Doris Eaton Travis, The Last Ziegfeld Follies Girl, Has Died

by SUSANNAH LONG · May 13, 2010

The Washington Post reports that Doris Eaton Travis, the last living Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl and one of only three surviving adult stars of the silent film era, died May 11 at age 106.

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The Washington native started out in front of the footlights early, touring as a child star with her siblings. At the tender age of 14, she caught the eye of a producer and became the youngest chorus girl ever to be hired by  Ziegfeld Follies. (However, as the late Ms. Travis frequently lied about her age at the time in order to avoid child labor laws, it's unlikely that the producer who spotted her realized he was making history . . . or that his interest in her beauty was super, super inappropriate.) Let’s pause to refresh your memory of the Follies, which ran on Broadway from 1907 to 1931.

Doris Eaton Travis's time with the Follies predates this 1929 reel by about a decade, but the style is similar.

Ms. Travis proved to be exactly the kind of American Girl that Florenz Ziegfeld intended to “glorify” with the help of silky costumes and glittering rhinestones. Beginning in 1918, she spent three years with the act and filled a wide variety of specialty dance roles, both elegant and eccentric: she was paprika in a “salad” of women ensemble members, though she later graduated to salt and then pepper.

Sheet music covers for the year Ms. Travis joined the Follies.

Less gastronomic roles followed her departure from the Follies: she appeared in a handful of moderately successful silent films and stage productions, and is credited with introducing the song “Singin’ in the Rain” in the 1929 Hollywood Music Box Revue on Broadway.

A recent photograph of the ever-collected Doris Eaton Travis with her younger self.

Ms. Travis’s love life was more tumultuous than her career, however. Rescued from an abusive first marriage to a much older theater producer by his early death, she went on to conduct a lengthy affair with the Nacio Herb Brown, the writer of “Singin’ in the Rain.” But it was third time’s the charm with her ballroom pupil Paul Travis, a doorjamb inventor to whom she was married for 51 years.

Even with her stage career waning, the former hoofer continued to live an interesting life. She taught ballroom dance in New York, worked as a television personality in Detroit, became a prominent horse breeder in Oklahoma, and earned her bachelor’s degree at age 88. By her own estimation, Ms. Travis didn’t miss her time in the limelight. “With me, it was just a job,” she said of her feelings for the stage. “I never had stars in my eyes about the theater.” Still, she continued to perform even after the century mark. This footage of the great lady tap-dancing was made when she was 101:

And in April, a mere month before her death, Doris Eaton Travis appeared at a Broadway AIDS benefit, dancing with the help of two shirtless gentlemen.

A slideshow of rare vintage images of Ms. Travis can be found HERE.