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This Ziegfeld girl is alive and kicking

Doris Eaton Travis lied about her age to get the job. Now she's able to brag about being 102. Her partner calls her `an American treasure.'

September 01, 2006|Rochelle Hines | Associated Press

NORMAN, Okla. — Frank Sinatra croons in the background as Doris Eaton Travis and her dance partner glide across the floor, her silver shoes sparkling in the light that bounces from the studio's mirrors.

Suddenly, a funky Latin beat takes over at the Macias Dance Studio in Oklahoma City, and the dancers slide into a cha-cha.

After more than 90 years as a hoofer, dancing still comes easy to Travis, who was a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies, which enchanted Broadway from 1907 into the 1930s.

"I'm the last of the Ziegfeld Follies girls now," she says. "It's an honor in a way. I certainly didn't think that would happen."

Travis is 102, with a few wrinkles and white curly hair that frames her blue eyes. She credits her longevity to her ongoing love affair with dancing and other lifestyle choices -- "I didn't drink or smoke. I didn't abuse myself physically," she says.

Travis has survived not only physically and mentally but professionally as well, with annual appearances on Broadway, a small role in a Jim Carrey movie and her recent memoir, "The Days We Danced: The Story of My Theatrical Family From Florenz Ziegfeld to Arthur Murray and Beyond."

At her 400-acre ranch, about 10 miles northwest of the University of Oklahoma, Travis saunters around her 1970s rambler in a Southwest-inspired pantsuit and moccasins. She recalls details of the last 10 decades as if they happened yesterday.

Interest in the 5-foot-2 centenarian has piqued since a 1997 reunion with four other Ziegfeld Follies girls for the reopening of the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City, where she danced about 80 years earlier.

"I was the only one who could still dance," she says, chuckling.

That led to her annual involvement in the Broadway Cares/Actors 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.

"I played this woman who was supposed to be an actress who was no longer popular. I had to ride a stick horse and faint and then get resuscitated," Travis says, laughing as she does a fake gallop.

A year later, Travis found her latest dance partner through an ad for a personal chef. Bill George took on more responsibilities over the years, serving also as chauffeur, social coordinator, companion and friend.

"It's really odd because day to day you forget she's a celebrity," George, 48, says. "You don't think of it until you see her in a setting.... When she steps onto that stage to a sold-out house and people are on their feet screaming and applauding, then you realize it. That's when it's breathtaking. She's an American treasure."

Travis was born March 14, 1904, one of seven children to newspaper linotype operator Charles Eaton and his wife, Mary, in Norfolk, Va.

"All of the family developed dancing or some form of talent," Travis says of her artistically inclined clan.

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, D.C., in 1911. Travis and her sisters, Pearl and Mary, had only small roles, but it led to steady work in other local plays and lead roles when "Blue Bird" returned to Washington three years later.

But their lives drastically changed when the play -- and the family -- went on the road. That split the family, with the mother, three daughters and youngest son, Charlie, going to New York and the father remaining in Washington with the other three children.

By then, the Ziegfeld Follies had become an entertainment staple. Inspired by the Folies Bergere in Paris, Ziegfeld Follies was part Broadway show, part vaudeville, featuring top entertainers such as W.C. 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 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 lied to producers and said she was 16). She became a principal dancer in 1920. Travis recalls Ziegfeld as a "very nice and very pleasant" man who became a good friend to her family.

She turned to silent movies with "At the Stage Door" in 1921 and "The Broadway Peacock" and "Tell Your Children" in 1922. But she never really got into film. "I think I enjoyed musical theater much more than the movies," she says.

Travis' love of dancing and musical theater was shaken when the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Depression and the close of many theaters. She continued to do stock company productions and appeared in the chorus line of the movie "Whoopee!" with Cantor, but by the mid-1930s, work was hard to find.

"Show business is up and down, even without a depression," Travis says. "I was really quite desperate, and dancing was the only thing I knew."

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