By Kenneth Jones
and Robert Simonson
11 May 2010
Doris Eaton Travis, the former Ziegfeld Follies dancer who inspired 21st century audiences with her pluck, good will — and fancy footwork — at 12 of 13 annual Easter Bonnet Competition performances for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, died May 11 at the age of 106, according to Tom Viola, executive director of BC/EFA.
Ms. Eaton was thought to be among "the last of the Ziegfeld Girls" — as were known the bejeweled ensemble of women who graced the stage of the New Amsterdam Theatre (and elsewhere) in producer Flo Ziegfeld's revues in the first quarter of the 20th century.
Eight decades after her initial bout of fame, she again found an audience on the stage of the New Amsterdam. She danced for a 1998 audience when she appeared with four other graying Ziegfeld veterans in the first Easter Bonnet fundraiser at the theatre, then newly restored, on West 42nd Street.
"She was truly our good luck charm," Viola told Playbill.com. "In 1998, at 94, she was in incredible shape — in amazing shape. We brought her back every year, and she would dance in the opening number. She taught Sutton Foster how to dance 'The Black Bottom,' she danced with the 'Cagelles' from the previous revival, we celebrated her 100th birthday on stage, she appeared with the cast of Billy Elliot."
Viola told Playbill.com that she took ill Sunday and was taken to the hospital to be rehydrated and was released, but was brought back to the hospital on May 11. She was reportedly talkative in the car, then chatting with the nurses about being a Ziegfeld girl and having just returned from the Bonnet Competition in New York City.
She slipped away quietly, without incident, at the hospital. Viola said, "I'll bet the sound of the extraordinary ovation she received on stage at the Minskoff just two weeks ago today was ringing in her ears."
Doris Eaton was born March 14, 1904, in Norfolk, VA. Four of her seven siblings would eventually go onto the stage, including sisters Mary and Pearl, who were also Ziegfeld Girls, and brothers Charles and Joseph, though Joe, disliking show business, left the theatre at a tender age. For a short period in the early 1920s, the three Eaton girls were famous enough that their heart-shaped faces graced the covers of celebrity magazines.
Mama Eaton encouraged the stage ambitions of her children early on, and ambitious older sister Evelyn pushed her brothers and sisters to achieve. Mary, the family's greatest beauty, was the most famous, headlining the 1926 musical Lucky and receiving top billing with Eddie Cantor in Kid Boots. Pearl split her time between acting and choreographing, becoming quite accomplished at the latter.
Doris Eaton took her first step on Broadway in the 1917 play Mother Carey's Chickens. She got her big break in the serendipitous manner often seen in Hollywood films. Her sister Pearl had been employed to rehearse a group of dancing girls for a road show of the Follies for producer Ned Wayburn. Doris tagged along to watch.
"During the break, Mr. Wayburn came over to give Pearl some instructions and he kept looking at me. He finally said, 'Who's this?' Pearl said, 'It's my youngest sister, Doris.' 'Can she dance? I'm looking for somebody to understudy Ann Pennington on the road.' Pearl knew Pennington's routines and knew my capacity and she said, 'She could do that. But, Mr. Wayburn, she's only 14 and I don't think her mother would let her go on the road.' He said, 'You tell your mother I want Doris to do this and she can travel with her and I'll pay her mother's way.'"
Young Doris was the youngest girl featured in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918. She also appeared in the 1920 edition of the Follies.
"Florenz Ziegfeld, to us and our family, was just a delightful person," she told Playbill.com in 2004. "My sisters Mary and Pearl, my brother Charlie and I all worked for him, and he treated us just beautifully, almost like a father. When I went with my mother up to his office, he was always gentlemanly and kindly. He was sort of a quiet person. He was always well-groomed, sort of natty."
Ms. Eaton modestly admitted she was never the star of the family. Still, she had her moments. She executed a rhythm tap dancing routine in the 1928 musical Cross My Heart which stopped the show cold every night. In the 1929 show The Hollywood Music Box Revue, she introduced the song "Singing in the Rain," months before Cliff Edwards would deliver it in the film "Hollywood Revue." And then there was that love affair with Nacio Herb Brown, the composer of "Singin' in the Rain" and many other standards.
The Eatons' heyday was short. Offers from both Broadway and Hollywood dried up with the arrival of the Great Depression. Suddenly, the fabulous family business was finished. The clan didn't handle the reversal in fortunes well. Charlie, Mary and Pearl all battled alcoholism. Glamorous Mary married "three drunks in a row," as her brother Joe put it, and died of severe metamorphosis of the liver in 1948.
"Ballet dancing and the theatre was really my sister's whole life," remembered Doris when discussing Mary in 2004. "It was something inward with her. With Pearl, she liked it but it was a job. With me, it was just a job. I never had stars in my eyes about the theatre."
Pearl also ended badly. She died in 1958 in her Manhattan Beach apartment, the victim of a bizarre murder which remains unsolved. The sturdy and cheerful Charlie fared best at carving out a long career, often joining Doris as half of a dance team. He died in 2004.
Asked why she survived the seeming tragedy of being shut out of show business while still in the bloom of youth, Ms. Eaton said, "I reached the age of 32 and I took a good look at myself and said 'What's going on here? This is nothing. This is not life.' I went back to church and began to study and find myself. I got some inner strength from that."
Ms. Eaton left show business, but later became the owner of 18 Arthur Murray dance studios in Michigan, which she operated for 30 years. She also ran a horse ranch in Oklahoma with her late husband, Paul travis, and graduated from the University of Oklahoma at the age of 88.
In 2003, she published "The Days We Danced," a frank biography of her family's history on and off the stage—a tale replete with glory and heartbreak in even amounts.
Ms. Eaton took her last bow April 27, during the opening number of the 2010 Easter Bonnet show. She rode onstage in a giant Easter basket, giving the initial impression that she could no longer walk. But Ms. Travis brought the audience to its feet when she rose to her own feet and took center stage. Steadied by two shirtless young male dancers, she executed a kick or two and thanked the audience for the love they had shown her over the 12 years of her appearances at the Bonnet event. She then headed into the wings under her own power.