A Celebration Of Ziegfeld And Broadway Cares’ Doris Eaton Travis


A publicity still of a teenage Follies girl
Doris performs at The 19th Annual EASTER BONNET Competition
A publicity still of a teenage Follies girl
Doris performs at
The 19th Annual EASTER BONNET Competition

On Tuesday, May 11, 2010, longtime friend to the theatre community and Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS, Doris Eaton Travis, passed away at the age of 106. Doris was one of the legendary Ziegfeld Follies Girls, having performed in three incarnations of The Ziegfeld Follies in 1918, 1919 and 1920, and going on to a long career in show business.

The Ziegfeld Girl takes a bow Doris in a silent picture in the 1920s A Ziegfeld publicity shot with Babe Ruth Doris at New York’s Hollywood Club in 1932
The Ziegfeld Girl takes a bow
Doris in a silent picture
in the 1920s
A Ziegfeld publicity shot
with Babe Ruth
Doris at New York’s Hollywood Club in 1932

Since 1998, Doris has been a BC/EFA audience favorite, appearing in 12 editions of The Annual EASTER BONNET Competition. Making her EASTER BONNET debut, Doris walked on stage and shared the spotlight with four other original Ziegfeld Girls, Nona Otero Friedman, Yvonne Arden Hyde, Eleanor Dana O’Connell and Lucile Layton Zinman. Doris then stepped out of the line of Ziegfeld Girls and thrilled the EASTER BONNET audience as she recreated a dance she had performed 79 years prior on that very stage in the Follies of 1919, “Mandy.”

Joe Eaton, Jr., Doris’ nephew recalls, “She was thrilled when first invited by Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS to participate in the opening number of the first EASTER BONNET Competition at the New Amsterdam Theatre where she had appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies over 70 years before.”

Tom Viola, executive director of BC/EFA, shares, “Doris Eaton Travis was beloved at Broadway Cares.  Since first meeting her in 1998 at the very young age of 94 when she appeared at the 12th edition of The EASTER BONNET Competition through the 24th edition which was held two weeks ago, no matter her age when the stage lights hit Doris, she was instantly and forever young.”

Doris presenting the cast of Chicago’s Bonnet, 2002
Doris presenting the cast of Chicago’s Bonnet, 2002


“Whether leading 30 Broadway dancers in a conga, playing sassy in a tux with the Cagelles, celebrating her 100th birthday on the New Amsterdam stage where she first appeared at the age of 16, teaching Sutton Foster “the Black Bottom,” or showing the young ballerinas from Billy Elliot the “Ballin’ the Jack” – a number she had introduced in 1921, Doris was simply a delight.”

Joe Eaton explains, “From 1998 to 2010, she only missed it in 2007. It became the highlight of her life.  She adored dancing with the young dancers, seeing new shows and the incredible response from the Easter Bonnet audience and Broadway community. Life came full circle for her again and again and she said each year how much she loved everyone at BC/EFA for making it possible. Just this past weekend, she was talking about what she wanted to do next year. I know she’ll be there in spirit. Even from heaven, she wouldn’t miss it.”

Doris’s career with the Ziegfeld Follies coincided with some of the best years of this annual musical revue. During that time, she shared the stage with Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Marilyn Miller and Bert Williams, one of the first black performers to headline in an integrated cast.

At 14, Doris won a spot in the Follies of 1918. During her involvement with BC/EFA she explained, “I was a chorus girl. In 1919, I was a ‘special girl,’ and the third year (1920) I was a principal.” That year, her roles included understudying headliner Marilyn Miller.

Doris was very fond of another headliner, comic Fanny Brice. “Fanny became a family friend. Fanny and my sister Pearl became good friends and they both had daughters about the same age, who became friends,” she explained, adding, “Later, in California, they had houses next to each other.”

Throughout the 1920s, Doris continued to have success as a featured and supporting player, enjoying a long Broadway run in the comedy Excess Baggage (1927).  In films, she played an ingénue to serial queen Pearl White (best known for The Perils of Pauline) in the 1923’s The Broadway Peacock, made a film in England (which included location work in Egypt) and appeared in two early talkies in 1929, Street Girl and The Very Idea. Doris also holds the distinction of introducing the now classic song “Singin’ in the Rain” in The Hollywood Music Box Revue of 1929.

Mary Eaton & Doris Doris & sisters
Mary Eaton (left) and little sister Doris
Doris (right) with dancing sisters Pearl (left) and Mary (center)

Theatrical success was a family affair and in 1924, four Eatons (Doris, Pearl, Charlie and Mary) were appearing on Broadway simultaneously. Charlie created the role of Andy Hardy in the comedy hit Skidding (1928), while Mary was a headliner, singing and singular dancing as the title character in the 1927 smash The Five O’Clock Girl. Also a Follies dancer, Pearl Eaton went on to become a respected choreographer, working on countless RKO musicals during the early days of talking pictures, 1929-31.

