Biographical / Historical
Costume designer Michael Travis was born Louis Torakis to a Detroit Greek-American family in 1928. While serving in the postwar United States Army he was stationed in Paris. Upon his discharge in1949 he remained in the city to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Sorbonne on the GI Bill. Also studying haute couture, he met the designers Jacques Fath and Pierre Balmain and occasionally provided sketches for their collections.
Travis left Paris to seek work in New York and was hired at Eaves Costume Company. The company had been founded in 1863 and was the premier costumer for Broadway productions. He was hired as a secretary (his army employment) but became an assistant to the designers. With the owner's encouragement, he passed the exam for the costumers union and became a member of the Designers Guild. This made him eligible to design for Broadway shows and union films.
Travis became an assistant at Brooks Costume Company where he worked with famous Broadway and Hollywood designers such as Raul Pene du Bois and Irene Sharaff. This would lead to his designing the costumes for Ionesco's play
, starring Zero Mostel. The director of the play then hired Travis for a series of Public Television theater productions. Following these, he became the designer for two television programs featuring operatic and theatrical stars,
The Voice of Firestone
The Bell Telephone Hour
Beginning in 1958, Travis worked on the Motion Picture Acadmey of Arts and Sciences (MPAAS) Academy Awards, the Oscars, for eight years as assistant to well-known costume designer Edith Head. She persuaded him to move from New York to Los Angeles in the mid 1960s and he was hired to design for
The Steve Lawrence Show
, produced by George Schlatter. Travis and Schlatter became close friends and when Schlatter produced the ground-breaking comedy-variety show
, Travis was hired as costume designer. The show ran for six seasons, 1968-1973, and required as many as 300 costumes per episode for a large cast, numerous guest stars, and the corps of dancers. He was nominated for an Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS) award, the Emmy, and more importantly, met and worked with a great many of the musical, film, and theatrical stars of the time. When the show ended in 1973 he was himself a star in his field. Travis was now able to concentrate on his clientele of musical performers and groups. These included The Supremes, The Temptations, The 5th Dimension, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and solo artists Dionne Warwick, Connie Stevens, Nancy Sinatra, John Denver, Wayne Newton and many others. He also acquired his most extravagant client, Liberace, when the flamboyant pianist's designer retired in 1973.
Frank Ortiz had designed an elaborately beaded and decorated jacket for Liberace as early as 1959 and, with other designers, continued to design elaborate costumes for him throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Following this tradition, Travis was encouraged by Liberace to create the most fabulous, beautiful, and exquisitely crafted suits, vests, boots, and capes possible. The costumes were made using the finest fabrics, embroideries, crystals, sequins, feathers and furs—even lights! Anna Nateece, Liberace's longtime furrier, continued to supply his furs. One of these ensembles was valued at $300,000 dollars and they could weigh over 100 pounds. They were objects of awe for his audiences and made a spectacular appearance with the pianos and automobiles in his stage show. One of Liberace's favorite sayings was "Too much of a good thing is wonderful!" Travis was able to demonstrate how right he was and continued as his designer and friend until the pianist died in 1987.
When Travis was in his forties he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The disease gradually disabled him to the point that walking was extremely difficult and eventually he became wheelchair-bound. After Liberace's death, he retired from his work but continued an active social life and traveled with his care-givers both within the United States and to European countries. In 2010 he received The Career Achievement in Television Award at the 12th Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards in Beverly Hills. His friends, George Schlatter and Nancy Sinatra, were with him at the ceremony. He died on May 1, 2014 at the age of 86.
by Connie Furr Soloman and Jan Jewett, HarperCollins 2013