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The 'Seven Little Eatons'

Ziegfeld Follies dancer chronicles the ups and downs of one family's life during the golden age of Broadway.
/ Source: TODAY

At age 14, Doris Eaton was the youngest performer in the Ziegfeld Follies, appearing with such legends as Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, and Marilyn Miller. With two sisters and two brothers also appearing in the Follies in the years between 1918 and 1923, the Eatons became a well-known Broadway family.

Beginning their careers in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area, the "Seven Little Eatons" became seasoned performers, working the stock-company circuit before arriving in New York City and being caught up in the golden age of Broadway. Doris and her two sisters, Pearl and Mary, became popular dancers, and throughout the twenties they were never out of work. Doris was the first Eaton to go to Hollywood, and there in 1929 she introduced the song "Singing in the Rain" in the Hollywood Music Box Review. Later, Doris left show business and went on to great success building a chain of eighteen Arthur Murray studios in Michigan, which she owned and operated for thirty years.

"The Days We Danced" introduces readers to the successes and poignant sorrows of the Eaton family, including alcoholism, professional failures, early death, and even a tragic murder. Here's an excerpt:

While Pearl’s association with Ziegfeld would last for five years, she never became a principal in the Follies. Pearl could never light up the stage in the way Mary could. She was an excellent dancer with good showmanship and wonderful comedic ability. But she was a better ensemble dancer than a solo performer. She danced for two years in Ziegfeld’s Nine O’Clock Revue, a nightclub act on the garden roof of the New Amsterdam Theater, which was not continued after 1919. Her longest Ziegfeld association (through 1922) was with the popular Midnight Frolics, which was also on the New Amsterdam Roof. The Frolics were a little racier, the costumes more revealing and the humor a good deal less inhibited than the Follies. The same stars were typically involved, particularly the comedians, such as W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, and Fanny Brice. It was a good showcase for Pearl’s dancing as well as her dance direction. The Frolics had two shows a night. Initially, the cover charge was $2 for the first show and $3 for the second show. (The latter was raised to $5 in a few years.) The food served on the New Amsterdam Roof had the reputation of being the best of any New York nightclub. By any cabaret standards, the shows were lavish productions. The Frolics’ principals (who were Follies’ stars) received $700 per week, and the chorus girls averaged between $50 and $75. Pearl received $75 initially and then later was increased to $125, as her responsibilities increased. For one of the shows, she taught Will Rogers a little dance routine, which he worked very hard to perfect. No one had ever seen him dance like that before, and when he performed the routine the first time, he stopped the show. Pearl loved Will Rogers and called him the nicest and most generous man in show business.

One day during the preparation of the 1918 Follies for its road trip, Pearl asked me if I wanted to go with her to a rehearsal. Mama said that I could, and so I asked Mary whether I could wear one of her long dresses. At fourteen, I was still wearing my dresses at the knee, while the style for women was to wear them halfway between the knee and the ankle. Mary loaned me a dress, and I really dressed up for the occasion, makeup and all, and off we went. While Pearl and I were sitting on a bench during a break in the rehearsal, Ned Wayburn – a tall, rotund figure with little, round, thick-lensed glasses and a jaunty golf cap on his head – came over to where we were sitting. It was hard to imagine Wayburn as a dancer, because he was quite obese, but he could still move with grace and style. I noticed him eyeing me intensely, and he asked Pearl who I was. When he learned that I was Pearl’s sister, he said, shaking his head in bewilderment, “I can’t believe it. She looks enough like my wife to be her twin sister.” Then he asked Pearl, “Can she dance?” And Pearl told him, “Yes, she can dance very well.” So he asked me – right then and there – if I would like to join the cast of the Follies for the road show, and of course I said yes. However, Pearl told Mr. Wayburn that I was only fourteen years old and that Mama would not want me to go. Mr. Wayburn came back with, “You tell your mother she can travel with Doris just like one of the members of the company. We will pay her travel expenses. I would like for Doris to understudy Ann Pennington.” So after consultation with Mama and her family, we accepted the offer. The next day was Friday, the last day of summer school, completing the eighth grade. I came home at noon, put on Mary’s dress again, gathered some practice clothes, went to the Amsterdam Theater, and began rehearsing with the other “new” chorus girls – and I was in the Ziegfeld Follies.

At fourteen, I was the youngest girl in the Follies, but no one asked any more questions about my age, and I didn’t volunteer any information. Because the Gerry Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children would not allow children under sixteen to perform in musical productions, I simply became sixteen overnight and changed my name to Doris Levant, taking Pearl’s married name. (The following year, I changed it to Lucille Levant to make it different from that of Pearl’s daughter, Doris. When I was sixteen, I changed back to my actual name.)

So Mama and I went on the road with the summer Follies. The road show was a four-month deal, with a month in Chicago; a week in each of several other major cities, like Kansas City, St. Louis, and Cleveland; and always two weeks in Philadelphia. As Mr. Wayburn promised, I became understudy to the star Ann Pennington. Ann – whose nickname was Tiny because she was so petite – had been in several Follies, but this one would be her last for a while. She left to dance in George White’s Scandals, in which she starred for several years before returning to the Follies in 1923. I never went on for her in that road tour of 1918, although I came very close once, even had her costume on, when she came rushing in late, and I had to make a very quick change.

The road company was an elaborate logistical affair. We had two railway cars – one for the company and another for all the scenery and costumes. There was a kind of informal class system on board, with the big name stars usually being in a group by themselves. As the newest kid, traveling with my mother, I never engaged in any give-and-take with the established cast. But that summer and fall was a great experience for me, and I gained important confidence on the stage. I knew I could hold my own with the other dancers, even attracting some flattering comments from critics and other cast members. In Chicago, the critic Ashton Stevens wrote, “Mine eyes are yet dim with the luminous elfin beauty of a little girl named Doris Levant.” How about that!

I was thrilled to be rehired for the 1919 Follies. Mr. Ziegfeld, himself, hired me. To me, that particular Follies was his greatest Follies of all – not because I was in the show, but because of the great cast and memorable music. The cast included Eddie Cantor, Billie Dove, DeLyle Alda, Johnny Dooley, Ray Dooley, Van and Schenck, Bert Williams, and Eddie Dowling. The music was by Victor Herbert and Irving Berlin. That year, Irving Berlin wrote the never-to-be-forgotten “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.” It was sung by the tenor John Steel and has become the signature song for the name Ziegfeld Follies.

That was the year Marilyn Miller took over as Ziegfeld’s singing and dancing star. She was sensational, and she became the apple of Ziegfeld’s eye for the next few years. She received great notices in New York, and when we played Chicago, one critic said of Marilyn, “[She] danced and whirred like a beauteous slim pink hummingbird.” I was thrilled when I was made her understudy, and there were two occasions when I went on for her when we were on the road.

Excerpted from The Days We Danced: The Story of My Theatrical Family from Florenz Ziegfeld to Arthur Murray and Beyond by Doris Eaton Travis with Joseph and Charles Eaton as told to J.R. Morris. Copyright © 2004 by Doris Eaton Travis and Joseph and Charles Eaton. Published by All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permisson of the publisher.