Obituary: Doris Eaton Travis, 106, was a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Doris Eaton Travis, who died May 11 at age 106, traversed one of the longest and more inspiring careers in show business. On stage since childhood, she was the youngest chorus girl ever hired in the Ziegfeld Follies, a popular theatrical spectacle of the early 20th century designed to "glorify the American girl."
By the time of her death from an aneurysm at a hospital in Commerce, Mich., Mrs. Travis was the last surviving chorus girl from the Follies, according to Ziegfeld archivist Nils Hanson. He said Mrs. Travis's death "marks the end of the Ziegfeld golden era of Broadway."
An American counterpart to the Folies Berg?re in Paris, the original Ziegfeld Follies ran from 1907 to 1931 and featured some of the top entertainers of the day, including W.C. Fields and Will Rogers. It introduced songs by Irving Berlin and other leading pop composers.
Impresario Florenz Ziegfeld spared no expensive in celebrating feminine beauty, and his Follies presented acres of alluring women dripping with silk and shimmering art deco jewelry. Hanson said the pageantry and glamour of the Follies inspired flamboyant stage shows of the sort now found in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
"It was beauty, elegance, loveliness," Mrs. Travis told the New York Times in 2005, "beauty and elegance like a French painting of a woman's body."
Well, to a point. For the 1919 show, Ms. Travis was elevated from the chorus to specialty dancer, at one time portraying paprika in a life-size "salad" of women dancers. She was later promoted to salt and then pepper. She became a solo tap performer in 1920, the last of her three years with the Follies.
Afterward, Mrs. Travis appeared in a few silent films and was regarded as a reliable performer in stage revues and musical comedies. She introduced the song "Singin' in the Rain" in a 1929 Broadway production -- "You know what that did for Gene Kelly," she later said, "but anyway, I was No. 1.
"With her stage career dwindling by the mid-1930s -- many theaters shut down during the Depression -- she taught ballroom dance for an Arthur Murray school in New York before opening a franchise in Michigan. She later launched a prosperous horse breeding ranch in Oklahoma.
Doris Eaton was born March 14, 1904, in Norfolk, where her father was a newspaper Linotype operator. The family, which included seven children, soon settled in Washington.
With her sisters Mary and Pearl, Doris appeared in a 1911 production of Maurice Maeterlinck's play "The Blue Bird" at Washington's Belasco Theatre, which led to professional assignments for a stock company that played the Poli theater chain. She said that President Woodrow Wilson was a regular at the Poli Theatre in Washington and often waved from the balcony to the Eaton children onstage.
The three daughters were soon out-earning their father, and Mrs. Travis wrote in her 2003 memoir, "The Days We Danced," that theater managers knew "if you needed three or four more children, you could call Mama Eaton and get them all in one place." Underage Doris lied about her age and used pseudonyms to avoid problems with child-labor laws.
The children began winning stage roles in New York, where Pearl Eaton had landed a job as a dance rehearsal coach with the Ziegfeld Follies. Mrs. Travis, then 14, was visiting during rehearsals when a producer appeared smitten by her looks and engaged her to be an understudy for dancing star Ann Pennington.
Mrs. Travis's sister Mary, meanwhile, enjoyed a brighter stage and movie career, notably singing in the early Marx Brothers film comedy "The Cocoanuts" (1929), before her career dried up. She descended into alcoholism and died in 1948.
"Ballet dancing and the theater was really my sister's whole life," Mrs. Travis told Playbill magazine. "With me, it was just a job. I never had stars in my eyes about the theater. With Mary, her dancing was part of her soul. And when she had no place to go, I think she just died inside."
Several of the Eaton siblings became alcoholics, and Pearl died in an unsolved murder in 1958. Mrs. Travis's brother Charles Eaton died in 2004 at 94.
Mrs. Travis's first husband was Joseph Gorham, a theater producer twice her age. She called him a cruel, abusive man; he died from a heart attack six months after their marriage in 1923. She later had a long affair with Nacio Herb Brown, who wrote "Singin' in the Rain," which Mrs. Travis sang in the Hollywood Music Box Revue.
In 1949, she married one of her Michigan dance pupils, Paul Travis, an engineer who became wealthy from a doorjamb he invented and used on many cars. He died in 2000, and they had no children. Mrs. Travis had no immediate survivors.
Operating dance studios was fun and profitable, she said, but rock-and-roll "sort of put a damper on the ballroom dancing business," and in 1970 the Travises moved to Oklahoma from Michigan. They oversaw an 800-acre ranch and made a small fortune by renting out parcels of land.
In her spare time, she earned a high school diploma and, at 88, a bachelor's degree from the University of Oklahoma. One of her American history professors told the New York Times, "It was unnerving when she came up to me after I lectured on World War I and said, 'I met Mr. Wilson.' The first thing that went through my head was, 'Did I get everything right?' "
Mrs. Travis never retired. In recent years, she was regularly featured in an annual Broadway AIDS benefit, most recently in April, when she danced a few steps with the help of two shirtless young male dancers. After rapturous applause, she walked off stage by herself.
I had the pleasure of seeing Mrs. Travis dance at the Sooner Theater about 8 years ago at age 98. She was the cutest thing. She was literally a walking history book!