Joyous scene-stealer Janis Paige started out playing rather bland film ingénues, but never seemed to be comfortable in those roles–she had too much snap, crackle and pop to be confined in such a formulaic way.
Born Donna Mae Tjaden in 1922 in Tacoma, Washington, she was singing in public from age 5 in local amateur shows. She moved to Los Angeles after graduating from high school and earned a job as a singer at the Hollywood Canteen during the war years. The Canteen, which was a studio-sponsored gathering spot for servicemen, is where she was spotted by a Warner Brothers talent scout, who saw potential in her and signed her up. She began co-starring in secondary musicals that often paired her with either Dennis Morgan or Jack Carson. Later she was relegated to rugged adventures and dramas that just seemed out of her element. Following her role in the forgettable Two Gals and a Guy (1951), she decided to leave the Hollywood scene. She took to the Broadway boards and scored a huge hit with the 1951 comedy-mystery play “Remains to Be Seen”, co-starring Jackie Cooper. She also toured successfully as a cabaret singer, performing everywhere from New York to Miami to Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Definitive stardom came in 1954 with the feisty role of Babe in Broadway’s “The Pajama Game” opposite John Raitt. Her old Warner Bros. rival Doris Day, however, was a bigger name and went on to play the role on film (The Pajama Game (1957)) with Raitt. After a six-year hiatus, Janis returned to films in tongue-and-cheek support, all but stealing Silk Stockings (1957) from co-stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. She then grabbed her share of laughs in a flashy role with the comedy Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960) opposite Ms. Day. Janis carried on in summer stock, playing such indomitable roles as Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun”, Margo Channing in “Applause”, Mama Rose in “Gypsy” and Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls”. From the mid-’50s on, Janis also tapped into TV with such series as It’s Always Jan (1955), Lanigan’s Rabbi (1976) and Trapper John, M.D. (1979). In the 1990s, among other TV appearances, she had recurring roles on the daytime serials General Hospital (1963) and Santa Barbara (1984). Married three times, she was the widow of Disney composer Ray Gilbert, who wrote the classic children’s song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
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