Dona Drake

Dona Drake (born Eunice Westmoreland; November 15, 1914 – June 20, 1989) was an American singer, dancer and film actress in the 1930s and 1940s. Of three-quarters black heritage, she presented herself as Mexican and went by the names Una Novella[2] and Rita Novella, typically being cast in "ethnic" roles including Hispanics and Middle Easterners, though occasionally took the role of white characters.[3] As Mexican "Rita Rio", she led a touring all-girl orchestra in the early 1940s,[4] also known as "Dona Drake and her Girl Band",[5] among other names for her musical and dance acts.

Dona Drake
Born
Eunice Westmoreland

(1914-11-15)November 15, 1914
Miami, Florida, U.S.
DiedJune 20, 1989(1989-06-20) (aged 74)
Other namesUna Novella
Rita Novella
Rita Rio
Una Velon (or Una Villon)
Rita Shaw[1]
OccupationActress, singer, dancer
Years active1933–1977
Spouse(s)William Travilla (m.1944)
ChildrenNia Novella Travilla (1951–2002)

Early life

Drake was born Eunice Westmoreland in Miami, Florida[6] in 1914, one of five children of Joseph Westmoreland and his wife, Novella (née Smith).[7] U.S. Census reports on her family history show her grandparents were one black couple and one couple that was black/white.[8]

Career

Entering show business in the 1930s, she used the names Una Velon (or Una Villon),[6][9] Rita Rio and Rita Shaw.[1]

Una Villon

She began performing in 1932, working under the name Una Villon as a chorus girl and in nightclubs.[6] As Una Villon, she appeared in Earl Carroll's Vanities in 1933, prompting Paul Harrison to write in a review printed in The Indiana Gazette: "Most noteworthy newcomer is Miss Una Villon who sings, dances and looks like a 16-year-old incarnation of Ann Pennington. Only a couple of days before the premiere she was hired away from a Broadway night club and already has proved her right to a place in the big-time spotlight."[9]

In 1934, columnist Walter Winchell wrote about her performance in a night club: "Una Villon's torso shifting serves to synchronize the tempos instead of Berren's directing — this young lady directs the tooters with her wiggling."[10]

Rita Rio and Rita Shaw

She began using the name Rita Rio in 1935, when she was featured at the Paradise cabaret on Broadway. Besides singing and dancing, she sometimes played piano, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and drums and occasionally led the orchestra.[2] In 1936, she and another woman formed an orchestra. After the group had financial problems in 1940, she went to Hollywood, where she had screen tests using the name Rita Shaw.[11]

She settled on the stage name Dona Drake in the early 1940s. Studio publicity during her heyday incorrectly stated that Drake was of Mexican origin and was born Rita Novella (borrowing her mother's first name as a new last).[12]

Her striking, angular features and dark curly hair led her to being cast as an ethnic character, such as a Latina, Middle Easterner, Native American, or Gypsy. She is perhaps best known for playing the Native American maid of Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest. She also appeared as an Arab girl opposite Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in Road to Morocco in 1942. In 1944 she appeared as a lead role as a big band singer in a B-movie titled Hot Rhythm,[13] which also featured Irene Ryan (Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies) as a ditsy secretary.

Drake had a notable "non-ethnic", non-musical role as the second female lead in the 1949 comedy The Girl from Jones Beach,[3] playing opposite Eddie Bracken. The year before, she gave a memorable comic performance as the fortune-hunting sister in So This Is New York.

In the early 1940s, Drake toured the United States with an all-girl orchestra called "The Girl Friends",[14] which included fellow Hollywood actresses Marie Wilson, Toby Wing, and Faith Bacon.

Personal life

In 1936, Drake was questioned by the FBI about the murder of her then-boyfriend and known mobster, Louis Amberg. She claimed to only know him as "Mr. Cohen" and had no idea what he did for a living.[6]

Drake married Oscar and Emmy award-winning fashion designer William Travilla[15] on August 19, 1944. They had one daughter, Nia (August 16, 1951 – October 1, 2002), and remained a couple until her death.[7] Travilla appeared on the March 24, 1960, episode of You Bet Your Life, hosted by Groucho Marx, and introduced his elegantly dressed wife to the audience.[16]

