Janis Paige, Star of Broadway’s ‘The Pajama Game,’ Is Dead at 101


Janis Paige, an entrancing singer, dancer and actress who starred in the original 1954 Broadway production of the hit musical “The Pajama Game,” died on Sunday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 101.

Her death was confirmed by a longtime friend of hers, Stuart Lampert.

Ms. Paige made her mark at 22 in the all-star 1944 film “Hollywood Canteen,” but exposure in a string of 17 movies over the next seven years left her with little more than a collection of minor beauty titles, like Miss Wingspread and Miss Naval Air Reserve. When she ran away to try the New York stage, however, it took her only three years to become the toast of Broadway.

She was cast as Babe Williams, the feisty, romance-resistant union leader in “The Pajama Game,” opposite John Raitt. The production — involving theater luminaries like George Abbott (book), Richard Adler (music) and Hal Prince (one of the producers) — won three Tony Awards in 1955: for best musical, best featured actress in a musical (Carol Haney) and best choreography (Bob Fosse).

When the show was adapted for a movie, the producers at the Warner Bros. studio decided that at least one big Hollywood name was needed. So while most of the New York cast, including Mr. Raitt, made the transition to film, Ms. Paige was replaced by Doris Day.

Broadway continued to be kind to Ms. Paige, with four other starring roles. Notably, she replaced the seemingly irreplaceable Angela Lansbury in “Mame” in 1968. Clive Barnes, reviewing her performance in The New York Times, wrote that Ms. Paige had made “an excellent job of it.”

“She is less of a character” than Ms. Lansbury, he continued, “but, as some compensation, perhaps more of a performer.”

Memorable supporting film roles came along. She played a none-too-bright American movie actress in the 1957 musical “Silk Stockings,” inspired by the 1939 Greta Garbo romantic comedy “Ninotchka.” (Asked by journalists how she felt about Tolstoy, her character answered, “We’re just good friends.”)

In that film, which featured songs by Cole Porter, Ms. Paige performed a memorable duet, “Stereophonic Sound,” with Fred Astaire. She also played a vengeful, badly reviewed stage actress in the comedy “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” (1960), determined to seduce a married theater critic (David Niven).

Janis Paige was born Donna Mae Tjaden on Sept. 16, 1922, in Tacoma, Wash., to George and Hazel Tjaden. (She changed her name to Janis to honor the World War I entertainer Elsie Janis; Paige was a family name on her mother’s side.)

She studied singing in Washington State and performed in local amateur shows until she moved with her mother to Los Angeles. There she paid for voice lessons with office work and other jobs, which included singing at the Hollywood Canteen, a hangout for servicemen on leave.

Her role in the film “Hollywood Canteen” might have been her movie debut, but two other pictures she made — “Bathing Beauty,” a musical comedy, and “I Won’t Play,” a war drama with music — were released earlier in 1944.

Ms. Paige had her own television series, “It’s Always Jan,” for one season (1955-56) on CBS, playing a widowed nightclub singer. She often accompanied Bob Hope on his overseas trips entertaining American troops.

Her last feature film was “The Caretakers” (1963), a hospital drama starring Joan Crawford. But she made frequent guest appearances on television series through the 1980s, and had recurring roles on the daytime dramas “General Hospital” and “Santa Barbara.” Her final screen appearance was in a 2001 episode of the CBS series “Family Law.”

Ms. Paige was married three times and divorced twice. Her first husband (1947-51) was Frank Martinelli Jr., a restaurateur. Her second (1956-7) was Arthur Stander, the producer of “It’s Always Jan.” In 1962, she married Ray Gilbert, the movie composer. He died in 1976. She had no immediate survivors.

If reviews frequently mentioned her curvaceous figure as often as her talent, Ms. Paige faced the same attitudes off-camera.

In a 2017 essay in The Hollywood Reporter, as the #MeToo movement caught fire, she wrote that in the 1940s, when she was 22, Alfred S. Bloomingdale, the department store heir, tried to rape her after inviting her to dinner and then to his apartment in Los Angeles. She escaped, she wrote, by biting him and running down six flights of stairs.

Mr. Bloomingdale died in 1982.

“Maybe there’s a special place in hell” for men like him, she said in the essay. She added, “Even at 95, I remember everything.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.



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