Thursday, May 13, 2010

Doris Eaton Travis, the last Ziegfeld girl

It's truly the end of an era - Doris Eaton Travis, the last surviving girl from the original Ziegfeld Follies, died yesterday aged 106.

This is a woman who was waved at by President Woodrow Wilson, had Babe Ruth autograph a baseball for her, enjoyed George Gershwin improvising at her family’s piano, and had Charles Lindbergh drop by for Sunday “tea” (Prohibition cocktails).

Doris was and still is an absolute legend and a total star. For those of you who don't know much about her, allow me to recount some of her amazing life here.


Doris Eaton was born in 1904 in Virginia, one of seven children, and started taking dance lessons with her siblings aged just four years old. Destined to be in show businesses, she made her Broadway debut at the tender age of 13.

Only a year later, in 1918, she was cast in the famous Ziegfeld Follies. She was the youngest Ziegfeld Girl ever to be cast - she told Ziegfeld she was 16 when really she was only 14, starting rehearsals for the show on the same day she finished the eighth grade.

To get around the child labor laws of the time Doris performed under the stage names "Doris Levant" and "Lucille Levant" until she turned sixteen and began using her real name again. Barely five feet tall, Doris would nonetheless become a star performer in the Follies.

Doris, approx. age 18, in the Ziegfeld Follies, early 1920s

The Ziegfeld Follies were a series of elaborate theatrical variety show stage productions on Broadway in New York City from 1907 through 1931, inspired by the Folies Bergères of Paris (of Josephine Baker Banana Dance fame). The Follies were conceived and produced by Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, and the shows were made famous by the glamorous Ziegfeld Girls, the feathered-and-spangled dancing beauties of the stage, hand-selected by Ziegfeld himself.
Florenz Ziegfeld

The Follies catchphrase was "Glorifying the American Girl", and the girls became shining examples of the ultimate in beauty and Jazz Age excitement. Make no mistake though, the Follies was not cheap titillation - Doris herself described the show simply as "beauty, elegance and loveliness".

At age 18 Doris married Joe Gorham, twice her age and the producer of the Gorham Follies. Doris' family was against the marraige and indeed Doris was quick to regret it when Gorham turned out to have an abusive streak. The marriage lasted for six months, ending when Gorham died of a heart attack. Doris was not quick to rush into marriage again.

The ORIGINAL "Singin' in the Rain"

Decades before it was made famous by Gene Kelly, Doris herself was the first to sing the song 'Singin in the Rain' in one of her stage appearances in a show called The Hollywood Music Box Revue of 1927. The song was written for her by Arthur Freed (lyrics) and Nacio Brown (music), whom Doris was dating at the time. (Rumour has it that Doris actually helped write the song, but didn't get credit).

[Sidenote: The song was featured again in the 1929 film adaptation -“The Hollywood Revue of 1929” - where it was used as the show–stopping finale of the film.]

While Doris was singing and dancing on stage with the Follies and other productions, she also made a number of motion pictures in the 1920s and 1930s.

Hard times and desperate measures

Doris continued dancing on Broadway until the stock market crash of 1929, when the ensuing depression saw the closure of many theaters and dancing jobs became scarce.

In 1936 times were so hard that she considered her best option for work to be that of a 'taxi dancer' - girls that got paid 10 cents to dance with paying clients at clubs. By her own admission Doris didn't "fully realise the nature of such clubs and the kind of life represented there."

Luckily for Doris, a coincidental turn of events was to launch her in a new dancing direction. Just as she was "at her wit's end", Doris' good friend George invited her to accompany him to visit his sister Helen. Doris and Helen got to talking about Doris' desperate work situation, and Helen suggested that Doris apply to be a teacher at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, where she'd been taking her son for lessons.

The next day, instead of going to the dime-a-dance club, Doris applied to and was hired as a tap dance instructor for the famous Arthur Murray. Soon she was working from 10 in the morning to 10 at night, for a dollar an hour. The photo left is of Doris dancing with Arthur in 1939.

In 1938 Doris moved to Detroit where she started the first Arthur Murray Studio franchise outside New York; eventually she owned Arthur Murray 18 franchises in Michigan (which she ran for 30 years), while also writing a newspaper dance column, titled "On Your Toes", and hosting a local television dancing show.

One of Doris' dance pupils was an inventor and engineer named Paul Travis. After an 11-year courtship, they eventually married in March 1949 when Doris was forty-five. They were married for over 50 years until Paul's death at age 99.

A new life in Oklahoma

Doris retired from dance teaching in 1968 and she and Paul moved to Oklahoma where they where they ran a successful quarter horse ranch for many years. Doris demanded that the ranch house they built have a foyer big enough for dancing - she danced in the foyer at night regularly while listening to music. Doris once credited her longevity, in part, to her ongoing love of dancing.

Doris always regretted her lack of higher education, and, now in her eighties, went back to school determined to finish the education that the Follies had interrupted seven decades prior.

In 1992, age 88, she graduated with distinction from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in history (probably teaching the history professors a thing or two along the way).

