By Andy Smith
The front lobby of the New Amsterdam Theater is covered large framed prints of
Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller, W.C. Fields and other stars of the lavish Ziegfeld Follies. Well-remembered or forgotten, most have been gone for half a century or more.
Near the front doors—two frames past the photo of a young Will Rogers, wearing chaps and twirling a lasso—hangs the image of an impish dancer, a teenager named Doris Eaton, featured performer in the Follies of 1918, 1919 and 1920.
Unlike the rest, including her sister Mary Eaton, a headliner who starred in Ziegfeld’s The Five O’Clock Girl (1927), this talented dancer is “still here,” running an Oklahoma horse ranch and performing for Broadway Cares when her schedule permits.
Since 1998, Doris Eaton Travis, at 103 the last of the original Ziegfeld girls, has danced in nine Easter Bonnet Competitions—teaching Sutton Foster the “Black Bottom,” bantering with Michael Benjamin Washington as “Mahogany,” celebrating her 100th birthday on the stage of the New Amsterdam, and synchopatin’ to “Ballin’ the Jack” with her younger brother Charlie (who originated the role of “Andy Hardy” in the 1928 Broadway hit Skidding).
In 1998, at 94, Doris made her Bonnet debut, sharing the stage with four other Ziegfeld girls. Eaton, however, had informed the producers that “I can dance.” So, after the others were escorted into the wings, the spotlight shone on Doris, who danced to Irving Berlin’s “Mandy,” a soft shoe number she had performed in the Follies of 1919!
Doris couldn’t join us this year. And although she sent Broadway Cares her blessing and a lovely note, her presence was sorely missed. A copy of her letter to BC/EFA staff follows:
Dear Tom, Michael and Scott:
It is with deepest regret that I cannot accept your invitation to appear again the the Easter Bonnet Competition. This would be my 10th year! I can't believe we all first met in 1998.
I will never forget how thrilling it was after almost 70 years to be back at the New Amsterdam Theatre at age 94! I cannot tell you how much I have enjoyed the last 9 years, dancing with so many wonderful people from Broadway on the very stage where all for of "us Eatons" - Charlie, Pearl, Mary and myself - made our starts so long ago. I greatly appreciate the opportunity you gave me to get back in show business and celebrate my 100th birthday with you!
Please give my best to all who have given me so many ecstatic moments these last 9 years. I hope to see you all again. I send you all my love.
Doris Eaton Travis
In lieu of a live performance, BC/EFA and Applause Video Productions have assembled the next best thing: a video highlight reel, including bits from all of Mrs. Travis’s Easter Bonnet appearances.
We’ve also added a slide show featuring rare vintage photo stills of Doris from the 1910s, 20s and 30s, including the Follies portrait featured at the New Amsterdam and a publicity photo of Doris posing with Babe Ruth.*
A Short Look at a Long, Busy Life
Two books have been written about Mrs. Travis’ life. Century Girl (2006), by New York Times contributor Lauren Redness, is a fascinating, graphic-novel style look at this survivor’s 10-plus decades, featuring illustrations, archival photos and quotes culled from a series of interviews with Mrs. Travis.
With assistance from friend J.R. Morris, Doris, along with her brother Charles and nephew Joseph, produced The Days We Danced: the Story of My Theatrical Family (2003), an honest look at the large Eaton family’s exciting and sometimes tragic careers and personal struggles, from child performers to Broadway headliners in the 1920s and beyond. In 1924, four Eaton siblings (Doris, Mary, Charlie and Pearl, a dancer and talented choreographer), were appearing in Broadway shows.
After the Follies, Doris showed her versatility. She played leading roles in several silent films; costarred in the Broadway comedy hit Excess Baggage (1927); appeared in two early talkies and introduced “Singin’ in the Rain” onstage in 1929’s Hollywood Music Box Review.
The careers of all four Eatons stalled in the early 1930s, but Doris Eaton’s tale emerges as one of triumph. When theatrical opportunities dried up (her last Broadway role was a bit in 1934’s Merrily We Roll Along), she reinvented herself as a dance instructor. Moving to Detroit, she threw herself into her new career, eventually owning a chain of Arthur Murray Dance Studios, boosting lesson sales by demonstrating dance steps herself on local TV. She married Paul Travis (who passed in 2000) and eventually the couple opened a ranch in Norman, Oklahoma, where this active widow continues to live today.
Where once she had been the youngest at everything – at 14 she fibbed to land a part in the Follies, the energetic Mrs. Travis still refuses to let age stand in her way. In 1992, The New York Times ran a piece on the former underage showgirl—who, at 88, was the oldest living graduate, having earned her college degree with distinction from the University of Oklahoma.
The Start of Something Big
This newfound notoriety led this rancher back to Broadway, where’s she became a box office draw for Broadway Cares and earned a lot of new admirers.
“I met Doris more than 15 years ago. Before she did any events for us or Broadway Cares,” says Nils Hanson, administrator of The Ziegfeld Club, an organization which has assembled a large archive of Follies memorabilia. Hanson was writing a piece on Lillian Lorraine, a tempestuous Follies girl and Ziegfeld’s mistress. “Doris knew Lillian and I asked if I could talk to her,” he remembers.
BC/EFA Producer Scott Stevens has become close with Travis through the years, joining Doris, brother Charlie, friends, nieces, nephews and Travis Ranch staff for nights at the theater during her annual visits to New York each Spring. “I love it, but I sometimes have trouble keeping up with her,” laughs Stevens, who was in the house the night of Doris’ BC/EFA debut. “In all the years of Easter Bonnet, I had never heard an ovation close to that one,” he says. “And I still haven’t, except when Doris performs.”
The Saturday before Easter Bonnet 2007, Hanson, Ziegfeld Club President Paula Lamont and other friends of Doris held a dinner in her honor at Chez Josephine on 42nd Street.
“Doris has been an inspiration in our lives for the last 15 years,” Hanson says. “She’s become the darling of her peers.”
* Vintage Stills courtesy of Nils Hanson and The Ziegfeld Club