The Pop Side: Janis Paige
BRIAN KELLOW chats with actress and singer Janis Paige, who's returned to the stage more than sixty years after her film debut.
Paige in 1951 promotional photo for Warner Bros' Two Gals and a Guy
© Jane Hunt
With her natural sense of timing and terrific comic verve, Janis Paige enlivened just about any production she was involved in — whether it was her 1954 Broadway hit The Pajama Game or the 1957 Fred Astaire film musical Silk Stockings. She speaks with BRIAN KELLOW about her years at Warner Bros., the Hollywood Canteen, and her love of opera.
JP: About twelve years ago I wanted to go back to work, and I had some offers, but I hadn't sung in a long time. I made the mistake of going to the wrong teacher, who stripped me of my voice. I went in to see a famous throat doctor. I was told not to talk for three months. When I went to see him to see if there was improvement, sitting in his office was the voice teacher Bruce Eckstut. My doctor said, "Do you mind if Bruce sits in?" I said I didn't, so he sat in, and they put the light down my throat, and the camera, and he said, "You look better, Janis." I said, "Why can't I sing a note?" The doctor said, "Talk to this man. He can help you." It was a long road, but Bruce put me back together. The first time I went back onstage was 2003 up in San Francisco, and I wasn't where I wanted to be at all, but it gave me a chance do my own act. The audience seemed to love it. I performed it at the Plush Room in San Francisco and at the Gardenia in Los Angeles.
ON: Tell me a bit about your early vocal training.
JP: I sang from the time I was three. First song I ever learned was "My Blue Heaven." I would rock in my little rocking chair by the hour and sing "My Blue Heaven." When I was about thirteen, my mother drove me to Seattle, and I studied bel-canto technique for six months. I had a mature kind of soprano voice. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't sing.
ON: And you were discovered singing at the Hollywood Canteen during World War II.
JP: I was discovered by Ida Koverman, Louis B. Mayer's secretary. He relied greatly on her judgment. She heard me at the Canteen and asked me to come to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer the next day. I remember walking into Mr. Mayer's office on the big white carpet, and there he was, behind his big white oval desk. He said, "How would you like to come to work at the studio?" But it started with Ida Koverman, who was the right hand to Mayer.
ON: Ida Koverman is a real unsung heroine. She was responsible for so many classical artists coming to MGM — Mario Lanza among them.
JP: Yes. She was a very smart woman. She also had influence with Arthur Freed, who was the best movie-musical producer at Metro, and who had immaculate taste and was such an innovator when it came to movie musicals.
ON: At the time, you just made one film for MGM — Bathing Beauty, with Esther Williams.
JP: I had one line in Bathing Beauty. It played at the Music Box in my home town, Tacoma. And up on the marquee it said, "BATHING BEAUTY, STARRING JANIS PAIGE, With Esther Williams." I loved that. I had a musical number with Red Skelton and Ethel Smith, but I only had one line of dialogue!
I only did that one small part at Metro. You know, Brian, in those days, they had Gloria De Haven and June Allyson and Lucille Bremer and Cyd Charisse, and they were all there before me. I don't think they knew what to do with me. The day they let me go, my agent took me to Warner Bros. I met [director] Delmer Daves and got Hollywood Canteen.
ON: The Canteen sounds like an incredible place. Did you ever see any of the soldiers and sailors who went there get out of hand?
JP: Never. In the '40s, we still had a lot of civility. Manners seem to be a thing of the past now. But the Canteen was incredible. I never walked in that place when there weren't two or three major stars. I remember John Garfield washing dishes in the kitchen with an apron and his sleeves rolled up. They wouldn't make announcements — they would just walk in. They would show up because they were free that evening.
ON: The working atmosphere at Warners was supposed to be very workaday compared with the plush atmosphere of some of the studios. Geraldine Fitzgerald said that when people found out she worked at Warners, they felt sorry for her.
JP: I spent five years at Warners. They built me. That was Jack Warner. He was always very kind to me. Every single day he saw the rushes, and every single morning he visited every single set. "Good morning." "Hello! You've gained weight!" "Is everything okay?" "Watch the weight." "I didn't like the way you were dressed. We've got lots of wardrobe — we will make sure that you look like a product of Warners." He was very much hands-on.
ON: One picture you made that isn't as well-known as it should be is Edmund Goulding's version of Of Human Bondage, with Eleanor Parker. It's really quite good.
