Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dona Drake Travilla - 1944

In 1944, Travilla met and married starlet Dona Drake, who at the time was more famous than he was having been in the entertainment industry for eleven years under several different names.

She first started as Eunice Westmoreland, born on November 5, 1914 to Joseph and Novella (Smith) Westmoreland in Jacksonville Florida. Jacksonville was a major port on the East Coast shipping lanes and due to it's balmy weather, a vacation destination for Northerners seeking to escape the cold winters. From 1907 until 1918, it also thirty permanent film studios. Known as "The Winter Film Capital of the World" and where Oliver Hardy got his start and until politicians, plus other factors forced the film makers to California, was a leading industry in the city.

Jacksonville Florida 1911
Life was good for majority of Jacksonville's residents, but not all. Nearly fifty years after the Civil War, segregation was the norm in the South, with Jacksonville considered more south Georgia than north Florida. Jim Crow reigned supreme. Negros were treated as second-class citizens -- forced to live near the St. John's River Industrial area or across from the city horse-drawn street car barns. They were allowed to shop at the one or two "Blacks only" retail shops and grocery stores and attend the all-Black schools.

This affected Eunice for although she claimed Latin heritage throughout her personal and professional career, the Westmoreland were Negroes - referred to as such in both 1920 and 1930 census records. Both parents were interchangeably referred to as negro and mulatto in the 1910, 1920 and 1930 censuses. It was her maternal grandmother, Cordia Ann (Smith) Morrel, who was white. She was born and lived her entire life near Chambers Alabama, never traveling more than a few miles from home. She died in 1919 at the age of 44. Her occupation was listed as housekeeper.

By 1930, Eunice's family has relocated to Philadelphia with her father working in a chili parlor and her older brother enrolled in college. Eunice helped at the restaurant, but soon quit to pursue her life long dream of singing and dancing. By 1933 she had moved to New York City with her mother and another waitress named Rene Villion.

Una and Rene Villion
Changing her name to Una, she and Rene formed a "sister act" and the pair found work at the Paradise Club on Broadway. Earl Carroll spotted her on stage one night and cast her in his production of Murder at The Vanities. When that ended, the girls toured until Rene left to get married and Una continued solo, performing in packaged tours headed by Rudy Vallee and Harry Richman.

Returning to New York City, Una began dating a local Brooklyn mobster named "Pretty" Amburg. In October of 1934, Amburg's nude body was found in the trunk of a burning car. At the time, Una was in Hollywood, with a new name, Rita Rio, and filming her first movie, Strike Me Pink with Eddie Cantor.

Rita came back to New York and got a a job at the N.T.Grantlund Hollywood Restaurant. Filling in for the owner one night, Rita did so well as the mistress of ceremonies that she was given the position full-time. And when someone came up with the idea of forming a girl's band as an advertising promotion, Rita was the natural choice as it's conductor. And what started out as a gimmick, turned into a very successful career.

Returning to New York from California in January 1935. 
Rita Rio and her NBC All-Girl Orchestra comprised of twelve talented young women gathered from around the world, including several from University Sororities and a few from Europe. After a three-month stint on the NBC Radio Network, the group began a nationwide bus tour performing it's "fine dance rhythms and its entertaining specialties and clever singing and dancing numbers of Rita Rio."

Promotional fan advertising shoe polish from Drake's personal collection.
Possibly signed by fellow cast member "Snow Ball". 

Beginning at Atlantic City's famed Steel Pier, then opposite Kay Kyser in Chicago, Rita and her band criss-crossed the United States performing in cities both large and small before finding themselves in Hollywood. The girls filmed a series of musical shorts called "soundies", which were the original MTV videos created for theaters.

Though the material is rather hokey, Rita's talents are blatantly obvious performing such songs as "Feed the Kitty" and a duet with then unknown actor Alan Ladd. She also appeared in very small roles in three films before in early 1940 again taking the act on the road with actresses Marie Wilson and Toby Wing, plus Earl Carroll Vanities Girl Faith Bacon joining the "all-girl", "all-glamour" Hollywood "Oomph" with Rita Rio, the "Mistress of Modern Melody" and her Rhythm in Scales" Review. they again traveled across the United States, making numerous appearances for the Infantile Paralysis Fund and Tuberculosis campaign. By the summer of 1940, Rio had disbanded her group in order to concentrate her energy on a new career as a film actress.

