by Ruby Comer
Doris Eaton Travis
“C’mon, Seabiscuit” I shout as the horse under me gallops at full throttle, poking fun at the legendary thoroughbred immortalized in two movies. Riding a horse, at least the four-legged kind, is not my normal mode of transit so the thrill zaps me into a race at the Kentucky Derby—such an incurable drama queen I am. Anyhow, my old college buddy, Ralph Clifford, owns several horses and stables them here at the Travis Ranch in Oklahoma. Trotting back to the barn, Ralph introduces me to Doris Eaton Travis, the owner of the ranch.
I recalled having heard something about this gal a year ago when I was in New York. Come to find out, one hundred years young, Doris has quite a history. A former Ziegfeld dancer and soloist, at fourteen she performed with the likes of such early superstars as Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, and Fanny Brice. She went on to Broadway to star with Al Jolson, and then wowed Hollywood in several films. In one, she introduced the song, “Singin’ in the Rain.” In her early thirties, she ventured into another career, dance instructor, and eventually opened nineteen Arthur Murray dance studios. She met her husband, Paul Travis, and in time, hung up her dancing shoes to assist him in breeding and racing quarter horses in Oklahoma. In 1992, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in history. Recently, Doris began her fourth career as a writer, launching her book, The Days We Danced (Marquand Books).
In 1998, she made Broadway history by appearing at The New Amsterdam Theatre (Disney’s restoration project) after an eighty year hiatus and tap danced in a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (she returns every year to perform for the organization). Rosie O’Donnell caught her act and invited her on to her show several times. Doris has also appeared on 20/20, The Today Show, and had a role in the Jim Carrey movie Man on the Moon.
Amidst luscious Bermuda grass pastures, Doris and I lean against a charming weathered barn, and shoot the breeze in this lulling afternoon with a chorus of neighing horses in the background.
You look fabulous! Did you ever think you’d live to be a hundred?
I never thought about it. I just go day by day, and prepare for the next.
Do you have a secret to longevity?
Not thinking about limitation, and keeping busy, my mind active. I always have a goal. Ya know, like Alice in Wonderland she kept running as fast as she could just to stay where she was? Well, that’s what I do.
Are you a healthy girl?
Yes, I am. I don’t take any medicine. I’m a Christian Scientist, Ruby.
Do you ever consult doctors?
You do what you need to do according to your understanding. If I broke my arm I would go to a doctor to fix it. But the little things that come along I manage to handle very well. I haven’t seen a doctor for many, many years.
We need to listen our bodies…
No, not listen to the body; listen to the mind. That’s what is directing you.
Did you lead a healthy life?
I never drank or smoke. I tried it very early on, it was all around me, but it never appealed to me.
Yes, during the “roaring twenties,” when you were in the Ziegfeld Follies that was the way to go. Not indulging was a smart move on your part. Are you into all this low-fat, low-carb foodstyle?
No, I eat anything that I want to eat.
For six years now you have danced your heart into the AIDS community by appearing in Broadway Cares’ Easter Bonnet AIDS benefit.
It is a joy. A couple years ago, Rosie O’Donnell danced the Charleston with me. Then last year, I taught the Black Bottom to Sutton Foster from the cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie. What fun! Then this year, at the end of my number they surprised me with a huge birthday cake layered with electric bulbs.
How wonderful. You’re quite a woman, Doris. I know over the past several years you’ve lost family members, your brother and your husband. How do you deal with the grief?
That’s hard to say. It’s very heavy sometimes. I keep it to myself; no need to make others feel unhappy. I bottle [it] up in my heart and work with it.
It never goes away, does it?
No, it doesn’t. I still think about my parents, and my siblings who’ve died. [There were seven Eaton kids: one died from drug and alcohol abuse, one was found murdered, and one died from an overdose of pills. There is one remaining brother, Charley, ninety-three, who lives with Doris.]
Doris, what happens after we die?
I believe that our true life is spiritual and what we seem to feel or see around us is a material illusion.
But if you get back to the real spiritual sense of things you can see that spirit and matter are two entirely different things. So which is the reality? Which is infinite? We see the destruction and termination of matter everyday. But spirit goes on. We can’t see it with our mortal eyes but we can feel it inwardly. So I do the very best I can here with this human life, and try to spiritualize my thoughts daily. I express it as much as I can and let God unfold day by day: my health, my strength, and His purpose for me.
So when we die, what happens?
We don’t know. And the Bible tells us that too.
I guess we just have to keep the faith. Knowing that we are well taken care of.
Yes, you bet. We are told in the beginning that we are God’s image, and if you are an image of something you can never be separated from it.
That sets my mind at ease. Anything else you’d like to say, Doris?
I pray for the world a little bit everyday that they realize we can overcome many things that seem to be very real to us here. But we have to put forth the individual effort to do that; no one can do it for us. Once we seek our spiritual selfhood, and understand it, we can overcome anything.
Tap into what we already have—and use it!
Exactly. Jesus said, “Ye know not what stuff ye is made of.”