Drake died of pneumonia and respiratory failure in Los Angeles, California on June 20, 1989, at the age of 74. She was cremated and her ashes scattered at sea.[17]

Filmography

Film and television
Year Title Role Notes
1935 Moonlight and Melody Rita Short, credited as Rita Rio
1936 Strike Me Pink Mademoiselle Fifi credited as Rita Rio
1938 Sweet Shoe Rita Rio Short, credited as Rita Rio
1938 Beautiful, But Dummies Model Short, credited as Rita Ray
1939 Gals and Gallons Orchestra Leader credited as Rita Rio
1939 Rita Rio and Her Orchestra Rita Rio Short, played self in this 10-minute short[18]
1941 Fresh as a Freshman Chicquita Short
1941 Aloma of the South Seas Nea first film credit as Dona Drake[12]
1941 Louisiana Purchase Beatrice
1941 I Look at You Rita Rio Short, With Alan Ladd.
1942 Road to Morocco Mihirmah credited as Dona Drake
1942 Star Spangled Rhythm Herself performs song "On the Swing Shift" with Marjorie Reynolds and Betty Jane Rhodes
1943 Salute for Three Dona Drake and Her Girl Band credited as Dona Drake
1943 Let's Face It Muriel
1944 Hot Rhythm Mary Adams
1946 Without Reservations Dolores Ortega
1946 Dangerous Millions Elena Valdez
1948 Another Part of the Forest Laurette Sincee
1948 So This Is New York Kate Goff
1949 The Doolins of Oklahoma Cattle Annie
1949 The Girl from Jones Beach Connie Martin
1949 Beyond the Forest Jenny
1950 Fortunes of Captain Blood Pepita Maria Rosados
1951 Valentino Maria Torres
1952 Kansas City Confidential Teresa
1953 The Bandits of Corsica Zelda
1953 Son of Belle Starr Dolores
1953 Down Laredo Way Narita
1953 Adventures of Superman Joyce Episode 35: "The Dog Who Knew Superman" 9th episode of 1953; aired 14 November
1954 Superman Flies Again Joyce theatrical re-release of 3 episodes of the television series included episode 35[19][20]
1954 Princess of the Nile Mirva
1954 The Lone Wolf Lee Episode: "Deadline"
1954 City Detective Francesca Episode: "The Gift Shop"
1955 Soldiers of Fortune Cheu Episode: "The Runaway King"

References

  1. Dona Drake on IMDb
  2. Lowrance, Dee (September 13, 1942). "Triple Threat Trio From the Torrid Zone". The Montana Standard. Montana, Butte. Every Week Magazine. p. 28. Retrieved August 13, 2016 via Newspapers.com.
  3. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041415
  4. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0127596
  5. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036327
  6. Wagner, Laura (Spring 2015). "Dona Drake: "Mexican" Tornado". Films of the Golden Age (80): 68–69.
  7. "Dona Drake - The Private Life and Times of Dona Drake. Dona Drake Pictures". Archived from the original on August 1, 2015. Retrieved 2014-05-01.
  8. http://www.glamourgirlsofthesilverscreen.com/show/76/Dona+Drake/index.html
  9. Harrison, Paul (September 28, 1933). "There's Murder in the Airs at Carroll's New "Vanities"". The Indiana Gazette. Pennsylvania, Indiana. p. 13. Retrieved August 13, 2016 via Newspapers.com.
  10. Winchell, Walter (May 24, 1934). "Walter Winchell". The Scranton Republican. Pennsylvania, Scranton. p. 13.
  11. Harrison, Paul (July 4, 1941). "This Little Drake No Ugly Duckling". The Sandusky Register. Ohio, Sandusky. Newspaper Enterprise Association. p. 4.
  12. "Dona Drake - The Private Life and Times of Dona Drake. Dona Drake Pictures". Archived from the original on 2015-08-01. Retrieved 2010-10-16.
  13. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036928
  14. "Dona Drake IMDb Biography". Retrieved 2014-05-01.
  15. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0871359/bio
  16. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZbufa1lsdQ
  17. "Find a Grave: Dona Drake". Retrieved 2014-05-01.
  18. Rita Rio and Her Orchestra on IMDb
  19. "Superman Flies Again > Cast - AllMovie". Retrieved 2010-10-16.
  20. Superman Flies Again (1954) on IMDb
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