At one point in her career, Janis Paige suffered from a singer's worst nightmare: the inability to carry a tune. But nearly irreparable vocal-cord damage didn't stop her. The 89-year-old singer/actress will be performing her one-woman autobiographical cabaret show Friday and Saturday at the Gardenia in West Hollywood, March 4-5 at the Rrazz Room in San Francisco and at Feinstein's at Loews Regency in New York on May 20-21.
Cinephiles know Paige for her peppy, comedic performances in such musical comedies as 1948's "Romance on the High Seas" and 1957's "Silk Stockings," in which she nearly stole the film with her rendition of the satirical Cole Porter tune "Stereophonic Sound" with Fred Astaire. And Broadway buffs have a soft spot in their hearts for her role as the feisty Babe Williams, the head of the union grievance committee at a pajama factory on Broadway in the classic 1954 musical "The Pajama Game." Paige, who originally trained to be an opera singer, lost the 1957 movie version to Doris Day, with whom she appeared in "High Seas" and 1960's "Please Don't Eat the Daisies."
Whippet slender and still beautiful, Paige certainly doesn't look or act like someone who has been working for seven decades in Hollywood — she was discovered by MGM performing at the Stage Door Canteen in Hollywood for soldiers on leave during World War II — let alone seven months shy of her 90th birthday. She's holding court in a sitting room of her bright, pastel-colored Beverly Hills home, which she shares with her 8-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Little Lulu.
FOR THE RECORD:
Janis Paige: An earlier version of the photo caption with this article said Janis Paige's dog Lulu is 7 years old.
Paige admitted that for years she didn't pay much attention to her voice. She was doing a lot of guest shots on television, as well as regular roles on "Trapper John, M.D." and daytime soaps "Capitol," "Santa Barbara" and "General Hospital." Paige was also preoccupied with running the Ipanema Music Corp., which she inherited in 1976 from her late husband, Ray Gilbert, the Oscar-winning composer of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah." Gilbert had formed the company with Antonio Carlos Jobim.
But technological advances got the best of her 12 years ago, so she brought in an administrator to help her with the company. And she thought the time was right to start singing again.
"I was getting older, and I had a break in my voice because I hadn't been using it," Paige said. An actress friend recommended a singing teacher. But soon, not only didn't he correct the crack in her voice, she lost her voice completely.
"He literally took my voice away," she said. "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."
Another singing teacher in Los Angeles recommended she go to the voice clinic at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. She eventually was examined by five doctors. "There were bits of skin hanging off my vocal cords," she said. "They told me to go home and not talk for three months."
But Paige knew she wasn't a person to keep silent. So she started taking classes with the voice teacher who had recommended Vanderbilt. "We began little tiny scales, soft and easy, and got a bit of it back."
Then she was introduced by a doctor to another voice teacher, Bruce Eckstut, who told her he could help.
"There was something about him," she said. "I started with him. Three or four years later, I could carry a pitch. He never gave up on me."
And when Paige finally could sing again, "I burst into tears. I missed it that much. That was just the beginning. I will never have the voice I had before, but it's functioning well for me. I found out when you have something like this happen … you know how to cope."