Tiny Dancer

By Moira McAvoy

By the middle of the 1920s, a theatre aficionado who did not know the name “Eaton” would have been difficult to find. Whether it be the beautiful ballet of Mary, the comedic wit of young Charles, or Doris’ dancing, the Eaton family was steadily rising to fame during the days of the road, of vaudeville, of the infamous Ziegfeld Follies. However, those days were numbered. The shockwaves from the stock market crash of 1929 could be felt all the way down to Broadway, with theaters closing left and right, leaving multitudes of actors unemployed and unprepared for a world beyond the glittering darkness of the stage. Out of all the successful, popular Eaton children, Doris Eaton Travis was the only one to find peace and prosperity—both on the stage and beyond (including her membership in Phi Beta Kappa)—well into her later years.

Doris Eaton was born on March 14,1904, in Norfolk, Virginia. Although she only lived in Norfolk for three years, Eaton Travis recounts in her memoir The Days We Danced (Marquand Books, 2003) that it was there that she saw her first theatrical performance, and subsequently when she decided that her destiny rested in show business. She writes that, according to a popular family story, she arrived home the day after that performance, “put on one of my Mama’s hats and pulled a tablecloth over my dress and proclaimed in lispy speech, ‘I want to be a showlady.'” When the Eaton family relocated to Washington, D.C., soon after and enrolled many of the children—including Doris—in dance lessons, it became clear that her ambitions would be realized.

According to Eaton Travis, it is hard to say, however, what would have become of those ambitions without her eldest sister Evelyn. Although she appeared in a scattering of performances and shared their love of show business, Evelyn’s talents lied elsewhere in the business: management and direction. Evelyn was also notably more eager to get the Eaton name on the map, and in 1911, was responsible for her sisters’ first professional appearance. Thanks to Evelyn’s moxy and desire to see her siblings succeed, Doris and her sisters were cast in non-major roles in a local Shubert Brothers production of The Blue Bird, a play which Doris would revisit multiple times, and in multiple roles, throughout her career.

Following the close of the first Blue Bird run, Doris was cast in a Poli Stock production of Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch; this move proved to be the beginning of a long, fruitful relationship between Doris and the Poli stock companies of both Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. A few years after her theatrical debut in The Blue Bird, the Washington Poli Stock company procured permission to host a two-week run of the show, and Doris saw her first reunion with this show, this time in the lead role of Mytyl. Nathaniel Roth caught a performance, and, impressed with Doris’ performance and growth as an actress, informed the Eaton family that he had recommended that Doris and her sister Mary be cast in a revival of the play off-Broadway in New York. The two were cast as the lead siblings—Doris once again playing Mytyl—and thus, Doris Eaton made her New York debut during the 1916-1917 season.

This foray into New York theatre and touring was the push Doris had been waiting for; from then on, she was a well-respected, well-cast member of the burgeoning New York theatre scene. The family permanently relocated to the city and Doris continued to do praise-garnering work with the Poli Stock companies before being cast in her first Broadway production, Mother Carey’s Chickens, in 1917. 

Her theatrical success, however, did not keep Doris from her studies. She asserts that, while she often spent a good deal of time on the road and in rehearsal, she was sure to keep up with her studies, even doing summer school when necessary to fulfill requirements. She has also stated that she was an avid reader, devouring Charles Dickens, Lousia May Alcott, and Victor Hugo alike. By 1918, however, Doris had completed eighth grade and had effectively concluded her academic pursuits for the time being. There were bigger, more extravagant prospects on the horizons: on the same day as her completion of eighth grade, Doris Eaton attended her first rehearsal as a Ziegfeld Follies girl.

The Follies are, arguably, what leant the most to Doris’ enduring legacy. Indeed, it was an honor—some even said a near miracle—to be chosen to be amongst the ranks of Ziegfeld’s multi-talented girls. However, Doris was not the first of the Eaton family to be welcomed into the fold. In 1918, her older sister Pearl had been cast as a member of the chorus for that year’s run of the Follies, and eventually went on to become a director’s assistant. Per Pearl’s request, Doris accompanied her sister to a rehearsal, where she garnered the attention of dance supervisor Ned Wayburn. After a brief discussion of her relation to Pearl, her dancing abilities, and her age, Doris was promptly cast as a member of the 1918 touring Follies cast. At the unfathomably young age of 14, Doris was the youngest woman to ever be cast in the Follies; she was also too young to legally work. To circumvent labor laws and questions about her age, Doris performed under the name Doris Levant, the surname stolen from Evelyn’s married last name. She would go on to perform under her true name upon turning 16.

After a successful touring run, Doris was rehired—by Ziegfeld himself—as an understudy for Marilyn Miller in the 1919 Follies, which Doris and many of her contemporaries would go on to declare the “best ever.” She was  also cast in the 1919 run of Midnight Frolics, the Follies’ racier, moonlit incarnation that took place every night on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theatre, as well as the 1920 run of the Follies. Doris continued to hone her craft as a dancer throughout her time with the Follies, often taking classes at Ned Wayburn’s Studios of Stage Dancing in her spare time.

