Ellis was born into a Muni family, so the allure of the cable car was always present in his childhood. Growing up in Visitacion Valley, Ellis saw his life going one of two ways: either as a career football coach or a cable car gripman. He decided to do both. Ellis was a member of the McAteer football team’s coaching staff for decades. Simultaneously, he was working his way up the Muni food chain, driving a bus for years with the ultimate goal of being a cable car gripman. He kept at it, becoming a conductor in 2003 and four years later becoming a gripman.
Today, visitors will find Ellis in his cable car, scaling the steep city hills, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his son, Ellis Cato III. Like his dad, Ellis III is a football standout, a devout Muni advocate, and a proud San Francisco native. Although the similarities run deep between them, they differ in one critical area: their cable car bell-ringing style. Each cable car has its distinct ringing style, cadence, and micro-culture set by the ringing of the bell. Papa Ellis’s style is like improvisational jazz, with a soft melodic ring with a hint of chaos to keep travelers guessing. Ellis III is all hip-hop, steady on the beat with a surprising feeling of bass undergirding the high-pitched ring. Who is better? The answer may be subject to one’s taste in music, but both Ellises agree that it’s the young one that has the skill, and will be (b)ringing Cato’s cable car legacy into the future.