Sunday in the Park
September 11, 2009
It was a perfect summer evening in a magical garden setting with shade and cool beverages and bites of things to eat. All around were signs of Ella. Photos on poster boards. And stories from the old Park Record. And even a photocopy of the certificate of a homestead parcel granted to Andrew and Laura Kilfoyle in 1882 by President Chester Arthur. The land was in the vicinity of the new St Mary’s Church. Those folks were Miss Ella’s grandparents.
When folks asked Miss Ella Ione Prudence Sorensen if she had lived in Park City all her life, she would reply, "Not yet." When she passed away August 12, something shifted in our tiny universe. Her plum tree shuddered a bit and Shorty’s Stairs sank a bit deeper into that Old Town hillside. We mere mortals laughed and lifted a glass and remembered our friend who died — you can’t really say unexpectedly — at the age of 90, days away from 91. We told a few stories, looked over some carefully preserved photo albums and touched her kitchen table, brought to the event for one last gathering. None of us were related to Ella by blood or marriage. All of us, and a ragtag bunch we were, were related by choice.
In the late ’80s my good friend Lloyd Evans took me up to meet Shorty and Ella Sorensen. He said they had helped raise him and he owed them a debt of gratitude. Shorty and Ella had no children of their own and Lloyd — like others, I have since learned — became theirs for a while when he needed it most. I climbed the stairs across from the Marsac Building — 23 of them, to be exact — that later were named after Shorty.
Up those stairs I found a house and a couple captured in time. Ella allowed me to take her picture and write a profile about her observations of a life well lived here. Shorty was polite but not much interested in being featured that way. Ella regaled me for hours and poured me iced tea and had me sit a spell on the porch to see how she had seen the town for decades. She had married the love of her live at age 19. They had lived in that house since 1941. She told me with a twinkle about the ’70s here, when the hippies were new to town and used to get naked and go up on the roof of the Irish Camel (now the Purple Sage). It made her giggle. I asked her if she thought folks would be shocked if I wrote about that in my story. "Well, if they are," she replied, "up their bucket!"
Shorty turned 90 as we were opening the Eccles Center. There was a town-wide celebration and I wanted to give him something special. I gave him the only lifetime pass to our performances we have ever issued. Ever. He passed away maybe six months later.
About a year after that, one of my staff members received a call. It was Miss Ella. I picked up the phone and she explained she had inherited Shorty’s pass and was ready to get out and see some shows. I laughed and told her as long as she and I were both around she could count on front-row seats to any show she wanted.
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She only wanted country. So outdoors for Willie Nelson she was up front and Willie sang to her for her birthday. There were others, but nobody held her heart like Kris Kristofferson. When he performed with us a few years ago, Miss Ella was not only in the front row, she came to the after-party at the fancy Phoenix Gallery on Main Street. She got very schoolgirlish and flirty and wanted her picture taken with Kris, which we arranged. She talked to him about his songs, asking him about the lyrics and praising his antiwar sentiments. And though I hated to do it, after about 20 minutes of Miss Ella hanging not only on his every word but also tightly to his arm, I gently unpried her and let someone else meet him before he had to leave.
She left that night, floating, as Saturday became "Sunday Morning Coming Down."
Jack Fenton, who along with his family helped her through the last chapters of her life, was with her when she passed. He had gone into the hospital room where she was agitated and restless. He put Johnny Cash on the player and stroked her hair. She relaxed and quieted right down and within the hour she went to dance with Shorty.
We won’t know the likes of Miss Ella again in Park City. We aren’t meant to. She was smart and thoughtful and well read and kind and a little naughty and a whole lot curious and humorous and someone you just wanted to be around. As she left that Kris Kristofferson night, she hugged me and said, "I love you, Teri." And I had the good sense to embrace her, and the moment, and tell her I loved her, too.
I am the richer for having known Ella Sorensen. Somewhere tonight there is a jukebox playing a Bob Wills version of "Faded Love" and Ella, that once-long-legged beauty, is swayin’ and singin’ and winkin’ at us, quick as a shooting star. I will forever remember she spent her first and last Sunday, here, in the Park…
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. She is also a former editor of The Park Record.