Brian “Fox” Ellis
by Jeff McSweeney
Brian is part Cherokee, in conjunction with a fox he had as a pet he earned the nickname ‘Fox.’
Brian’s first visit to Peoria was with his future wife, Kim Thrush, who he had met in Cincinnati. They dined on the Toledo Peoria Railroad Car at Vonachen’s Old Place at Junction City in the late 80’s. He has been a full time storyteller and author for over 30 years.
He moved to Peoria in 1993 from Ledo, Ohio and was not initially thrilled with landing in Peoria, but that feeling evolved as he learned about the depth and richness of Peoria’s history. Brian shares, “Even after 20 years of plumbing Peoria’s history I still feel it is an inexhaustible resource.” To that point he hosts the annual Springdale Cemetery Tour every autumn. He selects 8 to 10 people who were not only players in Peoria but throughout the world. They include friends of Lincoln, Civil War Generals, veterans of the Napoleonic War and Industrial Innovators. His twin daughters helped with this project when they were younger, researching supporting characters to fulfill tour guide roles.
Bud Grieves had purchased The Spirit of Peoria about the time Brian came to Peoria, he was one of the first hires, a job he continues to this day that features two formal programs and a host of informal monologues. “Everything on the river is inspiration for a story.” says Brian, “I love the Boat, I have a captive audience – unless they can swim.”
In addition to his riverboat gig he launched his career in Peoria telling stories to elementary school students, the Peoria Pow Wow, numerous churches and nursing homes. He relates to audiences of all ages and modifies his presentations to engage all.
In the intervening years he has toured the world 14 times including travels throughout Europe, South America and the continental United States. He has developed 20 historical characters that span 300 years with no more than 2 degrees of separation amongst any of them. Some of these characters include Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Captain Detweiller, Charles Darwin, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe. According to Brian, “The last time Lincoln visited Peoria he rode one of Detweiller’s St. Louis based boats from Pekin, he stayed in Peoria before heading to Galesburg for one of the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates.
He has never retired a character but they become less popular over the years. He constantly develops new characters as well as new material for established characters.
While his career began in schools and churches his demand has grown to conventions, college campuses, college convocations, art museums and a host of others. Reflecting on his career, “I really miss church gigs. They seem to have gone out of vogue for the time being.”
Regarding his costumes, he is not a stitch counter. “Fortunately men’s fashion has not changed dramatically over the years,” says Brian. “I use clothes as ambiance not to be historically accurate.”
Brian has written or contributed to 16 books, experimenting with genre, including poetry, coloring books, teaching – including lesson plans, and a current project promoting Clean Water Celebrations.
In addition to Clean Water, Brian is spearheading a crowd-sourcing project to create a series of videos that will be used in the classroom and in the development of lesson plans. He has over 20 characters worth of videos. He will develop the first one then use that video as a foundation to produce the rest. You may view the project and contribute by visiting: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/history-in-person
For a sample week in mid-March Brian was scheduled to be in Chattanooga, TN to present at a garden club and two Catholic schools; on Sunday he was at an art museum in Nebraska; Tuesday an elementary school; Wednesday, back to the Nebraska art museum for a live video distance learning opportunity with rural schools; Friday & Saturday he was the keynote speaker at the Nebraska Crane Festival where he presented to a room full of Ph.D. Wildlife Biologists. His schedule is full 6 to 8 months out and books as far as two years out.
For many years Brian lived on the north side of Peoria but recently moved to Bishop Hill with his wife having purchased the historic Colony Hospital, built in 1855, and opened the Twinflower Inn, a four room bed & breakfast. When requested he regales his guests with stories. He is exploring hosting events that feature storytelling for interested groups, check out: www.twinflowerinn.com
Brian feels blessed for much of the success in his life. He credits the joy his twin daughters have brought him and the professional balance his wife provides. “Being a practicing therapist she is a professional listener which balances out my passion for talking,” beams Brian.
The largest smile of our conversation when Brian related a recent phenomenon, “Four or five times lately a 30ish audience member comes up to me sharing they heard me when they were in school and they have been repeating my stories to their children. This humbles me that my stories are passing on to generations that I will never know.”
Learn more about Brian “Fox” Ellis on his website: http://www.foxtalesint.com