Doris Eaton Travis literally danced her way through a remarkable 106-year-long life. Doris was born into a family of performers on March 14, 1904 and began taking dancing lessons at the age of four. At the age of five, she made her stage debut along with her brothers and sisters. Doris and her siblings worked steadily in theater throughout the 1910s. When Doris was 14, her sister, Pearl, was working as a Ziegfeld Girl. One day, Doris went to one of Pearl’s rehearsals and was given a job in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918. She began rehearsing for the Ziegfeld Follies on the last day of eighth grade and had to perform under pseudonyms to avoid problems with child labor laws. Doris was a Ziegfeld Girl from 1918 through 1920. In 1921, she went to Hollywood and made her film debut in At the Stage Door and went on to make 11 movies from 1921 until 1933. In addition to films, she also performed in five Broadway shows and in some shows in Hollywood. Most notably, she debuted the song Singin’ in the Rain while performing in the Hollywood Music Box Revue.
Work for Doris started to dry up during the Great Depression. In 1936, she was hired by the Arthur Murray Dance Studios in New York as a tap dance instructor. Eventually, she moved to Michigan, where she opened eighteen Arthur Murray Dance Studios throughout the state. In 1938, she met her future husband, Paul Travis, who was a student of hers. They married eleven years later and were married for over 50 years. Doris continued to operate her dance schools for 32 years and also wrote a column about dance for the Detroit News and spent seven years hosting a local television show.
When Doris retired in 1968, she and her husband moved to Oklahoma and opened a ranch, which she managed until 2008. Doris never quit dancing, though. When she built her house in Oklahoma, she insisted the foyers be large enough to dance in and would dance in them nightly. There’s even a video of her dancing to celebrate her 101st birthday:
Since she had abandoned her schooling to focus on her dance career, Doris went to college in the 1980s and graduated cum laude from the University of Oklahoma in 1992 when she was 88 years old. When she was 100 years old, she was given an honorary doctorate from Oakland University in Michigan. In 1997, Doris’ career made something of a comeback when she appeared with four other former Ziegfeld Girls to celebrate the re-opening of the New Amsterdam Theater in New York, the very theater where she made her Ziegfeld Girl debut in 1918. She was the only one still able to dance. Nearly every year after that, she returned to the stage of the New Amsterdam Theater to be a part of the Easter Bonnet Competition, a benefit put on by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. She also appeared in the movie Man in the Moon with Jim Carrey in 1999 and published an autobiography, The Days We Danced, in 2003.
Doris was active until the very end. She made her final public appearance on April 27, 2010 at the Easter Bonnet Competition. In a statement, her nephew Joe Eaton, Jr. said, “She adored dancing with the young dancers, seeing new shows and the incredible response from the Easter Bonnet audience and Broadway community.”
Doris died on May 11, 2010 at the age of 106 in Commerce, Michigan. She attributed her long life to dancing and not drinking. Tom Viola, director of Broadway Cares, commented, “When the stage lights hit Doris, she was instantly and forever young.” The lights on Broadway will be dimmed in her honor on May 12, 2010.
The death of Doris Eaton Travis truly is the end of an era. Not only was she one of the last stars of the silent film era, she was the very last surviving Ziegfeld Girl. She was the last link to the era of the legendary Ziegfeld Follies. In remembrance of that fact, I have decided to do a series of reviews of movies that pay tribute to the great Ziegfeld, so stay tuned.
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