Twelve years later, at age 100, she was awarded an honorary doctorate in Humanities from Oakland University in Rochester, Michegan. She was also invited to give the ceremonial commencement address.

Wearing a tailored black pantsuit with a simple string of pearls and matching earrings, Doris made her speech using no notes or cards, and spoke straight from the heart. She talked of the importance of education and urged the graduates to become lifelong learners. She then said, “I started my show business career dancing and I would like to leave you, dancing, today.”

Standing next to the podium, and spreading her arms wide, Doris sang and danced “Ballin the Jack,” a song from the 1913 Ziegfeld Follies. As soon as she finished, the entire audience - over 2,500 people - leapt to its feet, clapping, whistling, and cheering.

In 1997, Doris and four former Ziegfeld Girls reunited for the reopening of the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway, a place where she used to perform in her Follies heyday. Doris was the only one of the girls still able to dance.

The New Amsterdam theater in 1925, and modern interior after restoration

In 1999 Doris made her first film appearance since 1933 with a small role in Man on the Moon with Jim Carrey.

The days she danced - retrospectives of Doris' dancing career

In 2003 Doris published her memoirs, a beautiful book titled 'The Days We Danced' (see link at the bottom of this post for details). I have a copy of this book and am very much looking forward to reading it and delving in more detail into Doris' amazing life and recollections.

"I probably have a few regrets," said Doris, "But I have no complaints." She also added that she enjoyed watching new dances like breakdancing, even though "I'm a little too old to do them." (Only a little!)

In 2006, Doris was the subject of a (somewhat bizarre) photo-collage art book by author Lauren Redniss called 'Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies'. (see details at the bottom of this post).
Doris was always deeply appreciative of her many fans, which, with the advent of the Internet, ranged all over the world. Scores of people wrote to her and Doris answered every request for an autograph - I wrote to her a few months ago and received my own autographed photo, something I will always treasure.

Back to Broadway

In 1998, Doris heard the call of Broadway again and returned to lend her talents in performing the opening number at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Easter benefit. She came back to perform in and support the event for 12 more years (her last performance was in April 2010).

Doris in 2005, age 101, kicking up her heels on stage
at the annual Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Easter benefit show.

There are a few tribute videos of Doris on YouTube, but this one is by far the best, including a clip of Doris singing and dancing in the 1929 movie Street Girl:

Here's an absolutely inspiring video from 2005 of Doris dancing at her 101st birthday to Irving Berlin's "Mandy", performing a routine she first danced at 15 years old in the 1919 Ziegfeld Follies:

After Pauls' death in 2000, Doris continued to run the horse ranch herself, but eventually it got to be too much work and she finally gave it up - at age 104.

Even though ranching got to be too much for her, dancing never did. She lived for dancing, it was in her blood, and she never let age stop her. Just read this excerpt from a 2009 New York Times article about Doris:
"...few frailties were in evidence Saturday night as Ms. Eaton Travis, in a pool-blue suit and pearls, sipped coffee and picked at duck breast at dinner with her nephew and chief caregiver, Joe Eaton, and friends at Chez Josephine ... After polishing off her dessert, Ms. Eaton Travis motioned for a piano player to jack up the tempo of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin,’ ” so she could whirl with Bill George, her personal chef.

As they spun, and the crowd gaped, she repeatedly kicked out her right leg and beamed smiles. Then she pointed in the air and pumped her fist, and the pianist hit the final chord, prompting loud applause."
That's my kind of 105-year-old.

Stunning portrait of Doris (with her younger self in the background)
taken in 2008 by Brian Lanker

Doris' last public appearance was at the annual 2010 Easter Bonnet show, just weeks before her death. She's completely adorable and still manages to get a few kicks in.

Dancer, singer, entertainer.
Teacher, scholar, lifelong learner.
Entrepreneur, rancher, author.

Inspiration to us all.

Doris died of an aneurysm on May 11, 2010. The theater lights on Broadway were dimmed in her honor the following day. Coincidentally, Doris died in the same month that she is featured on the cover of newly-launched Zelda magazine, a magazine catering to thousands of new vintage revival fans who represent a whole new generation that admires and respects the great entertainers of the '20s and '30s.

I'm one of those fans, and Doris is one of my biggest inspirations. Her passing is a sad event, but one thing I'm sure of is that wherever she is now, she's dancing up a storm.
Doris age 106, two weeks before her death.
Photo by Don Spiro


Emma said...

What a remarkable lady!!

Joe said...

Many hearts saddened when from this earth she passed, but Heaven rejoiced at her home coming. Doris Eaton Travis an extraordinary lady lives on in our memories.

Cakelaw said...

Wow - this post touched me. I had never heard of Doris before, but I won't forget her - she is inspirational.

Lauren Hairston said...

I just found your blog and I am loving it! I have a B.A. in History from the University of Oklahoma (Class of 2007) and I never heard anything about one of our alumnas being a Ziegfeld girl! I just think that is the coolest and she sounds like she was a wonderful woman. Boomer Sooner!

diamond | Loose Diamoond said...

Nice Post........ I love to watch the Doris Eaton Travis Easter Bonnet 2010 Speech.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story...