Last Ziegfeld Follies girl dies at 106

2010-05-12 08:17

The last Ziegfeld Follies Girl has died.

Doris Eaton Travis, one of the legendary Ziegfeld Follies chorus

girls, who wore elaborate costumes for the series of lavish Broadway theatrical

productions in the early 1900s, died yesterday at age 106, public relations firm

Boneau/Bryan-Brown said. It didn’t say where or how she died.

Travis, who was from West Bloomfield, Michigan, also was a

supporter of the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids fundraising organisation and

appeared often in its Easter Bonnet Competition.

She continued to work long after her Follies days ended, with

annual appearances on Broadway, a small role in a Jim Carrey movie and a memoir,

The Days We Danced: The Story of My Theatrical Family From Florenz Ziegfeld to

Arthur Murray and Beyond.

Interest in the 1.57-metre centenarian piqued after a 1997 reunion

with four other Ziegfeld Follies Girls for the reopening of the New Amsterdam

Theatre, where she danced about 80 years earlier.

“I was the only one who could still dance,” she said then.

That led to her involvement in the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights

Aids benefit, where she caught the eye of Carrey and director Milos Forman, who

were making the movie Man on the Moon, about the life of comedian Andy

Kaufman.

She played an actress who was no longer popular.

“I had to ride a stick horse and faint and then get resuscitated,”

Travis recalled in 2006, laughing as she did a fake gallop.

Even after more than 90 years as a hoofer, dancing still came easy

to Travis, who appeared in the extravagant Ziegfeld Follies show that enchanted

Broadway from 1907 into the 1930s.

“I’m the last of the Ziegfeld Follies Girls now,” she said when she

was 102. “It’s an honour in a way. I certainly didn’t think that would

happen.”

Travis, who owned several dance studios in Michigan and operated a

horse ranch in Oklahoma, had a few wrinkles and white curly hair that framed her

eyes of blue.

She enrolled at Oklahoma University and earned a bachelor’s degree

in history at age 88. She credited her longevity to her ongoing love affair with

dancing and not drinking or smoking.

Travis was born March 14, 1904, one of seven children to newspaper

linotype operator Charles Eaton and his wife, Mary, in Norfolk, Virginia.

Some of the children, who became known as The Eatons of Broadway,

got their first break when a stock company production of Blue Bird appeared in

Washington, DC, in 1911.

Travis and her sisters, Pearl and Mary, had only small roles, but

it led to steady work in other local plays.

By then, the Ziegfeld Follies had become an entertainment staple.

Inspired by the Folies Bergeres in Paris, Ziegfeld Follies was part Broadway

show, part Vaudeville, featuring top entertainers such as WC Fields, Eddie

Cantor, Fanny Brice and Will Rogers.

Juicing up the show were beautiful female dancers who performed

elaborate chorus numbers composed by Irving Berlin and who wore costumes by Art

Deco designer and illustrator Erte.

Pearl Eaton nabbed a part in the chorus of the “Ziegfeld Follies of

1918,” and Travis became the youngest Ziegfeld Follies Girl when she was hired

at age 14. She became a principal dancer in 1920.

She turned to silent movies with At the Stage Door and The Broadway

Peacock in 1920 and Tell Your Children in 1922. But she never really got into

film.

Travis’ love of dancing and musical theatre was shaken when the

stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Depression and an end to many

theatres.

At a friend’s suggestion, she applied for a job as a tap dance

instructor at the Arthur Murray Dance Studios in New York. She got the job and

branched into social dance. She eventually opened a Murray franchise in Michigan

and began a second career.

Murray gave her a list of people who had taken lessons or paid for

some and hadn’t completed them, and one of the first people she contacted was

Paul H Travis, whom she married in 1949. He died in 2000, a few days before his

100th birthday.

In a statement on behalf of the family, her nephew Joe Eaton Jr.

said yesterday she always loved Broadway: “She adored dancing with the young

dancers,” he said, “seeing new shows and the incredible response from the Easter

Bonnet audience and Broadway community.”

The executive director of BC/EFA, Tom Viola, said Broadway Cares

loved Travis, whom he first met when she was 94 and was appearing at the 12th

Easter Bonnet Competition.

“When the stage lights hit Doris,” he said, “she was instantly and

forever young.”

He said Broadway, which planned to dim its lights last night in her

honour, would “miss her forever”.

Funeral arrangements are private. A memorial service in West

Bloomfield will be announced later.


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