Remembering Mary Ellen Canniff
One of Vail’s most beloved former residents, Mary Ellen Canniff, passed peacefully in her Los Angeles home on April 10, 2008, after a five-year battle with cancer. As wife, mother, sister, aunt, friend, neighbor and mischievous Irish lass, she leaves behind a legacy of love and friendship that unites us and challenges us to boldly live out the rest of our time here.
Born on Feb. 21, 1943, in Boston, Mass., Mary Ellen was the youngest child of William Clifton Canniff and Helen Frances Veronica McCarthy. She graduated from Archbishop Williams High in 1960 and earned her associate degree from Bryant College.
Like many young people forsaking the establishment life, Mary Ellen moved west in 1967 and soon settled in the eccentric, laughter-filled, pedestrian-oriented, new resort village of Vail. Here she opened the Vail Secretarial Service to bring some order to the chaos. She also slung drinks and served steaks at early Vail haunts like the Cornuti Bar and Clock Tower Inn. Often she could be found checking IDs downstairs at the Nu Gnu night club.
Mary Ellen will always be an integral character in some of early Vail’s great stories ” like the time she was hauling a heavy tray of beer at the Cornuti and happened to walk between the dart board and the strong arm of an unsteady dart thrower. The dart landed in her arm, and she worked the rest of the night with it sticking out of her like a trophy.
In 1970, Mary Ellen went to Europe to work on the award-winning documentary film, “One By One,” about the Grand Prix race car circuit, directed and produced by early Vailites Claude DuBoc, John Tully and Pete Leavell. It was the beginning of her real career. She moved with the film company to Los Angeles, Calif.
Forging a fearless combination of hard work and no-nonsense attitude, she succeeded in Hollywood in both motion pictures and television. Her credits include “CHiPs,” “Colombo,” “Big Hawaii,” “Beauty and the Beast,” Hal Ashby’s 1982 documentary of the Rolling Stones, “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” Charles Bronson’s “Borderline” and many others. Mary Ellen made many lifelong friends in both Colorado and California. They became her family, and she was the glue that kept them all connected.
In 1984, Mary Ellen met the love of her life, Danny Gill, when they both worked on the television series “Sledgehammer.” Inseparable from the beginning, the two shared in 11 years what most couples hope to share in a lifetime, filling their days with long hours in the motion picture industry, and taking breaks to enjoy diving in Cozumel and hiking in the mountains north of L.A.
Written for Danny by crew members of the movie, “Get Shorty,” shortly before his death in 1995, the following embodies his and Mary Ellen’s feelings for each other:
A friendship is without lies or barriers
Where no word is without consequence
No pain without compassion
When time means nothing and distance is as insignificant as travel
Where a single word says all there is to say
Where a chance meeting lasts a lifetime
And heart speaks to heart in a single word
I have known good men and women in my lifetime
Have been bound to them by joy and debt
Even lashed together by work and concern
Yet few of these people could invade the privacy of my inner being
No matter their wealth, power or beauty
But in it you were destined to reside my friend
Because even before we met you were already there
Mary Ellen’s friend Claude DuBoc echoed those feelings for many who were blessed to share her time in Vail:
“The world is impoverished. When viewed in a fading perspective and in truer proportion, the charm and gaiety of your companionship, and the generous majesty of your nature will be forever embedded within us all. God Bless, M.E. It was my extreme good fortune to have known you, shared the experience, and felt myself in the presence of an extraordinary being.”
Mary Ellen is survived by stepdaughters Lesley (Greg) Hlatky (and two grandchildren, Aiden and Elle) of Dillberg, Penn., and Dannielle Parker of San Diego, Calif.; her older brother and sister, William (Nancy) Canniff of Beaufort, S.C., and Alice (Bill) Dubois of Plymouth, Mass., as well as many nieces, nephews and cousins, in Boston and County Cork, Ireland.
Vail has a beautiful Memorial Park in East Vail. Mary Ellen’s family of friends would like to place a memorial to her there. We can have either a rock in the running wall for $2,000 or a flagstone for $1,000. If you would like to help remember Mary Ellen in this way, please send a check made out to the Vail Memorial Park for any amount that you are comfortable with. Send your check to Merv Lapin, 232 West Meadow Drive, Vail, CO 81657. Merv suggests a contribution between $50 and $150 per person.
Memorial gifts may also be made to several institutions that Mary Ellen supported: Southern Poverty Law Center, The American Cancer Society, Amnesty International or the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.