Doris Eaton Travis, 106

Obituary: Doris Eaton Travis, 106, was a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies

(Photo courtesy of Ziegfeld Club)
By Adam Bernstein
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 Bergre 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.

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