Doris Eaton Travis, the last of the "Ziegfeld girls", has died at 106. People toss around the term "end of an era," but rarely is it so apt:
Between 1907 and 1930, showman Flo Ziegfeld's "follies" epitomized Broadway glitz. The shows contained comedy and variety, but were known for one constant: the comely, extravagantly-costumed "Ziegfeld girls." As The New York Times describes them in Travis' obituary, "Beneath towering, glittering, feathered headdresses, the Ziegfeld Girls floated across grand Broadway stages in lavish pageants known as the Ziegfeld Follies, often to the wistful tune that Irving Berlin wrote just for them: "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody."
Travis, in addition to being the oldest Ziegfeld girl, may also have been amongst the youngest: she lied about her age and began performing at 14. "Doris began as a chorus girl and understudy to the show's star. In 1919, she wore a red costume and played the paprika part in the salad dance. In 1920, she had a solo, a jazzy tap dance." After the follies, she performed in various venues and claims to have originated "Singin' in the Rain." During the Depression, she taught at an Arthur Murray school and was reduced to taxi-dancing. Later, she married and, with her husband, raised quarter-horses in Oklahoma. In her 70s, she earned first a high school diploma and later a college degree, graduating Phi Beta Kappa at 88. But she never gave up performing completely:
In 2007, Oakland University in Michigan gave Mrs. Travis an honorary doctorate. She responded by singing and dancing "Ballin' the Jack," a song popularized by Lillian Lorraine, a renowned Ziegfeld Follies' star. A little more than two weeks ago Mrs. Travis returned to Broadway to appear again at the annual Easter Bonnet Competition held by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, this time at the Minskoff Theater. She did a few kicks, apologizing that she no longer performed cartwheels.
The "Follies" have been the source of nostalgia for years - think Sondheim''s 1971 musical - but it's only now that the era can truly be said to have ended. It's not just about the glam - what Travis, in an interview, termed "beauty and elegance like a French painting of a woman's body" - but the hard-boiled grit of these career performers. Like the late June Havoc, Travis was born into show-business and knew no other life. It was a tough one. And these were tough ladies. It may be a cliche, but seriously: they don't make 'em like that anymore.
Still Kicking Up Her Heels on 42nd Street [New York Times]
Doris E. Travis, Last Of The Ziegfeld Girls, Dies At 106 [New York Times]
A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody - THE GREAT ZIEGFELD [Daily Motion]