Keeping it hip at 97 years old

With a glitzy purple and silver crown elegantly tipped back over white curls, Ethel Travis was the queen beet Monday night.

From Chicago to New York, Tucson, Ariz., to Newport Beach, the 97-year-old traveling socialite and philanthropist, former ballerina, fashion buyer and artist could have celebrated her birthday just about anywhere.

Instead, she chose the Blue Beet on the Balboa Peninsula.

When venue owner Steve Lewis asked Travis what she wanted the band to play, she replied: "Play me something hip." She was hinting at her energy and passion for life, qualities her friends say she exudes everywhere she goes.

"I don't feel like I'm 97," Travis said with a laugh while accepting a hug and birthday card from one of the many friends who came to celebrate the night with her.

Although she moved to Newport Beach from Tucson six years ago, a full room of people, ranging from a teenager to guests in their 90s, gathered Monday night.

The historic jazz and rock 'n' roll joint was an apt choice for Travis' birthday. The original structure dates back 100 years, just a few years older than the birthday girl.

"She's always the life of the party everywhere she goes," said friend Missy Lawless. "People just want to be around her. She has more energy than I do."

Last year, Travis celebrated her 96th birthday sitting at the bar at AnQi, an upscale Asian fusion restaurant in South Coast Plaza.

"She wanted to go to the trendiest place she could, where there was going to be around a lot of young people," said Suzie Mann, Travis' friend and physical therapist. "She was so poised and fun to be with; she's just a really cool girl."

Mann leads Travis in gyrotonics, a fitness system developed to help dancers strengthen their limbs and improve balance and coordination.

Other clients also attended the party. Dan McGurk, 96, who had been in a wheelchair before taking up gyrotonics, said Travis is a role model.

"She's my hero," McGurk said.

Many who attended the party agreed, including son-in-law Jeff Schuster.

"Her secret is just being excited to have something to do every day," he said. "She has so many things to look forward to. I've known her for about 30 years, and that's 30 years' worth of vibrant stories."

For Travis, the formula for a long, full life rich with friends is not quantifiable by possessions, vacations or other luxuries.

"I'm the kind of person who always wants to do better," Travis said. "I follow my heart — that's the secret."

Twitter: @speters01

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