Singer and actor Janis Paige was born Donna Mae Jaden in Tacoma. She attended Stadium High School, where she studied music and had lead roles in school opera performances. In 1943, two years after graduating, Jaden went to Los Angeles for additional training in grand opera. She heard that the Hollywood Canteen, the popular service-members club, was a good place for a beginning singer. She became a regular singer there and was discovered by a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive assistant and signed to a film contract. She took on the stage name Janis Paige and had a long and successful career in movies, on Broadway, and in television. She remained active into her nineties, celebrating her 90th birthday with a nightclub appearance and continuing to participate in charity events.
Donna Mae Jaden
Donna Mae Jaden (or Tjaden) was born in Tacoma, Pierce County, in 1922. At the age of three, she learned her first song, "My Blue Heaven." When she was five, she entered local talent shows as a singer. Donna Mae attended Tacoma's Washington Grade School and Jason Lee Junior High School.
In 1940 and 1941, during her junior and senior years at Stadium High School, Jaden was the lead singer in school operas. In March 1940 she had the lead role in the opera Desert Song. In her senior year she starred in the school's March 1941 performances of The Merry Widow. Stadium High's music director, Clayton Johnson (1899-1982), encouraged her to continue her music studies to become a grand-opera singer. Jaden was one of several pupils greatly influenced by Johnson in his 30 years as the school's music director. Among his most successful graduates were Roald Reitan (1928-2011) and Hugh Thompson (1915-2006), who both became acclaimed opera singers.
Jaden's Stadium High courses included shorthand and typing. She graduated in 1941 and that year Tahoma, the school yearbook, named her "The Class Venus" and "Most Talented." Following graduation, Jaden moved to Seattle and worked as a stenographer at W. A. Botting's Plumbing and Heating Company, while continuing her musical training at the Elbert LeRoy Bellows Vocal Studio. Elbert Bellows (1898-1963) was a Seattle vocal teacher whose successful graduates included actress Ella Raines (1921-1998) of Snoqualmie Falls. As a Bellows Vocal Studio pupil, Jaden sang at local shows, including a performance at the Seattle's Woman's Century Club in May 1942.
Discovered at the Hollywood Canteen
Saving up money from her job at Botting's Plumbing, Jaden purchased a secondhand car and, in 1943, moved with her mother to Los Angeles to further her grand-opera music studies. There she heard that the very popular service-members club the Hollywood Canteen was a good showcase for a beginning singer. She became a regular singer there.
The Hollywood Canteen was established shortly after the U.S. entered World War II by actors John Garfield (1913-1952) and Bette Davis (1908-1989). Movie stars served as hostesses, hosts, and dance partners. A service member could dance with a leading Hollywood star. Top musicians performed at the club, with Duke Ellington (1899-1974) playing on opening night, October 3, 1942.
Civilians could pay to watch the entertainment. This made it possible for Ida Koverman (1876-1954), known as "Mount Ida," a tough and powerful executive assistant at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studios, to be in the Hollywood Canteen audience in April 1943 to see Donna Jaden singing operatic tunes such as "One Fine Day" ("Un Bel Di") and popular tunes like "As Time Goes By." Koverman saw a beautiful singer with talent and scheduled her for a studio interview and audition. Jaden impressed the studio and was signed as a contract actress.
When Jaden returned to the Hollywood Canteen, a contest was held to give her a stage name. Private Jules Levy (1923-2003) proposed the name Janis, recalling Elsie Janis (1890-1956), a famous entertainer of American troops in World War I who had set the standard for wartime entertainers. Private Levy, of the Army Air Force, served in Hollywood making military films. After the war, he became a producer whose productions included the television series The Rifleman. Jaden turned to the name of her maternal grandmother, Julia C. Paige (1880-1947), for her last name. She had grown up in her grandparents' Tacoma home. In June 1943, now Janis Paige, she returned home for a visit and performed at Madigan Army Hospital.
Hollywood Actress Janis Paige
Once signed, Janis Paige entered the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio song-and-dance school. Her film debut was in Bathing Beauty, released in July 1944. She was in a musical number in the movie and had one line of dialogue. In early 1944 she left Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for Warner Brothers and also went on a tour of California military bases. Paige had a small role in the 1944 Warner Brothers film Hollywood Canteen, and then appeared in two of the studio's 1946 releases: Of Human Bondage and Her Kind of Man, in which she played a nightclub singer. On May 3, 1946, Tacoma's Music Box Theatre had a special screening of Her Kind of Man at which her ill grandmother Julia Paige was a distinguished guest.
