(Nearly) Oldest Living Ziegfeld Girl Tells All: 100-Year-Old Doris Eaton Visits New Amsterdam Once More
By Robert Simonson
Among the hundreds of interviews I've conducted in 20 years of covering the theatre, Doris Eaton Travis, the former Ziegfeld Girl who turned 100 this year, is the only one of whom I could ask this question: What was Florenz Ziegfeld really like?
Doris, Mary, Pearl and Charlie were all members of the once famous Eaton theatre family, ubiquitous to Broadway audiences of the 1920s. All four worked for Ziegfeld by the time they were 21 years old and sometimes long before.
Doris has had a second career as an attraction at the New Amsterdam Theatre, historic home of the Follies. For the past six years, she has participated in Broadway Cares' annual Easter Bonnet Competitions at the 42nd Street palace. She will again adorn the house for this year's event, April 19 and 20.
The current visit is of special importance to the Travis, and not only because of the landmark age she has attained. (For the record, surviving Ziegfeld Girl Lucille Layton edges Travis slightly in the age department.) Last year 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.
"I looked over my scrapbooks and saw what my family had accomplished in a short period of time," she explained. "For six years, there was an Eaton in The Ziegfeld Follies. My sister Mary starred on Broadway, had her name in lights. My sister Doris was the first female stage manager for a musical comedy in New York. My brother Charlie originated the character of Andy Hardy on stage. I felt we had contributed to Broadway history in that era and that it should be known."
Travis' characterizations of Broadway immortals are enough to alter one's opinion of what often comes off as a cutthroat, ruthless profession. Apart from father figure Florenz, comic Fanny Brice was "Not the least upstage." And famous child-hater W.C. ("Get away, kid, ya bother me.") Fields "was kind and friendly to everybody. He was always very warm."
Mama Eaton encouraged the stage ambitions of "The Seven Little Eatons" early on, and ambitious older sister Evelyn pushed her brothers and sisters to achieve, as she would later press her three children. (The press moniker of "The Seven Little Eatons" was a misnomer: the driven Evelyn was a backstage influence, never stepping on stage herself; Joseph gave up on the theatre at an early stage; and Robert was never lured by the siren call of stardom.) Mary went on to achieve the greatest fame, receiving top billing with Eddie Cantor in Kid Boots. Pearl split her time between acting and choreographing, becoming quite accomplished at the latter.
Doris modestly admits 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 "Singing in the Rain."
She got her first big break in the serendipitous manner often seen in Hollywood films. Her sister Doris 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.'" It was decided. Doris was in the Follies. (The Gerry Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's vigilance caused young Doris to change her name briefly to Doris Levant and also suddenly become 16.)
The Eatons' heyday was short. Offers from both Broadway and Hollywood dried up with the arrival of the 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, who still chokes up when discussing Mary. "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. With Mary, her dancing was part of her soul. And when she had no place to go, I think she just died inside."
Pearl died in 1958 in her Manhattan Beach apartment, the victim of a bizarre murder which remains unsolved. As for Evelyn, frustrated in her raging, voyeuristic hopes for her family and her children (who did not share her love of theatre and left the stage), she paced out her long life in a cloud of bitterness, complaint and self-pity. The chapter in Travis' book called "Evelyn, The Magnificent Bitch" is perhaps the saddest in the book.
Travis openly wonders why, of all her sisters, she survived the seeming tragedy of being shut out of show business while still in the bloom of youth. "I reached the age of 32," she recalled, "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."
Soon after she got a job as a dancing assistant in tap at Arthur Murray Studios. She became intrigued with the ballroom dancing being taught there and began to take lessons. She later performed in exhibitions with a fellow male teacher, Cy Andrews, who asked Murray if they could open a branch studio in Detroit. They did, at the Statler Hotel. The venture grew. Travis (who married Paul Travis in 1949) eventually owned 18 Murray studios in Michigan, hosted her own local television show in Detroit for seven seasons and became a millionaire.
As for her less fortunate siblings, she said, "Part of the reason for writing the book was, when I saw what had happened to my family, I felt that all these young people who want to get into theatre should know that show business is not all costumes and lights and music. The curtain does come down on everybody at some time."
On April 19, however, the curtain will go up once more for Doris Eaton, Ziegfeld Girl. She is scheduled to dance a Conga on the famous stage. The actress and author enjoys these annual visits immensely. "They make me feel like a star," she said.
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