Today is the birthday of Mary Eaton (1901-1948), best remembered today as the ingenue in the Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts (1929) and as the sister of the “Last Ziegfeld Girl”, Doris Eaton Travis, who passed away in 2010. Mary and Doris weren’t the only performing Eatons; their sister Pearl and brothers Charles and Joseph were also stage folk. Another sister Evelyn was a professional stage manager. Like her siblings, Mary began as a child actor in the Washington DC area, working for the Poli stock company and acting in shows like Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird. An accomplished dancer, Mary made it to Broadway by 1916, appearing in the Shubert shows Follow Me (1916-1917), Over the Top (1917-1918), and The Passing Show of 1919. She next went on to the Ziegfeld Follies (four editions from 1920 to 1923), then Eddie Cantor’s Kid Boots (1923-1925), the lead role in Lucky (1927) and The Five O’Clock Girl (1927-1928).
In 1929, she hit her peak, with the part of Polly in the film of The Coconuts and Gloria in the Ziegfeld film Glorifying the American Girl.
After this auspicious beginning, however, Eaton’s career abruptly plummeted. The latter film, while an amazing record of its times, did not fare well at the box office in its own day. There were no more important parts in feature films for Mary Eaton after 1929. At the same time, the stock market crash killed opportunities in the theatre. In the early 1930s, she was quickly reduced to giving vaudeville performances on bills with moving pictures. By 1932, that work too had dried up. Alcohol too was a problem. It plagued several of the Eatons, as well as each of Mary’s three husbands. It killed Mary herself (cirrhosis of the liver) in 1948.
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.