Charles Eaton, Member of Famous Theatre Family, Dies at 94

Obituaries   Charles Eaton, Member of Famous Theatre Family, Dies at 94
Charles Eaton, one of two surviving members of a once famous family of stage performers, died Aug. 22 in Norman, OK, the New York Times reported. He was 94.
Charles Eaton, with Helen Twelvetrees, in 1929
Charles Eaton, with Helen Twelvetrees, in 1929

Mr. Eaton was the most important performing male member of the clan once referred to as "The Seven Little Eatons." The most prominent siblings were Charlie and his sisters Doris, Mary and Pearl. All appeared, at one time or another, in "The Ziegfeld Follies." (Only Doris Eaton Travis survives Mr. Eaton).

"Florenz Ziegfeld, to us and our family, was just a delightful person," said Travis, in an interview with Playbill On-Line earlier this year. "My sisters Mary and Pearl, my brother Charlie and I all worked for him, and he treated us just beautifully, almost like a father... My brother Charlie originated the character of Andy Hardy on stage."

He achieved the latter distinction in a 1928 Broadway play called Skidding which ran for 472 performances—Mr. Eaton's biggest hit.

Charles Eaton made his Broadway debut in 1918 in Mother Carey's Chickens. He was seven years old at the time. He would act in 10 Broadway shows in total, including The Awakening, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1921 (in which he shared the stage with W.C. Fields), A Royal Fandango (with Ethel Barrymore), Peter Pan, Incubator, Tommy, Growing Pains and Lady Luck. He also performed at vaudeville's storied Palace Theatre; toured in plays like Don't Count Your Chickens with Mary Boland; and acted in a dozen, mainly forgettable films in the late '20s and early '30s, the most famous being "The Ghost Talks," 20th Century Fox's first talking picture.

The Eatons' heyday was short. Offers from both Broadway and Hollywood dried up with the arrival of the Depression. Charlie's last four Broadway outings ran less than 100 performances combined. He didn't handle the reversal in fortunes well. Mr. Eaton, like his sisters Mary and Pearl, battled alcoholism. Long after his showbiz career was over, Mr. Eaton served as a captain in the Army Air Corps in Foggia, Italy. Once, when dining with fellow officers at a headquarters hotel, composer Irving Berlin walked in with a couple of generals. When his companions refused to believe his boast that he knew Berlin, he walked up to the composer's table. While the general shot him disapproving looks, Berlin hopped up and shouted, "Charlie, how the hell are you?"

In 1940, he went into business with his sister Doris, who had gone into business with a thriving Arthur Murray Dance Studios franchise in Detroit. The franchise eventually grew to 18 studios. After some years living on his own in Detroit, he moved in 2000 to Ms. Travis' ranch in Oklahoma.

"Charlie never lost that sense of childhood wonder and discovery, nurtured by his early life in the fantasyland of the Broadway theatre," Ms. Travis remembered in his memoir "The Days We Danced." "I surmise that he still thinks that all the world is a stage and that we—the people he deals with every day—are the somewhat peculiar characters playing around on it."

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