then make that dream come true? It’s true. His name is Dolan Ellis and he is the founder of the Arizona Folklore Preserve, celebrating its 20th anniversary this weekend.
Ellis is also Arizona’s Official State Balladeer since 1966 under 12 governors, became an original member of the New Christy Minstrels in 1960. Their performances led to multiple Grammy Awards, including the first ever given to a group like “The Christies” as Ellis casually refers to them. Called “The First Folk Grammy,” the group won it in 1962. Dolan, the lyric baritone of The Christies, also received an Academy Award for “The Best Vocal Group of the Year” in 1962. He was inducted into the Arizona Music Hall of Fame in 2011.
Ellis, sitting at a table at the AFP, begins a countdown of his list of Gold Records. “Well,” he says, “Let’s see … I was with The Christies for the first five albums, then Carnegie Hall, and through the Andy Williams television show.” Boy, that was something. Eighty million viewers per week and we were regulars!” He then spent another two years or so with the group as they continued to receive major music industry awards. “OK, The Golds: ‘Ramblin’ went Gold as an album, then ‘Green Green’ went Gold as a single, then ‘Three Wheels On My Wagon’ went Gold in England and Italy.”
Tall and strikingly handsome, Ellis gets up and pulls out a shiny guitar. He is never without his 12-string Guild; one he has played so often there is a hole where his fingers strike the guitar body. Where is the old faithful one he is never without? “ ‘MIM’ took it.” he explains. “MIM” is short for Musical Instrument Museum. The Musical Instrument Museum took a number of items of Dolan’s to include in their exhibit of his body of work.
“They took my cowboy hat, my Gold Record for ‘Ramblin,’ and a video of me singing ‘Little One Ghost Town’ as well as some other things. I’m proud to say one of my idols, Marty Robbins, is the exhibit right next to mine,” he said.
It is simply one of many things the State of Arizona has done to show their pride in one of its most talented sons.
Dolan continues the tale of how the AFP came to be. “I’ve always loved music,” he says. “Even as a small child. I was raised in a small town in Kansas called Baldwin City. My parents were named Frank and Ida Ellis, and I had a brother, Jay, who was 10 years older than I was, and a sister, Kay, who was five years older. Jay and I always had a special relationship because he was involved with music as well. Jay was the mascot for the Baker University Band at age 8, and believe me, I was impressed. Jay was my idol for so many reasons, but one was because he got me started in music. He would get these big tissue boxes like the kind Kleenex came in and pile them up. Then he’d get our mother’s pots and pans. He’d set the pots down, then put the lids on sticks so they stood in the air. Finally, he’d hand me two upside-down wooden spoons, and suddenly, I had a drum set! It was wonderful. I was a drummer for years! Jay played trumpet while I pounded on my drums. He really encouraged my love of music,” Dolan said.
But then, something happened to Dolan. “I was stricken with a medical problem in my legs during junior high school, and ended up confined to bed with casts on both legs. It was terrible. But the casts were only on a few months, and during that time I acquired a ukulele with an instruction book. I guess it was my first real instrument until I was in high school and my first girlfriend bought me a guitar, a Harmony six-string, and all of a sudden I found what was missing in my life…a guitar! I loved watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, and their shows and movies were what enamored me with Arizona. All I could think of was playing music and living in Arizona. I thought Elvis was great, but I was fascinated with performers like Danny Kaye and Sammy Davis, Jr.,” he said
“I’ve always loved to entertain, and although I loved their music, I spent hours simply watching them perform. They were masters at it, and even today, I mimic those men. Oh, I listened, but more importantly, I watched.”
Dolan Ellis is known not only for his skill singing and playing guitar, but his ability to read an audience and keep them enthralled, knowing exactly what to do or say in order to please the people in the seats. It may be a different type of song, or a story, but he instinctively knows what is needed and gives it.
As Ellis dreamed of Arizona, he entered Baker University in Kansas, and majored in communications. “But, I never got my degree,” he says. “It was really kind of a bad situation.” Dolan had acquired all the credits in his major to graduate and needed only the required hours, so he signed up for exactly the number of courses to complete his degree. One class was in music appreciation and it was taught by a young man who was a jazz musician. Ellis had a group of his own by that time called The Playboys and he stares at the ceiling as he remembers how one of his worst experiences played out.
“There was a beer bar in Topeka named ‘Gracies’ and we asked if they needed a group to entertain. They did, and they hired us. But what I didn’t know, was that the instructor of my music appreciation class had a jazz group and they were the regular entertainment at the bar. When the owner of the club hired The Playboys, he fired the jazz group.” When exam time came around, Dolan’s music appreciation class had only one comprehensive test at the end of the year and he felt he’d done well. “I was sure I’d gotten at least a B+. When I got my test results back, I had gotten an F and flunked the class. That single class caused me not to graduate. I couldn’t believe it. That guy who had the jazz band had flunked me because our group caused his to be fired!”
