When I was 30
Andre Lee Ellis
Bringing life’s lessons home
By Tim Cigelske
Posted: June 29, 2006
“I’ve done a lot of (expletive) in my life,” says Andre Lee Ellis.
He sits in his empty bar, Andre’s on Garfield, remembering how life took a dramatic turn for him at 30.
Drugs. Responsibility. Big-city life. The Milwaukee native from the central city tangled with these thorny issues during a whirlwind stint on the East Coast.
At 27, Ellis left his hometown with $50 in his pocket to attend film school in New York. Three years later, he departed his Chelsea home with a degree from the Herbert Berghoff School of Acting to make a name for himself in Atlanta.
“Atlanta was known as the new place for African-Americans to make it happen,” he said.
Starting as a telemarketer for an African-American theater group, Ellis got his break when the troupe’s lead actor in a play was ill and Ellis took over the part.
He then earned a spot as a stand-in actor on “In the Heat of the Night,” which proved much less glamorous than he imagined.
Ultimately, professional acting proved to be both an ego inflator and abjectly humbling. Ellis, now 45, decided to bring all the lessons he learned on the stage back home.
Returning to Milwaukee, he became artistic director of the Hansberry-Sands Theatre Company before starting his own troupe, Andre Lee Ellis and Company.
Today, Ellis continues to be involved in the arts, especially with productions that reach out to a black audience. His works range from staging interactive plays in his bar to coordinating the annual Garfield Avenue Blues, Jazz, Gospel & Arts Festival, which is being held July 22.
“I’m an advocate of using the arts as a way of educating and sharing,” he said. “A lot of the successful white groups were not reaching a particular audience. I wanted to better reach the greater community.”
When he turned 30 Aug. 13, 1990.
Who he was then Drama student in New York who moved to Atlanta to pursue acting jobs.
Who he is now The 45-year-old is a local arts scene fixture and bar owner of Andre’s on Garfield.
Good times “I partied. It was hot to be in a city like New York that never slept. I could literally go to bed after work around 8 p.m., wake up at 2 a.m., get dressed and go out like it was still 8 p.m. . . . The drug scene was real heavy. Marijuana and cocaine, angel dust was real popular. It was the lifestyle of artists. You got as high as you did knowing what you had to do the next day, unless you just got into heroin and crack and all kinds of crazy (expletive). It was identification of who you were. But I want people to know I don’t do that stuff anymore.”
Bad times “It was also when AIDS and HIV was hitting the country. I watched a lot of actors and artists and various people get sick, and many of them die, of AIDS. That caused me to become aware of my own sexual life. I put down promiscuous behaviors. Abstinence a lot of times was the case. You were scared to even kiss someone.”
In the Heat of the Light Because of his resemblance to “In the Heat of the Night” actor Howard Rollins, Ellis won a role as the lead’s stand-in. “My silly ass thought whenever he wasn’t there, I’d get to do his part. Hell, no. You stand on the set during the lighting and all the placement work, and then the star comes in.”
When I was 80 Ellis mentally aged himself to play a grandfather character for the Atlanta troupe. “It gave me a chance at 30 to see what life was like at 70 or 80. I’ve always had an old soul. I was able to relate because I was very close to my grandfather and my great-uncle Jimmy. I had heard all the old stories of the Mississippi Delta, which helped me experience being an old man.”
Bringing it back home Ellis is excited about producing a play - “Clubbin’ “ - which draws on his experience at 30. “This will let me do what I set out to do at 30 - come home and share what I know. I want to display to Milwaukee that you don’t have to be afraid of a particular culture. . . . My experiences when I was 30 helped me do that.”