The careers of all four Eatons stalled in the early 1930s, but after her last Broadway role in 1934’s Merrily We Roll Along, Doris reinvented herself as a dance instructor. In 1938, while in New York looking for a job, a friend whose son was studying at The Arthur Murray Dance Studio mentioned that there were more requests for tap dancing lessons than instructors could handle, so she applied.

Arriving at the studio without an appointment, she encountered the man himself, who was standing behind the receptionist. After a brief interview, Murray hired the unemployed dancer and told her to start the next day. Soon, her tap dance card was full with a solid roster of students, but she developed a curiosity about the finer aspects of social dancing.

During this period, the social dance teacher who had taken Doris on as a partner asked her to join him in opening the first Arthur Murray branch studio. Doris joined her new partner and his wife in their broken down Ford, drove to Detroit and opened a studio at the Statler Hotel. A few years later, the couple moved to California and Doris took over the Michigan franchise.

At one point, Doris had 18 Arthur Murray Studios throughout the state of Michigan. Her brothers Charlie and Joe joined her in Michigan, both becoming Arthur Murray dance teachers. During the 1940s and 50s, Doris and Charlie went to Cuba on a number of occasions to study with the best instructors. The studio in Detroit quickly became the best Latin Dance School in the country. Arthur Murray would send instructors to Doris’s studios from all over the country to learn more about the Rumba. She also traveled to Argentina to master the authentic tango, and Brazil to learn the Samba.

During the late 1940s, Doris married entrepreneur Paul Travis who shared her love for dancing. The owner of five mills that made specialty parts for the automotive industry, Travis developed a keen interest in horses and eventually the couple bought a ranch in Norman, Oklahoma, moving there to live year-round in 1970 where she and her late husband would breed and raise champion quarter horses for more than 20 years together.

Rosie O’Donnell and Doris perform “Let Me Entertain You” at The 16th Annual EASTER BONNET Competition, 2002 BC/EFA surprises Doris with a cake to celebrate her 100th Birthday at The 18th Annual EASTER BONNET Competition, 2004
Rosie O’Donnell and Doris perform “Let Me Entertain You”
at The 16th Annual EASTER BONNET Competition, 2002
BC/EFA surprises Doris by celebrating her 100th birthday
at The 18th Annual EASTER BONNET Competition, 2004

Around this time, retirement age for most, Doris enrolled in a high-school equivalency program, followed by the University of Oklahoma. In 1992, at 88, she became the school’s oldest graduate, completing her bachelor’s degree with a 3.6 GPA, earning Phi Beta Kappa membership.

Through the years, Doris kept very busy, managing Travis Ranch and, until recently, dancing three to four times a week with her dancer partner, Bill, who was also her chef. A few months after he’d been with Doris, she passed the kitchen and noticed him doing a few fancy steps and as she explained, “I started teaching him in the afternoon. I taught Bill a great deal of the social dances – foxtrot, rumba and swing and it gave me a chance to practice.”

Two books have been written about Doris’s life. Century Girl (2006), by New York Times contributor Lauren Redness, is a fascinating, graphic-novel style look at this survivor’s 10-plus decades, featuring illustrations, archival photos and quotes culled from a series of interviews.

With assistance from friend J.R. Morris, Doris, along with her brother Charles and nephew Joseph, produced The Days We Danced: the Story of My Theatrical Family(2003), an honest look at the large Eaton family’s exciting and sometimes tragic careers and personal struggles, from child performers to Broadway headliners in the 1920s and beyond.

Even in the last decade, over 100 years of age, Doris remained very active. Ziegfeld Club Administrator Nils Hanson remembers, “When she was in town for Easter Bonnet (in 2008), we had a dinner for 20 people at Chez Josephine. She was table hopping the whole night; she didn’t want to overlook anyone.”

Doris always credited her healthy longevity to work, exercise and education.  She would say, “Keep your mind active. I’m learning all the time and I’ve done that all my life.”


Doris and Eboni Edwards in The 23rd Annual EASTER BONNET Competition Doris in her final EASTER BONNET appearance, April 27, 2010
Doris and Eboni Edwards in
The 23rd Annual EASTER BONNET Competition
Doris in her final EASTER BONNET appearance, April 27, 2010

“What people don’t realize,” explains Scott Stevens, her closest friend at BC/EFA, “is that each year, Doris would arrive into town with an endless amount of energy – that of someone half her age, which I just happen to be. I could barely keep up with her.  But more than her unbelievable enthusiasm and work ethic, Doris was truly loving.  She included me in all her activities while in town and truly made me feel like I was a part of her family, just as we all felt she was a part of ours.”

On Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at exactly 8:00 PM, the marquees of Broadway theatres in New York were dimmed in her memory at exactly 8:00pm for one minute.

“Broadway loved her,” Viola explains, “giving her a standing ovation just two weeks ago that I know she took to heart and I’m certain she has taken with her.”

“Doris taught us all a little bit about how to celebrate the past and live for today. We will miss her forever.”

Doris Eaton Travis
March 14, 1904 – May 11, 2010
106 Years Young