In April 1947, Janis Paige returned to the Pacific Northwest for a ceremony marking the start of construction on McNary Dam. She had been selected "Miss Damsite of 1947." It was another honorific for a woman who had received many names from military units, including honorary colonel and "G-Girl" (for glamorous). She was also named "Miss Delicious" at the Washington State Apple Blossom Festival of 1947. In September 1948 she appeared at Richland's Atomic Frontier Days. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) named Paige the "Buddy Poppy Girl of 1949," representing the thousands of volunteers who participated in the VFW's annual Memorial Week Buddy Poppy sale.
Janis Paige's film appearances with Warner Brothers included two westerns -- Cheyenne (1947), in which she played a saloon singer, and The Younger Brothers (1949), in which she played a bandit. She and Warner Brothers came into conflict during 1948 and 1949. Paige was not satisfied with her roles. The studio released her in late 1949 when it let go a number of contract actors.
On Stage and Television
For several years Janis Paige sang and danced in clubs across the United States. In 1951 she went to Broadway and made her stage debut in Remains to Be Seen opposite Jackie Cooper (1922-2011). Paige next starred as "Babe" in the play The Pajama Game, the role Doris Day (b. 1922) later played in the movie. Paige appeared in more than 1,000 performances of the musical comedy over more than a year and a half. She was featured on the cover of Esquire magazine in December 1954.
In 1955, Paige had the lead role in a CBS television situation comedy called It's Always Jan. The show's plot revolved around a group of New York City career women. Paige played Jan Stewart, a widowed mother with two women roommates. It's Always Jan, which aired Saturday nights in the time slot before the popular western Gunsmoke, lasted only one season.
Paige appeared in the 1957 Fred Astaire (1899-1987) film musical Silk Stockings and impressed moviegoers with her rendition of the Cole Porter tune "Stereophonic Sound." During a 1957 visit to the Pacific Northwest, Paige spoke fondly of her youth there, which included memorable summer days at the Dash Point State Park beach on Puget Sound between Tacoma and Seattle.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Paige made television appearances in dramas and comedies. She appeared as a "straight man" for Bob Hope (1903-2003) on a number of his shows. She returned to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1960 for a part in the Doris Day movie Please Don't Eat the Daisies. The next year she appeared in the film Bachelor in Paradise. Beginning in 1962, Paige went on several Bob Hope Christmas tours of U.S. military bases in the Pacific and Asia, singing and dancing for the troops. In 1964 she appeared in an episode of The Fugitive and went on her third Bob Hope tour, a Bob Hope Christmas Show that included six performances in Vietnam and shows in the Philippines.
A Very Active Janis Paige
The former Hollywood Canteen building where Janis Paige was discovered was demolished in December 1966. A piece of sidewalk with a service member's name -- one of a number of names inscribed in the cement on December 7, 1942 -- was given to Paige.
She continued to appear in television and on stage in the late 1960s and 1970s. Her stage work included acting in Here's Love in 1968, Born Yesterday and Gypsy in 1970, and Annie Get Your Gun in 1975. Paige's television appearances included Columbo in 1972, All in the Family in 1976 and 1978, Hawaii Five-O in 1978, and a recurring role on Eight is Enough from 1977 to 1980.
In 1976 Paige's husband, songwriter Ray Gilbert (1912-1976), died and she took over management of his Ipanema Music Corporation. Gilbert was best known for his Oscar-winning song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah."
Paige continued to work in television with 1980s roles on Happy Days, Bret Maverick, and Night Court. In 1989 she appeared on the soap opera General Hospital and followed that with a cast-member role in the TV series Santa Barbara from 1990 to 1993.
In 2010 Paige returned to singing with a successful autobiographical cabaret show that played in San Francisco and Los Angeles. On September 15, 2012, a very active Janis Paige celebrated her 90th birthday with a performance at a San Francisco nightclub. She shared favorite songs and stories of the good times and the bad. In 2013, she attended a number of charity events. Paige has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located in the 6600 block of Hollywood Boulevard.