From Janis Paige
Unlike Many Others Who Were Products Of The Studio System, Paige Praises The Way Actors And Films Were Created, Because They Allowed Artists To Work While Honing Their Craft
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Aug. 10, 2015 — At age 90, Janis Paige, legend of screen and stage, may lament the past, but she lives for today, delighting audiences of her cabaret show with a trip down memory lane.
Born in Tacoma, Wash., Paige took her childhood gift of singing and left for Los Angeles right after high school to “catch her break.” It was while appearing at the Hollywood Canteen, a studio-sponsored entertainment venue for military members during World War II, that she got noticed.
“I was appearing at the Canteen and I was discovered by Ida Koverman, executive secretary to MGM chief Louis B. Mayer,” she recalled during a conversation from her Los Angeles home. “She brought me to Metro and immediately put me in Bathing Beauty with Esther Williams where I had a musical number with Red Skelton.”
Shortly after her auspicious debut, Paige moved across town to rival Warner Bros. where she signed a long-term contract and had featured roles in a number of box-office hits, including Hollywood Canteen, Of Human Bondage and Romance on the High Seas.
While some stars characterized their studio tenure as “indentured servitude,” Paige was forever grateful for the watchful eye and “pampering” that was afforded contract players during the heyday of the studio system.
“It was so fabulous,” she said. “It was a benevolent environment in which we were able to learn our craft. It was an unbelievable time and none of us really understood or appreciated it because we had nothing to compare it with. The moguls weren’t tyrants. They were hard-working men who built an industry from scratch, cared about their art and greatly protected it. They had taste and civility, something in rather short supply these days.”
After a few years as a contract player, Paige turned her talent to Broadway where she scored a hit in the 1951 show Remains to be Seen. Footlight stardom followed in 1954 when she played the lead role as “Babe” in the surprise musical hit The Pajama Game, co-starring John Raitt and vaudeville star Eddie Foy Jr.
“Nobody expected a show about pajama factory workers wanting a 7½ cent raise to be a hit,” she recalled. “But George Abbott (the producer) knew what he was doing. It was the happiest company I was ever involved with.”
Paige’s Broadway success transmuted into a popular nightclub show that played Las Vegas and other major cities. When her act landed at the famed Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, she soon found herself back in front of the film cameras in the 1957 adaptation of Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings.
“The film’s producer Arthur Freed saw my act at the Grove, and without even an audition, a screen test or singing a song from the score, he cast me in the film.”
With the studio system and the Hollywood musical on the decline at that time, Paige found herself in the rarefied position of becoming part of that exclusive sorority of women who have danced with the incomparable Fred Astaire. It was to be Astaire’s last major musical film performance.
“I was not a dancer so I was scared to death to be partnered with Fred,” she said. “But he was such a gentleman from the old school, very kind, very patient, soft-spoken and absolutely brilliant.”
Their number together, “Stereophonic Sound” was a comic song and dance that parodied the technical gimmicks films were using at that time, including wide-screen Cinemascope to combat the encroachment of television.
“We worked very hard on that number, I was black and blue from rehearsals,” she said. “But I didn’t care. I was dancing with Fred Astaire!”
With the curtain falling on musical films, Paige traveled the country in touring shows of popular musicals and guest-starred on a variety of TV shows, from All in the Family, Columbo and Caroline in the City to a run on daytime soaps such as General Hospital and Santa Barbara.
Paige, while staying contemporary, laments the passing of the Golden Age movies. She remains an avid viewer of old movies on TV and an occasional guest on Turner Classic Movies.
“Today, most stars can’t overcome a bad script,” she said. “The old stars could. We couldn’t use four-letter words, including damn or hell, or expose any cleavage. Romance was written into the scripts with room for imagination. Everybody had a work ethic. We didn’t bitch or complain. You just worked and appreciated being part of this fabulous industry.”
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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