It was a terrible time for Ellis. He was newly married with a pregnant wife, and very little money. It was time to head for Arizona.
With no degree and no work, he and his wife ended up in Phoenix and Dolan was hired by KOOL, a local television station. “It was a small station owned by Tom Chauncey,” Ellis said. “My job was everything. I was a cameraman, switcher, a little bit of anything needed. Actually, that was my job description: ‘Whatever needs to be done’.” Chauncey, a mover and shaker in Arizona and nationally, took pity on Dolan.
“Mr. Chauncey was wonderful,” Dolan says. “He’d hire me for his social events, and I’d look down from the stage and see Lucille Ball, Raymond Burr and so many stars. But if I had a gig of my own, he’d always let me off work to take it. He was so kind to us. He actually loaned us money for furniture and a rug for our apartment, allowing me to pay him off at $25 a week.”
But Ellis kept envisioning a place like the AFP. He decided to move to California and was approached by musician Randy Sparks who had a “great idea for a wild and crazy adventure.” He thought it over, and decided to take Randy up on his offer to become part of the New Christy Minstrels.
“I knew if I went with Randy, I’d be an original member of the group from the beginning.” And what a beginning it was to be…
“By the end of the first year,” Ellis says, “we had our first Gold Record, and had been hired by the Andy Williams television show as regulars. Then, we performed at Carnegie Hall. I just kept pinching myself. I knew I’d been dropped right into the middle of the sunshine of my life.”
But he became disenchanted with Hollywood, and realized he was longing for Arizona. “No one could believe I’d give it all up, right when we were at the top,” he said. “But, all I could think of was my Arizona; the Saguaros, the opportunity to do my photography, write songs, and perform. I’d also become a different person in Hollywood. I didn’t like myself much. It was time to leave.”
Ellis, back home in Phoenix, married his second wife, Rose, and opened several clubs in the Phoenix area. “On my birthday, she took me on a trip to look at land, and we ended up in Ramsey Canyon where there was a ‘For Sale’ sign on a parcel that was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. She bought it for me for my birthday, and it was exactly where I had always envisioned the Folklore Preserve. But there were problems. There was a house, but it was in shambles, and the Moffat House, the original building for the AFP, was worse. There were goat pens and junk everywhere. I figured buildings could be rebuilt and new ones put up, but I couldn’t imagine finding again, the perfect site for the AFP. Everyone I told about my dream said it would never work. But I didn’t care. I didn’t want hordes of people tromping through this beautiful canyon. Only a few would do. As long as they loved music and entertainment, that was all I wanted.”
Michael Grande, virtuoso guitarist and international musician in his own right, remembers sitting with Dolan on his porch and sharing his dream of the AFP. “Dolan would point to a bunch of trees and say, ‘That’s where it’ll be, Michael. Right there.” Grande, would look skeptically at the site and shake his head. “I just couldn’t imagine it. But what was important was that Dolan could.”
One day, Grande showed up and there were chalk lines and strings placed where the new building would be, replacing the 35-seat Moffat House, but the concert space would still only seat about 65 because Ellis wanted to preserve the intimacy of a small listening room.
“He really did it.” says Grande. “He created one of the best listening rooms in the country, and has a wide selection of talented musicians playing there regularly. A great variety of music is presented: acoustic, country, western, folk … there simply is not a better place to hear music than the AFP. Ramsey Canyon is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and the AFP fits right into the landscape.” By this time, Ellis had established the Board-of-Directors and qualified the AFP as a 501(C)3 Arizona nonprofit.
“Although I had help from friends, my previous wife, Rose, was so instrumental in building the Arizona Folklore Preserve.” Ellis says gently. “She raised my children and worked so hard creating this place. I always want to give her the credit she deserves for helping make this dream a reality.” About that time, the Board-of-Directors met with the University of Arizona, Sierra Vista, and made the decision to sell in partnership, theAFP to the University. Dolan had been seeking a way for the AFP to continue if something happened to him, and this seemed to be a solution, especially since the UASV, had signed a contract promising that the AFP would be run as a Folklore Center in perpetuity. Now, the University shares in the AFP, but Ellis is still very much the founder and artist-in-residence.
Dolan Ellis will celebrate his 80th birthday on March 25, 2015, and there is there is more news. His love of this state has led to him composing hundreds of songs about Arizona and its history. And he has traveled over a million miles photographing interesting spots and people. His collection of stories, songs, and photographs have been gathered into a new book Ellis has authored with co-author, Sam Lowe, titled: “ARIZONA-Lens, Lyrics, and Lore.” Published by Inkwell Productions, it is available now at Dolan’s website: www.dolanellis.net, or through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kindle. As a bonus, a new Dolan Ellis CD is included at the back of each book with 12 original songs.
Ellis’ Arizona license plate reads “I LV U AZ” — congratulations Dolan for a dream well-lived!