Rita appeared solo in the 1940 Universal Pictures musical featurette "Honolulu Bound." 
By the time Rita returned to Hollywood she was Rita Novella (her mother's first name), then later becomes Rita Shaw when she screen tested twice for Paramount's Aloma of the South Seas, as Dorothy Lamour's sarong-wearing best friend. Lamour knew Rita from New York City and recommended her to the film's producer, Buddy De Silva. Upon signing her to contract, the studio changes her name to Dona (pronounced as in "Don' ya want a drink?) Drake and begins the big publicity build-up for it's newest starlet.

Newspaper articles and mentions in the gossip columns soon spread her photograph and statistics across the country. According to Paramount, she was twenty years old (in reality Rita was twenty-six), five feet tall, weighed ninety pounds, had blue-green eyes, chestnut hair. Her ethnicity was revealed to be half-Mexican and a quarter each Irish and French.

Dona was now a member of a group of mixed race beauties whose skin tones and facial features allowed to "pass" for white. Fredi Washington in 1934's Imitation of Life and singer/actress Lena Horne were charter members, Dona would have to deny her family heritage to succeed in the entertainment industry. The studios knew the public wouldn't accept an attractive black actress, no matter how talented, in any role but that of a servant or comedic side-kick. Certainly not as the romantic lead opposite a white actor, even Hollywood knew the rest of the country paid it's salaries.

In Swing Shift “All-Girl” bands of the 1940s Sherrie Tucker, Trumpet player Jean Sager, a part of Rio's band revealed both of Rio's parents had known black ancestry, yet Rio's “Spanish” persona enabled her to lead one of the most famous white all-girl bands of the 1930s and to be booked by the powerful DRA Consolidated Radio Artists agency on white entertainment circuits in both the North and South. She achieved this new identity by changing her name, adopting a new wardrobe, using “La Cucaracha” as her theme song, and perhaps emphasizing selected strands of her ethnic and cultural background that were part of her identify as a multiracial woman. Passing did have its obvious advantages, but it also had heartbreaking ones as well – Sager recalled "On at one occasion, in order to enter the New York City hotel at which the band was staying, Rio's mother had to pass as her maid.”

From a January 1942 LIFE Magazine layout.
After Aloma, Dona appeared in Louisiana Purchase which showcased her musical talents. Then in the 1942 Bob Hope/Bing Crosby classic Road to Morocco. along with numerous appearances in the many of the Hollywood gossip columns published across the nations thanks to the studio's publicity build-up. Drake performed in Hollywood nite-clubs between film assignments, as well as helping the War effort by appearing on the covers of such publications as Yank and The Army Weekly.

She was also named by Alpha Epslon Pi of Georgia's Emory College as "the girl they'd like to have in the back seat of a car, without gas and no ration book." In 1943, after only two more film appearances and soon after a column blurb of Drake writing and starring in a film about an all-girls orchestra, Paramount dropped her contract in the summer and Dona found herself a free-agent in a company town. But that didn't bother her as "It was wonderful at first. I thought I was on my way to becoming a film actress. But you can't make a screen career out of combing Lamour's hair or chasing Bob Hope in one picture after another. When I would this out to Mr. De Sylva, who was always very nice to me, he would tell me just to be patient, that my turn was coming."

As for the rumblings that Dona was not an actress she simply stated "Of course I'm not an actress. but other studios thought I was worth borrowing for god parts and made offer for me, all of which Paramount turned down. You know perfectly well that you don't have to be an actress to go over in pictures. Among girls my age, how many are there on the screen who can act? The secret of of screen success is largely a matter of a good part and a good director. He's the guy who holds your fate in his hands. Even Bette Davis can go sour without a good director, while one who knows his business can make most any average girl look as if she really had talent."

June 2 1944 columns report of Drakes signing with Angelus Pictures. Having started the career of Linda Darnell only to discover she wasn't signed long term, Dona's contract stipulated that she will have a starring role at least once a year for four years. It could have been just publicity for one or both for it was a only a few weeks later that she was at Monogram Pictures filming Hot Rhythm.

Drake's good friend, actress Joan Blondell introduced her to Travilla the first week of August. 

Blondell's inscription"Thanks Bill, for the best looking clothes I've ever had. Continued success always, Joan Blondell." possibly refers to a previous relationship, or the actress' gratitude for her personal wardrobe.

It was a very quick romance as ten days later on August 19, 1944, they married at Santa Monica City Hall. The bride was dressed in a plaid cotton shirt, a pair of Levis, a bandanna headdress, with an orchid corsage supplied by her fiance.

Newspapers didn't report the nuptials until a month later. Perhaps by marrying under one of her other monikers, she was able to keep the press from finding out.

