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Janis Paige, star of Hollywood and Broadway, dies at 101

Bob Hope and Janis Paige (AP Photo, File)
Bob Hope and Janis Paige (AP Photo, File)

Janis Paige, a popular actor in Hollywood and in Broadway musicals and comedies, who danced with Fred Astaire, toured with Bob Hope and continued to perform into her 80s, has died at the age of 101.

Paige died on Sunday of natural causes at her Los Angeles home, long-time friend Stuart Lampert said on Monday.

Paige starred on Broadway with Jackie Cooper in mystery comedy Remains To Be Seen, and appeared with John Raitt in smash hit musical The Pajama Game.

Her other films included Hope comedy Bachelor In Paradise, Doris Day comedy Please Don’t Eat The Daisies and Follow The Boys.

In 2018, she added her voice to the MeToo movement, alleging an assault when she was 22 by the late department store heir Alfred Bloomingdale.

“I could feel his hands, not only on my breasts, but seemingly everywhere. He was big and strong, and I began to fight, kick, bite and scream,” she wrote. “At 95, time is not on my side, and neither is silence. I simply want to add my name and say, ‘Me too’.”

Paige’s big break came in wartime when she sang an operatic aria for servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen. MGM hired her a day later for a brief role in Bathing Beauty — she spoke two lines in the film, which starred Esther Williams and Red Skelton — then dropped her.

The same day, Warner Bros signed her and cast her in a dramatic segment of the all-star movie Hollywood Canteen.

Her contract started at 150 dollars a week. “I earned more per week than my mother had made in a month during the Great Depression,” she recalled in the Hollywood Reporter in 2018.

Her salary rose to 1,000 dollars weekly as the studio kept her busy in lightweight films such as Two Guys From Milwaukee, The Time, The Place And The Girl, Love And Learn, Always Together, Wallflower and Romance On The High Seas, which was Doris Day’s film debut.

Meanwhile, Paige had changed her name from Donna May Tjaden, adopting her grandfather’s name of Paige. She took her first name from Elsie Janis, famed for entertaining troops in the First World War.

Paige’s contract expired in 1949, at a time when studios were unloading talent because of the inroads of television. “That was a jolt,” she said in 1963. “It meant I was washed up at 25.”

She took her talents to Broadway, where she starred in Remains To Be Seen (her role would be snatched by June Allyson for the screen adaptation), and starred as Babe opposite Raitt as Sid in the original production of The Pajama Game, directed in 1954 by George Abbott. Doris Day took her role in the film version.

MGM producer Arthur Freed caught her nightclub act at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and offered her a part opposite Astaire in Silk Stockings, also co-starring Cyd Charisse. The film is famous for her and Astaire spoofing new-fangled movie gimmicks in the Cole Porter number Stereophonic Sound, including swinging from a chandelier.

“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,” she told the Miami Herald in 2016.

In May 2003, Paige resumed entertaining after a long absence. She opened a show she called The Third Act at San Francisco’s Plush Room, telling stories about Astaire, Frank Sinatra and others and singing tunes from her films and stage musicals.

Paige grew up in Tacoma, Washington. Her father deserted the family when she was four and her mother eked out a living at the Bank of Tacoma.

“We always had enough to eat,” Paige told the Saturday Evening Post in 1963, “but nothing to spare. My mother worked so hard. And she used to keep saying that she wished I’d been born a boy, so I could help out more. I always wanted to be a success for her, to make up for my father.”

After leaving Warner Bros, she turned to TV, starring in a 1955-1956 TV series, It’s Always Jan, and playing recurring roles in Flamingo Road, Santa Barbara, Eight Is Enough, Capitol, Fantasy Island and Trapper Jon MD. On All In The Family, she played a diner waitress who becomes involved with Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker.

Paige replaced Angela Lansbury in the New York production of Mame in 1968 on Broadway and toured with the show in 1969. She also toured in Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun, Born Yesterday and The Desk Set. Her last time on Broadway was in 1984’s Alone Together.

She also supplied glamour for Hope’s Christmas visits to Cuba and the Caribbean in 1960, Japan and South Korea in 1962, and Vietnam in 1964. She sang in clubs with Sammy Davis Jr, Alan King, Dinah Shore and Perry Como.

She had two brief marriages, to San Francisco restaurateur Frank Martinelli and writer-producer Arthur Stander.

In 1962 she married songwriter Ray Gilbert, who won an Oscar for the song Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Da from Disney’s Song Of The South. He died in 1976, and she assumed management of his music company.