JP: Eleanor was a fabulous actress. I had my Hollywood Canteen messenger outfit on, and I had just been to lunch and was going back to the set. Do you know what Warners looked like? Everything was a kind of pale celedon green. Lovely-looking studio. I'm going back to the set, and I walked by this bank of windows and someone rapped on the windows, and I saw this white-haired man motioning to me to come through the door and into the office. It was Edmund Goulding. He said, "I have a picture I want you to do" — that's how I got that wonderful part in Of Human Bondage. I think it was too soon after the first one, with Bette Davis. That was such an astounding performance by her. I think our picture was hurt by that.
ON: Not long after that, you did Winter Meeting with Bette Davis, which was her first failure in quite some time.
JP: She didn't want to do Winter Meeting. She was in a big fight with Jack Warner. You could hear them arguing in her trailer and on the set. And she wasn't happy in that movie. But I had this wonderful part. And we became very good friends until the day she died. She liked me, and she thought I was talented.
Winter Meeting was directed by Bretaigne Windust. He was wonderful. He did my first show on Broadway, Remains To Be Seen , by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. I went to New York to find myself and find a new way of life. I had spent six months in Rome in 1949, and it changed my life, Brian. I couldn't come back and look at a water faucet with water coming out of it, because we didn't have any such thing in Rome. I looked at the world differently, at me differently, at my marriage differently. I had seen deprivation the likes of which this country has never seen. When I came home, I couldn't go back to things as they were. I was working Las Vegas when I got back, at the El Rancho. I stayed and got a divorce and took the plane to New York instead of Los Angeles. My agent. Maynard Morris at MCA, was a lovely man. He said, "Have Lindsay and Crouse seen you?" He made a call, and next thing I know, I'm on the stage of the Morosco Theater with Howard Lindsay and Buck Crouse and Bretaigne Windust and Leland Hayward and John Van Druten and Mainbocher. They asked me if I would read. They had a work light — first time I'd ever seen a work light. And they offered the part to me right then and there. I said, "I've never been on Broadway. I'm too scared to really do this." I thought my agent was going to kill me. And Bretaigne Windust said to me, "After three weeks of rehearsal, you're not going to be scared anymore." And he was right.
ON: How did you come to be cast in The Pajama Game?
JP: That was the happiest company. A show about a pajama factory! Everyone said, "I'm not going to put money in that kind of show!" We took it to Boston, and it was all rather secretive — not much was said about it. But opening night in New York — my God, they wouldn't let us off the stage. We took encores — we were walking six feet off the ground.
ON: Later on, you did another Broadway musical, Here's Love —
JP: And that's when I saw my first opera. We were dark Sunday nights in Here's Love. And the Metropolitan Opera had the Milk Fund. My dear friend Ceil Delli was in the chorus of Here's Love. And she said, "Jan, have you ever been to the old Met?" I told her I hadn't. She said, "They're having a performance of Aida Sunday night with Leontyne Price and Carlo Bergonzi. We went, and I was hooked. We went to the old Met with the plush sets and the magnificent voices, and I died and went to heaven. I saw Tosca, with Renata Tebaldi. I also saw her Butterfly. Franco Corelli in Cavalleria Rusticana. And one of the interesting things was to see Birgit Nilsson do Aida. Not the most glorious performance I ever saw. But all of a sudden her voice booms out over everybody. She was so powerful. I heard Joan Sutherland in Lucia and La Traviata. I was taken backstage to meet her, and I felt in the presence of royalty. She was so nice — so friendly and down to earth.
Another great thing about going to the opera was that they were toasting and drinking and eating and dying, so by the time you left, you were starved. After the opera, Ceil and her boyfriend and I would go to Luna's and drink homemade wine and have wonderful food. I demonstrated and gave money and made signs when they were going to tear the old Met down, But they did it anyway.
ON: Miss Paige, I'm glad you're singing again.
JP: I'll never have the voice I had, but I'm enjoying this so much. It's a thrill to be able to work again and sing again and do what I love to do. You have to lead your life, not let it pass you by. That has been a big awakening to me, honey.
On Sat, 9/15 at 3:00pm, Janis Paige will celebrate her 90th birthday at the The Rrazz Room at Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason Street, San Francisco. Ticketing information can be found at www.therrazzroom.com or by calling 800-380-3095.