The beginning of the decade saw Doris’ career blooming. She was cast in her first film, At the Stage Door (1921), and was called to London and Egypt soon after to begin work on the film Tell Your Children (1922), Around the same time, she met and fell for Joe Gorham, a producer, and the pair eventually married. The marriage, however, was short-lived, as  Gorham died tragically of a heart attack a mere six months after the couple married.

Later in the ’20s, Doris made her way to the West Coast, and was cast prominently in multiple annual runs of the Hollywood Music Box Revue. On a subsequent trip back West, Doris also found herself in the company of composer Nacio Herb Brown. Doris has written that she was head-over-hills for him (jokingly blaming the Californian air) but confirms that there was never any thought of marriage between the two. Their relationship, however, was not for naught, as in the 1929 Hollywood Music Box Revue, Doris became the first singer to ever perform the composer’s perennial show tune classic “Singin’ In the Rain.”

While Eaton managed to ride out the first waves of the Great Depression for a few years, her last Broadway appearance of the era would be in Merrily We Roll Along in 1935. After the close of the show, she went on to perform in a handful of stock productions, as well as in a small number of vaudeville sketches with her brother Charles; however, it seemed to be that the illustrious days of the Eaton family—Doris included—were rapidly fading.

Unable to shake her love of dance, Doris was hired to be a tap instructor at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in New York. Doris’ thirst for knowledge and betterment proved unquenchable, however, and this need often resulted in the dancer sitting in on classes from many different genres, including ballroom. As time passed, Doris essentially ceased to teach tap, her learned love of ballroom taking precedent. Her love of teaching dance was not limited to a single classroom at the New York Arthur Murray, however. In 1938, in conjunction with her friend Cy Andrews, Doris opened the first ever franchised Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Detroit. She resettled to the city and, throughout the following three decades, would go on to own eighteen separate dance studios.

This period of her life also saw her becoming the head writer for the Detroit News dance column, as well as her courtship with dance student Paul Travis. Travis was a creative and wealthy man, famous for his lucrative invention of a certain type of doorjamb for car locks. The two dated seriously for eleven years before marrying in 1949. The dance studios continued to be a hit.

However, the sixties soon rolled in, and Doris found herself 32 years into the business, frantic with unforeseen management difficulties, and up to her neck with dance-studio-disappointment related lawsuits. Doris and her brothers eventually decided to give up the studio business, selling it off to former dance instructor Ron Anderson. The sale of the franchise happened to coincide perfectly with Paul’s purchase of a 240-acre ranch in Norman, Oklahoma. The couple relocated and began a lucrative venture into quarter horse breeding. Over time, the ranch expanded in size—nearly quadrupling to a vast 880 acres, and the Travis’ saw fantastic results from their horses, particularly in racing. To help offset the cost of the ranch and its maintenance, the couple began to rent out the ranch as a boarding house. During their spare time, the couple also hosted “down home, gold old Western” parties on the property. Doris has written that the mutual love of dancing, which was often expressed and reignited between her and her husband at these parties, is what saved her marriage and led to the peace and love she felt in her later years. Paul Travis passed away in 2000, after 51 years of marriage; Doris commemorated him with a centennial memorial party shortly after his passing.

Doris’ later years were marked by two triumphant returns: her homecoming to the theatrical world, and her return to her education. In personal letters, Doris wrote that she desired desperately to get her high school diploma, and, consequentially, her college degree. She went on to enroll at the University of Oklahoma; although the course of her studies spanned eleven years, she graduated in 1992 at 88 years old, cum laude, with a history degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key. In 2004, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of the humanities from Oakland University.

Her return to Broadway was equally triumphant. In a self-proclaimed unexpected return, Doris reunited with four of the original Follies girls for the reopening of the New Amsterdam Theatre. Eaton recalls, almost sheepishly, that she was the only one still able to dance. From that day on, it seemed as if her return to the footlights would be permanent. She became a staple at charity events, and even played a brief role in Jim Carey’s Man on the Moon. She was both the subject of a photo book, Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies (HarperCollins 2006), as well as the author of her own, previously mentioned, autobiography, published in 2003.

Doris Travis Eaton’s last public appearance was on April 27, 2010. She was 106 years old, the last surviving Ziegfeld girl, and still managed to pull out a few kicks and shimmies at the annual Easter Bonnet Competition. The appearance occurred just over two weeks before she passed away due to an aneurysm on May 11, 2010. The following day, the lights on Broadway were dimmed in her memory. 

Doris Eaton Travis lives on through the legacy of one of Broadway’s most vibrant, entrancing eras, as well as through her legacy of passion, devotion, curiosity, and reinvention. She was an individual as bright, if not brighter, than the bombastic productions that made her famous.

Moira McAvoy is a junior at the University of Mary Washington, double-majoring in linguistics and English with a concentration in creative writing. The University of Mary Washington is home to the Kappa of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

Photos: Top left, Doris Eaton Travis at her graduation from the University of Oklahoma, 1992. Top right, Doris at Nils T. Granlund’s Hollywood Club in New York, 1932.