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Janis Paige, enduring ‘Silk Stockings’ star from Hollywood’s Golden Age, dies at 101

Janis Paige lying on a piano with one hand propping up her head and Fred Astaire leaning on the piano gesturing with one hand
Janis Paige, who starred with Fred Astaire in “Silk Stockings,” died Sunday of natural causes in her Los Angeles home. She was 101.
(Warner Bros. Pictures )
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The versatile and enduring performer Janis Paige, known for her starring role in the Tony-winning 1954 musical “The Pajama Game” and her scene-stealing performance in the 1957 movie musical “Silk Stockings,” has died.

A key star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Paige died Sunday of natural causes in her Los Angeles home, her longtime friend Stuart Lampert confirmed to the Associated Press. She was 101.

A redheaded triple-threat, Paige spent the 1940s as one of the busiest actors in Jack Warner’s stable. By the 1950s, she was as famous for her sex appeal as she was for her sass, on Broadway, television and touring nationally as a singer on the nightclub circuit.

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Born Donna Mae Tjaden on Sept. 16, 1922, in Tacoma, Wash., Paige was a gifted singer as a child, performing at local amateur shows. Her parents divorced during the Depression, and Paige’s mother raised her and her sister alone.

Paige performed in theater productions in high school, then after graduation she and her mother moved to Los Angeles to see if she could make it as a performer.

She took a job serving sandwiches and coffee at the Stage Door Canteen in Hollywood and one night was asked to fill in for an absent singer. An assistant for studio chief Louis B. Mayer saw her perform, and the next day she had a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer — and a new name.

Paige was immediately cast opposite Red Skelton in a high-profile dance number in the 1944 Esther Williams musical “Bathing Beauties.” As was customary with studio contract players, Paige was entered in a series of beauty contests to build publicity.

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In no time at all, she was signed away to Warner Bros. and cast as a studio guide in the Oscar-nominated hit “Hollywood Canteen.” There she made more than a dozen films, including portraying a saloon singer in the 1947 western “Cheyenne” and a suspicious wife in Doris Day’s 1948 film debut, “Romance On the High Seas.”

But Paige thrived in musicals and struggled to find satisfying roles as the genre fell out of favor. The studio dropped her in 1951.

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“One day I was asked to come in and see Mr. Warner,’’ she recalled to the New York Post in 2016. “He said, ‘Janis, I just wanted to let you know we’re letting you go when your contract is up in May. We just don’t know what to do with you, because you’re so offbeat.’ I burst into tears.’’

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But Paige was nothing if not a survivor. Broke and newly divorced, she toured her own nightclub act to pay the bills and soon landed on Broadway, where she became a star on her own terms in the well-received comedy-mystery “Remains to be Seen” opposite Jackie Cooper in 1951 and “The Pajama Game” in 1954.

When the lead roles in the screen adaptations of those productions went to other actors, Paige went to television, appearing in her own CBS sitcom, “It’s Always Jan.” She continued to tour as a singer, performing with Bob Hope’s USO shows and taking regular gigs in Las Vegas, in New York and at the old Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

While headlining at that hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Paige was offered a starring role in the 1957 Fred Astaire musical “Silk Stockings.” In that film, Paige was cast as the fiery leading lady to Astaire’s producer and in one number found herself literally swinging from a chandelier.

“I wouldn’t dare say no to Fred Astaire,” she told the Miami Herald in 2016. “Especially 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.”

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Though Paige’s leading film roles continued to wane, she starred twice on Broadway in the 1960s, in the musical “Here’s Love” and the original 1968 Broadway production of “Mame.” She also toured with productions of “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Sweet Charity” and “Guys and Dolls.”

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In the 1970s, Paige managed Ipanema Music Corp., the music publishing company she inherited from her late husband, Oscar-winning composer Ray Gilbert. She also guest-starred on high-profile TV shows, famously playing a diner waitress who kisses Archie Bunker on “All in the Family.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Paige co-starred on daytime soap operas “Capitol,” “General Hospital” and “Santa Barbara.” In 2012, at 89, Paige performed an autobiographical one-woman cabaret show in West Hollywood, San Francisco and New York.

In a 2017 guest column in the Hollywood Reporter, Paige alleged that department store heir Alfred S. Bloomingdale had sexually assaulted her in 1944. She wrote the column to show support for other women who had come forward with their own stories of sexual harassment in Hollywood during the early days of the #MeToo movement.

“The unrelenting barrage of sexual-abuse accusations levied at the uber-rich and all-powerful Harvey Weinstein opened up my own memories,” she wrote. “Even at 95, I remember everything. Closure is never complete.”

Paige was married three times, divorcing twice. Her husband died in 1976. She had no children.

Piccalo is a former Times staff writer.

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