Hollywood Reporter

‘Silk Stockings,’ ‘Pajama Game’ Star Was 101 Fsalinks

Janis Paige, the ebullient redhead who starred in the original Broadway production of The Pajama Game and in such Hollywood musicals as Silk Stockings and Romance on the High Seas, has died. She was 101.

Paige, who was discovered in the 1940s while performing at the legendary Hollywood Canteen, died Sunday of natural causes at her home in Los Angeles, her friend Stuart Lampert announced.

Paige starred on her own network sitcom, playing a widowed nightclub singer struggling to raise her 10-year-old daughter, on the 1955-56 CBS series It’s Always Jan, and she had recurring roles as Dick van Patten’s free-spirited sister on ABC’s Eight Is Enough and as a hospital administrator on CBS’ Trapper John, M.D.

The actress also turned in two memorable guest-starring stints in 1976, playing an attractive diner waitress named Denise who tempts Archie (Carroll O’Connor) to cheat on Edith (Jean Stapleton) on All in the Family and a former flame of Lou’s (Edward Asner) on The Mary Tyler Moore show.

In 1968, Paige replaced Angela Lansbury in Mame on Broadway and performed as the title character for nearly two years.

After spending six years working on the stage and in television, Paige returned to the big screen to star alongside Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in Silk Stockings (1957), an adaptation of a stage musical that had Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka at its roots.

She and Astaire teamed for the Cole Porter song-and-dance number “Stereophonic Sound” that culminates with the duo swinging on a chandelier above the heads of some reporters.

Doing Silk Stockings “was hard work, believe me,” Paige said in a 2016 interview. “I was one mass of bruises. I didn’t know how to fall. I didn’t know how to get down on a table — I didn’t know how to save myself because I was never a classic dancer. Those are the tips you learn when you learn how to dance.

“Fred never knew it, but he was so great. He would come in in the morning and say, ‘I have a great idea for a step. You think you can do this?’ I never said no to him. I wouldn’t dare say no to Fred Astaire. Especially when we did the end of it, when you have to catch the chandelier and swing out over all those people. He showed me and said, ‘You think you can do that?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I can do that.’ Not knowing if I was going to fall on my face or not. I didn’t.”

In The Pajama Game, Paige portrayed Katherine “Babe” Williams, a garment worker at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory and the leader of the plant’s Union Grievance Committee. She falls for new superintendent Sid Sorokin (John Raitt, father of singer Bonnie Raitt) despite the fact he’s her adversary in the labor dispute.

The musical premiered at the St. James Theatre in May 1954, ran for more than 1,000 performances over 15 months and won the Tony Award for best musical.

“We were the happiest bunch of people you ever saw in your life,” she said in 1990, “because everybody said we were going to be a flop. A show about a pajama factory? And we were a smash. It was a special time — it will never come again.”

Raitt went on to appear in the 1957 big-screen version of The Pajama Game at Warner Bros., but Paige’s role was filled by Doris Day.

A few years earlier, Day, in her movie debut, had stepped for Paige in Romance on the High Seas (1948). In the screwball musical comedy, Paige’s socialite character hires a singer (Day) to take her place on a cruise so she can spy on her cheating husband (Don DeFore). Meanwhile, Day and a detective (Jack Carson) fall in love on the boat.

Paige and Day would work together again in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960).

Paige’s third and last husband was Ray Gilbert, who won an Oscar for writing the lyrics to the best song winner “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Disney’s now-shelved Song of the South (1946).

Janis Paige with Fred Astaire in 1957’s ‘Silk Stockings.’

Courtesy Everett Collection

Born Donna Mae Tjaden in Tacoma, Washington, on Sept. 16, 1992, Paige moved to Los Angeles with her sister after graduating from Stadium High School and was hired to sing at the Hollywood Canteen, the club on Cahuenga Boulevard that was set up by the studios to entertain military personnel during World War II.

MGM and then Warner Bros. signed her, and in 1944 she made her big-screen bow in Bathing Beauty, starring Esther Williams, Red Skelton and Basil Rathbone, and played a studio messenger in the Hollywood Canteen movie.

In 1946, Paige landed her first leading role, as a nightclub singer in Her Kind of Man, and appeared opposite Carson — they would make eight movies together — in Two Guys From Milwaukee and The Time, the Place and the Girl.

She starred in Cheyenne (1947), directed by Raoul Walsh, played opposite Bette Davis in Winter Meeting (1948) and had prominent parts in One Sunday Afternoon (1948), The House Across the Street (1949), Fugitive Lady (1950), Mister Universe (1951) and Two Gals and a Guy (1951).

After Warner Bros. released her, Paige headed to Broadway and starred with Jackie Cooper in the 1951 crime comedy Remains to Be Seen, but June Allyson played her part in the 1953 MGM version.

Later, she portrayed Bob Hope’s love-starved married neighbor in Bachelor in Paradise (1961) and a prostitute in Joan Crawford’s The Caretakers (1963).

Her TV résumé also included Wagon Train, Burke’s Law, The Fugitive, Mannix, The Rockford Files, Happy Days, Too Close for Comfort, Caroline in the City and the soap operas Capitol, Santa Barbara and General Hospital.

She was a real trouper on Hope’s USO tours and in 1956 released an album, Let’s Fall in Love. And in 2020, she published Reading Between the Lines: A Memoir.

Paige donated to Emerson College her papers and filmed episodes of It’s Always Jan; videos of film, TV, and live musical performances; scripts; musical scores; photographs and other memorabilia from her career. She received fan mail and requests for photographs and autographs from all over the world.

Paige was married to restaurateur Frank Martinelli Jr. from 1947-51; to Arthur Stander, who wrote and produced It’s Always Jan, from 1956-57; and to Gilbert from 1962 until his death after open-heart surgery in 1976. 

She inherited from Gilbert his Ipanema Music Corp., which he founded with Brazilian musician Antonio Carlos Jobim and many of the songs they wrote.

Angela Lansbury,Broadway,Fred Astaire,Obituaries

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