Janis Paige is one of the last surviving stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age. But as she revealed later on in life, the era wasn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Behind the dazzle of the stage lights, Paige suffered numerous hardships. From troublesome co-star rivalries and on-set injuries, this legendary actress’ journey to the grand old age of 100 has been anything but smooth.
Donna Mae Tjaden
Janis Paige was actually born Donna Mae Tjaden in the Washington city of Tacoma in 1922. Her earliest performances were with the Tacoma Opera Company; after finishing high school she bagged a job at the Hollywood Canteen, impressing servicemen with her dulcet tones. It was here that Paige was spotted by a Warner Bros scout, who subsequently offered her a contract worth $150 every week.
Art imitating life
In a case of art imitating life the circumstances in which Paige was discovered were reflected in one of her first movie roles. Yes, in 1944 the star appeared in Hollywood Canteen. Instead of playing a performer, though, Paige was cast as a messenger girl for Warner Bros. She actually adopted her more familiar moniker after making her first screen appearance opposite the likes of Esther Williams and Red Skelton in Bathing Beauty.
The MGM experience
Not that Paige’s new name was particularly high up the credits. In fact, she only had two lines in the entire movie. In 2016 the actress told The Miami Herald newspaper, “I had so little experience at MGM. I can only tell you that each studio in those days seemed to have a certain pattern as to the kind of movies they made.”
Warner Bros. move
Luckily, after moving to Warner Bros. Paige was able to showcase more of her talents. She explained, “They were far more diverse with me. I went from Hollywood Canteen into Of Human Bondage, for God’s sake. A more dramatic part you couldn’t have... They seemed to like me and I could sing, I could dance, but I could also act pretty well. Not great, but I did okay.”
Singing and dancing
That doesn’t mean that Paige turned her back entirely on singing and dancing with her new studio, though. For example, in 1946 she appeared in the hit David Butler musical The Time, the Place and the Girl. But her film career didn’t quite ascend to the heights that Paige had expected.
The Pajama Game
At the beginning of the 1950s Paige decided to take a hiatus from Hollywood to focus on work in nightclubs and on the Broadway stage, most notably starring in The Pajama Game with John Raitt. In 1957 she was snubbed in favor of Doris Day for the big-screen adaptation of the show. In fact, Paige was the only original cast member not to reprise her role.
Paige told The Miami Herald, “The truth of it is that the film was offered to Frank Sinatra... Then they sent the script to Doris. The word out was they wanted to use as many members of the original company as they could. So if Frank had accepted the role I would have done Babe. And if Frank turned it down and Doris took it then John Raitt would have done it, which is exactly what happened.”
The movie snub wasn’t the only hardship that Paige faced concerning The Pajama Game. While appearing on Broadway leading man Raitt accidentally gave the star poison oak following some gardening work. Paige was forced to take a three-week break from the show and baths filled with potassium which turned her skin a shade of purple.
But soon after, Paige’s luck began to change. After being headhunted at Los Angeles’ Cocoanut Grove by Arthur Freed, a producer for MGM Studios, the star returned to the screen. In fact, Paige was hailed as the standout in 1957’s Silk Stockings ahead of Cyd Charisse and the legendary Fred Astaire.
Speaking to The Miami Herald, Paige said she had to be persuaded to accept the role. Referring to her meeting with Freed, the star said, “It was my opening night and he put his hand over mine across the table and said, ‘I have a movie I want you to do.’ There was no audition or ‘We’re auditioning other people.’ No, he just gave it to me that day and told me I’d have a dance number with Fred Astaire.”
Paige went on to add, “I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Freed, I can’t dance with Fred Astaire, I’m not a dancer. And he said something so cute, he said, ‘Oh Janis, you know how studios are. You know how Metro is: you’ll be dancing by the time we’re through with you.’” And Freed proved to be right, although Paige still had to suffer for her art.
Yes, Paige was left bruised while filming the show-stopping set piece “Stereophonic Sound,” a parody of the era’s films in which she had to swing from a chandelier. Paige recalled, “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.”
Mastering the steps
Paige then revealed that the film’s leading man had helped to put her at ease. She reminisced, “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.” Luckily, Paige also had time on her side when it came to mastering the steps.
Paige said, “They would take an hour or two to light a set sometimes. It was nothing like it is today, where they don’t care whether you’re lit or not. I’m not speaking about everybody, but I’ve even seen my shadow in shots and they let it go by. It’s sloppy stuff to me. But they took time to have that quality that the studios demanded.”
