The fascinating career of Dona Drake (Eunice Westmoreland, 1914-1989) is a story of resourceful subterfuge and a talent so great that no such misdirection should have been required at all. Drake was three-quarters African American, yet she generally gave out that she was of Mexican parentage in hopes that it would help her leverage white roles. Instead, she was more often cast as Latinas, Native Americans, Middle Easterners and the like, a move that proved to be almost lateral in terms of the size and frequency of her parts. In addition to “Dona Drake”, she also used the professional names Una Villon, Una Velon, Una Novella, Rita Novella, Rita Rio and Rita Shaw. Besides acting, she also sang, danced, played several musical instruments (piano, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone) and was a bandleader.
Born in Florida, she moved with her family as a child to Philadelphia, where she sang and played music in her father’s restaurant. By the time she was 18, she was performing in New York nightclubs and in chorus lines using the name Una Villon. She traveled with an edition of Earl Carroll’s Vanities, was compared to Ann Pennington, and was mentioned in Walter Winchell’s column.
As Rita Rio she performed at Broadway’s Paradise cabaret in 1935 and appeared in the Al Christie short Moonlight and Melody with Buster West and Tom Patricola. The following year she formed her own band Rita Rio and Her Rhythm Girls (also known as The Girlfriends) and had a show stopping number in Eddie Cantor’s Strike Me Pink called “The Lady Dances”. She subsequently performed (sometimes with the band) in the movie shorts Sweet Shoe (1938), Beautiful But Dummies (1938), Gals and Gallons (1939), Fresh as a Freshman (1941), and I Look at You (1941). In 1940 she toured with a special edition of her orchestra with the celebrity additions of Marie Wilson, Faith Bacon, and Toby Wing, to raise money for charity.
Through Dorothy Lamour’s advocacy she got a contract at Paramount and this landed her in the Lamour vehicle Aloma of the South Seas (1941), as well as Louisiana Purchase (1941) with Bob Hope, The Road to Morocco (1941) with Hope, Crosby and Lamour; and Let’s Face It (1943) with Hope and Betty Hutton. She got her first female lead in the Monogram film Hot Rhythm (1944). That year she also married costume designer William Travilla (an interesting figure in his own right — we’ll be doing a post about him in future).
Dangerous Millions (1946) was another B movie she starred in. But for the major studios she generally had smaller supporting parts, although she did break into serious dramas on occasion. She’s in Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest (1948), So This is New York (1948), The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949), The Girl from Jones Beach (1949, in which she got to play second female lead), Beyond the Forest (1949), and several other pictures through the mid-50s, along with television work on shows like Adventures of Superman and The Lone Wolf. Beset with health problems, after 1957 she separated from Travilla and concentrated on raising their daughter, who’d been born in 1951. She was 43 at the time of her withdrawal show business. Although, in 1960 she did appear with Travilla on You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx!
For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,