(L to R) Travilla, Dona, Joan Blondel and her mystery date clown around at an
unknown Hollywood nightclub probably late 1944.
Dona's true family heritage had been very well hidden for years, but there was still the fear that some relative could come out of the woodwork and cause trouble. Interracial marriage was not only frowned upon, but illegal in most of the United States at the time, and even "liberal" Hollywood could not escape the clutches of bigotry and ignorance.

Another ethnic role with John Wayne in "Without Reservations" (1946.)

Dona's health interfered with her film roles July 31, 1946 papers reported "An attack of yellow jaundice Wednesday put starlet Dona Drake in a hospital and out her next assignment. Miss Drake collapsed in the arms of Actor Kent Taylor after finishing the last scene of Dangerous Millions and was rushed to a hospital. Doctors said she would be unable to start work in her next movie. They termed her condition “satisfactory.”

Two designs by Travilla for Dona in "Dangerous Millions" (1946.)
Though Travilla joked that "my wife turned down a $5000 a week contract in Las Vegas because now she had a husband to support her."*, Dona continued her career, through the marriage. Travilla could be referring to the $3000 per week she was offered to appear at the Chez Paree night club in Chicago. October 20, 1947 gossip columns reported rather than possibly suffer a relapse with a grueling performance schedule,

Dona decided to stay closer to home and accepted one of the leads opposite Henry Morgan in “This is New York.” Produced by Stanley Kramer for Enterprise. During the filming Drake gave co-star Leo Gorcey her cold which kept him off the set and in bed for three days. His first love scene in 55 films and this occurs according to Jimmy Fiedler. November 8, 1947.

Definitely the more famous of the pair, Dona's name usually led the mentions in the press with "Dona Drake and William Travilla seen dining at..." or "Dainty Dona "The Girl from Jones Beach" Drake has had to give up clearing her hillside homesite of poison oak, to which, for some strange reason, she is not allergic at all. But her husband, Designer Billy Travilla is. He had to hide his face in bandages for two weeks after Dona kissed him on the forehead and patted him on the cheeks."

Dona told columnist Erskin Johnson in 1948 on how to combine marriage with a career. "I only work inn a couple of movies a year and don't worry about my career. There are enough nervous people running around the studios. I don't want to bring any of it home to my husband." Interesting quote as they were both now working at Warner Brothers.

Though photos were shot for publicity purposes, Travilla's contributions to Jones Beach went un-credited.
Travilla and Dona at home working a costume for her role in 1948's "The Girl From Jones Beach,"
Another Travilla design from 1946 reused on Dona in "Jones Beach."
Also revealed to Travilla was that Dona suffered from a mild form of epilepsy and later surfaced emotional difficulties that Travilla later described diplomatically "She was one of those actresses who found it hard to come home and step out of the character she'd been playing all day."

After three films in previous year, 1950 found Dona co-starring in Fortunes of Captains Blood and portrayed one of several lovers of 1951's Valentino.

On-set costume photo from Beyond the Forest (1949.)
Joy came into the couples life, when daughter Nia Novella was born in August 1951, three days before the couples seventh wedding anniversary. Even with a daughter, Dona continued to work, appearing in several films including Princess of the Nile, for which her husband designed her costumes,

She also worked in television with an episode of Superman and Soldier of Fortune. Her last role before retiring completely was The Lone Wolf.

With an unidentified friend in 1959.
The couple separated in 1956, but never divorced. Travilla moved out, but returned for extended periods of time, or at least kept up the appearance as the press reported on the loving family with both he and Dona appearing on an episode of Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life. 

In a 1960 article, Drake the menagerie of animals they'd collected from Travilla's many trips abroad stating "Wish I'd studied veterinary medicine as a kid. He started bringing back birds from his Mexican alligator hunts and soon filled two aviaries with about 100 finches, cockatoos and fantails. I finally begged him to collect the kind of birds that don't lay eggs. And he got the hint." Dona continued. "We also had four turtles and a succession of ocelots and a rhesus monkey when I said enough. Now there's only an old alley cat named Tom, a poodle named Tequila and another monkey, Mike at Travilla's office."

Dona appeared in many of Travilla's fashion shows as the perfect example of Travilla's skill at designing for women of all shapes and sizes, but her emotional problems had gotten to the point, that by 1967, she sent Nia to live with her father. The late seventies saw her health begin to falter and after one final appearance as herself at the 1986 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, on June 20, 1989, Dona D. Travilla passed away at 74 from pneumonia and respiratory failure.

1 comment:

  1. wow. super interesting. she's a minor part of my third book. #amwriting.