Of course, Astaire wasn’t the only silver-screen legend with whom Paige worked during her heyday. She also co-starred with the lady who’d later take the role she originated in The Pajama Game, Doris Day. So was there any beef between the pair, as some reports have suggested? Well, Paige certainly hasn’t held any grudges, that’s for sure.
Referring to their time together on 1948’s Romance On the High Seas, Paige told The Miami Herald, “I thought she was great, like everybody else. She was so good, right off the bat. She had that fantastic voice and we had a fantastic score. “It’s Magic” came from that picture.”
Paige specifically refuted all talk that there was any rivalry between her and Day, too. She said, “I wasn’t jealous of anybody. I just felt like the luckiest kid in the world to be there. I never had those feelings. Trust me, I was too busy to worry about it.”
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies
In 1960 Paige once again shared the screen with her apparent foe. Yes, she and Day appeared together in the comedy movie Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. And once again Paige ended up stealing much of the limelight from her more famous co-star. By this point she had also tied the knot twice.
Paige first got hitched to Frank Martinelli, Jr. in 1947 before heading for the divorce courts four years later. Her second marriage to Arthur Stander in the mid-1950s lasted just 18 months. But it proved to be third time lucky: Paige was married to Ray Gilbert for 14 years until he passed away in 1976.
So what happened to Paige after the silver-screen era came to an end? Well, she returned to the Broadway stage, taking over from Angela Lansbury in the 1968 version of Mame. The star also became a regular of the TV variety show. And in the 1970s Paige appeared in numerous hit sitcoms such as All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Paige revealed that the former’s showrunner Norman Lear wrote the role of diner waitress Denise specifically for her. She added, “This is the way they were in those days. They tailored things for you. And he was right. He was dead right.” Unfortunately, Paige also had to deal with some rather cross fans of the sitcom as a result.
Yes, you may remember that Denise was the woman with whom Archie Bunker cheated on his wife Edith. Discussing the show’s disgruntled viewers the star said, “My God, they hated me. I had hate mail, ‘How dare you come between Archie and Edith? How dare you do this?’ And other people would write, ‘It’s about time he kissed somebody else, and I would have kissed you, too, if I had been there.’”
Luckily, Paige managed to weather the storm caused by her character’s extramarital kiss. Over the next two decades she became a regular of the daytime soap opera. You may well have seen her pop up in everything from General Hospital and Capitol to Santa Barbara. Sadly, Paige experienced a major setback in 2001 when she suffered major damage to her vocal cords.
On the advice of a pal Paige saw a singing teacher, only for her condition to get worse. The star said, “He literally took my voice away. I lost all my top voice. I couldn’t hold a pitch for a second. Finally, I couldn’t make a sound. He said that this will all come back. It didn’t.”
After attending Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s voice clinic in Nashville, Paige was informed that her vocal cords had skin hanging off them. She was also told to stay silent for at least 90 days. Thankfully the star managed to speak and sing again thanks to the help of Bruce Eckstut, another singing teacher.
In 2017 Paige appeared in publication The Hollywood Reporter when she paid tribute to Don Rickles. She said, “Each time a contemporary dies, a little part of me goes with them.” A half-century earlier Rickles had upset Paige with his signature brand of insult comedy. The star explained, “Unlike Frank Sinatra, who enjoyed Don’s gutsy and one-of-a-kind routines, I just felt hurt and mad as Hell.”
But Paige managed to put her differences with Rickles behind her. She said, “A year later I was starring in Las Vegas at The New Frontier Hotel. As I passed the casino I saw Don. I decided that this was as good a time as any to tell him how I felt. And he couldn’t have been sweeter or more apologetic.”
That same year Paige made headlines for damaging allegations she made against Alfred Bloomingdale in a guest column in The Hollywood Reporter. The actress claimed that back when she was in her early 20s, she’d been coerced into visiting the department-store heir’s apartment. According to Paige, she was then assaulted by Bloomingdale.
The year previously Paige had once again found herself in the news with her reaction to an Oscar ruling. Having failed to add a screen credit to her resume for ten years, the star was stripped of her right to cast her vote for the film industry’s most prestigious awards. Paige told newspaper the New York Post, “I don’t agree with it, but I see the point. It’s progress. At least I’ll still be an academy member.’’