Happy Hundredth, Janis Paige

As I type this on September 16, 2022, stage and screen star Janis Paige (Donna Mae Tjaden) turns 100 years old.

The photo above captures her at the mid-point, not just to demonstrate that she was an attractive and vivacious 50 year old (hell yeah she was!), but because it is taken from what was likely the first place I ever saw her, the 1972 Columbo episode “Blueprint for Murder”, in which she plays oil millionaire Forest Tucker’s first wife, a snappy old show biz pistol named Goldie. It’s a great role, funny and touching. Though dumped by her ex in a classic case of First Wife Syndrome, she still strongly believes he was murdered, and becomes the motive force for Columbo’s investigation. Those cop dramas were all the rage at the time, and our family watched them all, so I likely saw her in all the similar shows she did around this time, episodes of Banacek, Mannix, Police Story, Lanigan’s Rabbi, The Rockford Files, and Hawaii Five-O. I also likely caught her on sit-coms. On The Mary Tyler Show she guested as Lou Grant’s old flame, and she was on Doc, All in the Family, and in a brief recurring role as an aunt on Eight is Enough.

But that’s the middle, the 1970s, one decade in the middle of a 60 year career. Or rather careers, for she had been a pin-up model, cabaret singer, and star of Broadway and films, as well as television. The Tacoma, Washington native had been singing publicly at an amateur level since childhood. Her professional name was selected in honor of vaudeville singer Elsie Janis. At around age 20 she came down to Los Angeles and was immediately popular with serviceman, both as a pin-up and singing at the Hollywood Canteen, resulting in an appearance in the eponymous 1944 film. That same year she had a small role in MGM’s Bathing Beauty with Red Skelton and Esther Williams.

By 1946 Paige was already getting great supporting roles in films like the remake of Of Human Bondage, though more characteristic fodder consisted of musicals with the likes Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan, and westerns such as Cheyenne (1947) and The Younger Brothers (1949). After the musical Two Guys and a Girl (1951) with Robert Alda and James Gleason, she starred in two Broadway hits, the Lindsay-Crouse show Remains to Be Seen (1951-52) and the original production of The Pajama Game (1954-56). This gave her the juice to star in her own TV sitcom It’s Always Jan (1955-56), in which she played a widowed nightclub singer with two roommates.

She was replaced by Doris Day in the 1957 screen version of The Pajama Game. Her consolation was a co-starring role in Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, released that same year. This was followed by roles in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960) with her old rival Doris Day, Bachelor in Paradise (1961) with Bob Hope, Follow the Boys (1963), and The Caretakers (1963). She starred as the title character in a 1960 TV remake of Maisie; interestingly she appeared on The Ann Sothern Show the same year. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s she guested on lots of live TV dramas as well as the variety shows of Dinah Shore, Red Skelton, Andy Williams, etc. One of the first had been Bonnie Maid’s Versatile Varieties back in 1949.

As she matured Paige continued to do lots of live regional and touring touring productions and to appear on television on the shows we’ve named, as well as The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Charlie’s Angels, and a very flashy appearance (literally) on St. Elsewhere. She was a regular on a short lived Disney series called Gun Shy (1982-83) based on The Apple Dumpling Gang, had a recurring part on Trapper John M.D. (1985-86) and a regular role on Santa Barbara (1990-93).

Broadway and vaudeville fans will appreciate that she appeared in an all-star salute to George Abbott at the Palace Theatre on the occasion of his 100th birthday in 1987. And now it’s her turn to be celebrated for hitting the same milestone!

For more on show biz history, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous