American film, musical theatre, and television actress Janis Paige (b. Tacoma, WA, September 16, 1922) has a superb comic gift that has seen her through over six decades of entertaining. She is best known for her performances in The Pajama Game on Broadway, on tour, and on the Original Cast Album.
Donna Mae Tjaden began singing in local amateur competitions at the age of five. After graduating from high school, when she moved to Los Angeles to seek her fortune, she took the name Janis from a World War I entertainer and Paige after her grandmother’s maiden name. She got a job singing at the Hollywood Canteen, a gathering place for servicemen sponsored by Warner Brothers. A talent scout picked her out (her measurements, reportedly, were 37 1/2–25–37) to play a beach bunny in an Esther Williams movie (Bathing Beauty 1944) and soon she was co-starring in a film about the Canteen itself (Hollywood Canteen 1944), playing a Warner Brothers messenger girl.
Though her film career began auspiciously – she had a significant part in Of Human Bondage in 1946 – she soon found herself in a long string of B-musicals, paired with Dennis Morgan, Jack Carson, or both. Or else she was asked to play the dame in rugged adventure dramas. After Two Gals and a Guy in 1951, she had had enough of Hollywood.
Paige was first seen on Broadway with Jackie Cooper in a mystery-comedy, Remains to Be Seen (1951), that enjoyed moderate success. She also toured extensively as a cabaret singer, from New York to Miami, and from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Her greatest triumph was to come in 1954, playing Babe Williams in The Pajama Game, winner of the 1955 Tony Award® for Best Musical, and co-starring one of Broadway’s greatest baritones, John Raitt (“Hey There”). (Raitt, incidentally, once gave Paige a terrible case of poison ivy on stage after clearing brush at his country place. She had to miss three weeks of performances, as she had turned purple from potassium treatments.) Janis Paige did not play Babe in the film version of The Pajama Game; the role went to Doris Day, who was considered a surer box-office draw.
Paige returned to Hollywood in 1957, stealing the show from Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse with her send-up on Esther Williams (shades of Bathing Beauty!) in Silk Stockings, and in 1960 sharing the screen in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies with her Warner Brothers rival Doris Day. Two more film comedies followed (Bachelor in Paradise 1961, Follow the Boys 1963) before she tackled the more serious and challenging role of Marion in The Caretakers (1963), a hooker in a mental institution. Paige was to make two more movies, Welcome to Hard Times (1967) and Natural Causes (1994), interspersed among her many later engagements in musical and non-musical theatre.
In 1963 Janis Paige returned to Broadway in a successful run of Here’s Love, and in 1968 she took over the title role in the long-running hit musical Mame. She later appeared on national tours and in summer stock playing Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, Margo Channing in Applause, Mama Rose in Gypsy and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. In 1984 she was back on Broadway in a non-musical play, Alone Together.
Janis Paige had begun to break into television in the mid-1950s with “Playhouse” episodes (Lux Video Theatre, Philip Morris Playhouse, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars) and with her own series, It’s Always Jan (1955–1956). She was a frequent guest on shows like the Dinah Shore Chevy Show (1961), Wagon Train (1961), The Dick Powell Show (1963), Burke’s Law (1964), The Fugitive (1964), Red Skelton (1959–1967), Columbo (1972), and Mannix (1973). Another series of her own, Lanigan’s Rabbi (1977), survived only four episodes, but she continued to guest for the next two decades (All In the Family 1976–1978, Fantasy Island 1978–1983, Happy Days 1981, Bret Maverick 1981, Matt Houston 1983, Trapper John, M.D. 1985, Caroline in the City 1997, Family Law 2001). On daytime TV, she had recurring roles in General Hospital (1989), and Santa Barbara (1992).
The last and longest-lasting of Janis Paige’s three marriages was to Disney composer Ray Gilbert, author of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Gilbert died in 1976, leaving Paige in charge of his Ipanema Music Company. She serves as an alternate board member of the Songwriters Guild of America.