Business

From Trench Town to TV: The business of comedy

BY HANNIFFA PATTERSON
Business reporter
pattersonh@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

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Many know Owen and Ian Ellis — better known as “Blakka” and “Ity”, respectively — as prominent players in the Jamaican comedy industry. Blakka has graced the stage in numerous plays and one-man shows for at least 30 years, while Ity is currently the slimmer half of the local hit The Ity & Fancy Cat Show.

For them, being an Ellis is synonymous with entertainment in some form. Their father Leslie was a songwriter and a member of The Flames, who were backing vocalists for his famous brother, Alton Ellis, while their aunt Hortense recorded several big hits during the ska, rock-steady, and lovers' rock eras of Jamaican music.

However, growing up poor in Trench Town, this “fame” had very little impact on improving the quality of their young lives. They had to fight poverty, work assiduously, and strive to actualise their own dream of running an entertainment company. Today, both men sit at the helm of a growing comedic and entertainment business birthed in a car trunk and banked on a loan. Comedy is the duo's ticket from Trench Town to entrepreneurship.

EARLY YEARS

Though born in Trench Town, both men never even knew they were brothers until their teenage years. “I met him (Blakka) some time after the age of 12 on Fourth Street in Trench Town, when I was told by Mrs Pearl Ellis, my uncle Alton's wife, that he was my brother,” said Ity.

But their skills as performers were embedded in their DNA, and this has proven to be the glue between the two brothers. “Though he (Ity) and I grew up in different households, humour has always been a feature of our family. Everybody clowns around. We grew close once we discovered we were brothers,” explained Blakka.

But life was no comedy show for the Ellis brothers. “Life was challenging. We grew up in different households, but we were both poor,” he continued.

Living with an aunt who was physically and verbally abusive, Blakka chose to spend as much time as he could at school to escape her relentless wrath. Ity's mother sold combs, washing brushes and other items in a small stall at the corner of Heywood and Orange Streets, downtown Kingston, and he would often go to bed hungry.

“He (Ity) and I have more in common than most of our other siblings. Both of us 'escaped' Trench Town via education,” shared Blakka.

THE START OF SOMETHING SPECIAL

In 2004, Ellis International Ltd was formed with three directors — Blakka, Ity and their older brother Aston “Robot” Ellis — a musician and martial artist who currently resides in New York.

The entertainment production company and talent agency was the brainchild of the elder Ellis — Blakka. “A key motivation was the idea of creating a business enterprise that would ensure that our involvement went beyond being just performers in the entertainment industry,'' he explained.

It was an idea that took a lot of risk and faith in themselves and their ability, and it was an uphill climb.

It began when Blakka took up the offer of his good friend Lenford Salmon to use the Centerstage Theatre for a few weeks. Blakka immediately went to work to creat a show, and was soon joined by Nadine Taylor who worked as co-producer, providing technical and administrative support.

“Without asking them (his brothers) first, I went and started arrangements to open an account at Scotiabank with my brothers as signatories. Ity deferred payment of his daughter's school fee so we could secure the theatre. And on Friday, May 7, 2004, we opened Tings a Gwaan. That is how we started.”

Blakka still remembers them climbing the poles themselves to mount the billboards.

Eventually he was able to convince Ity to take the risky leap of parting ways with his position in the accounts department of Chris Blackwell's Island Communications — a secure and stable job — to come and run the family business on a full-time basis instead.

He continues in that role up to today.

“Many people see me (Blakka) as the face of the company, but Ity really runs it. I'm director of communication, PR and research.”

THE SKY IS THE LIMIT

The company today has evolved and expanded, and has a wide variety of offerings, and unbeknownst to many, is not just limited to the 'Ity and Fancy Cat Show'.

Their business, located at 78 Slipe Road, Cross Roads, is equipped with a studio and offices where the brothers create and produce various theatrical and comedy events. They also operate as booking agents for several comedians and other performing artistes.

“Events we have presented include the 'Backyaad Crackup' series, 'Comedy Cafe' and the very successful 'Christmas Comedy Cookup', which marks 14 years this year.”

Their most popular project is the Ity and Fancy Cat Show which is in its 10th season on TVJ. The Ity and Fancy Cat Show's 10 years on TV is historic. No other local comedy production has been able to do that,” shares Blakka proudly. “Our focus on comedy — live comedy, televised comedy, theatrical comedy — makes us unique.”

NOT AN EASY ROAD

But the transition from being performers to business operators was no easy task. They still consider themselves “blessed''.

For their first project — a theatrical comedy revue called Tings a Gwaan, they had to use their personal funds to provide the initial investment to mount the production. The play was a hit with audiences and was fairly successful at the box office. It went on to win the 2004 Actor Boy Award for best comedy.

However, there are several hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is funding. A major challenge is finding the corporate sponsorship required to mount large productions which have major overhead costs.

Another challenge has been managing people's expectations related to the balance between a fun-filled, light-hearted work as comedians and the serious operation of a legitimate business.

This is even more so for Ity, who has had to skilfully balance both his role as Ity the comedian and as Ian Ellis, the managing director of Ellis International.

Nevertheless, the “business that started out of Ity's car trunk” is now operating a fully equipped office with full-time staff.

“We have provided gainful employment to numerous entertainment industry professionals and facilitated the launch of several careers,” shares Blakka.

CHRISTIAN COMEDY

Early last year, both comedians became Christians, and this slowly transformed their business. For instance, they have changed the content of some performances.

“This year our Christmas Comedy Cookup is being billed as the Praise & Laughter edition, and it will be bigger and better,” explains Blakka.

Adds Ity,“Ellis International's annual Boxing Day show for the first 12 years, every single year, was rated M for mature. Each staging, comedians had the freedom to joke about a plethora of subjects. Last year, for the first time, we removed the rating and asked the comedians to deliver material that was a little more family-friendly. It was well received.

“Accepting Christ Jesus has had a tremendous impact on my personal and professional life. Every day since that New Year's Day of January 1, 2016 has brought new revelations to my relationship with the Creator. I am constantly being transformed through the renewing of my mind, and this is changing my life as a father, husband, performing artiste, student, and business operator,” Ity continued.

“I am the man, I am the artiste, and I am the businessman. Living for Christ has unquestionably made me a better man. Consequently, I must be a better artiste and a better businessman,” added Blakka.

In terms of its vision, the company has its eye on the world as its stage. The duo aim to enlarge their borders by having multiple projects on TV and on stage, and to mount large-scale shows locally and internationally.

For the immediate future, they recently signed musician Harold Davis and gospel singer Marq Johnson as additions to the list of acts for when they book, and they are getting ready to launch three new TV products : a sitcom starring Ity and Fancy Cat, an entertainment and special-interest show called the Blakka Ellis Show Time, and a new reality talent competition show.

For these Ellis brothers, comedy and entrepreneurship have created an unlikely mix that continues to be scripted for success.

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