Actress-singer Janis Paige (real name: Donna Mae Tjaden) was born in Washington state but moved to Hollywood right after her high school graduation. In LA, she almost immediately landed a job singing at the Hollywood Canteen. It would be the start of a very long and diverse show biz career.
Signed not long after her arrival in LA to Warner Bros., she made her film debut in 1944 and soon worked her way up to co-starring roles in everything from feel-good, warm-hearted musicals to tough-guy detective dramas.
Paige made her Broadway debut in 1951 in the mystery comedy “Remains to Be Seen” but truly became a star in 1954 for her role in the original production of “The Pajama Game.” Among other accolades that success brought her was the cover of the December 1954 issue of “Esquire” magazine.
Then, as now, Hollywood - TV or film - never liked to see a newly-minted talent go to waste. So, early in 1955, Paige was signed to star in her own sitcom. The series “It’s Always Jan” debuted over CBS on September 10, 1955. The program was a co-production of Desilu Productions and Janard Productions, the latter a company founded by Paige and her then-husband, Arthur Stander. (Hence, this makes Paige one of TV’s very early female TV producers.)
In the series, Paige starred as Janis Stewart. Stewart was a struggling nightclub singer living and working in New York City. (In order to make the most of Ms. Pagie’s musical abilities, Janis Stewart often had an opportunity to sing at least one song within every episode.) Along with this early portrayal of a working woman on TV, Paige’s character was also a single mother. Her character, like many real-life women, had lost her husband during the war and she was now raising, alone, her 10 year-old daughter, Josie (played by child actress Jeri Lou James).
Paige didn’t portray TV’s first single mom. That distinction probably belongs to actress Vera Allen (not to be confused with dancing star Vera-Ellen) who starred as a widowed mother of two on the 1949 primetime family drama “The O’Neills.” She was followed about five years after, and much more famously, by Jan Clayton who was a single mom--and a dog owner of course--on the first incarnation of TV’s “Lassie.” That show began its long run in 1954. Still Paige’s 1955 incarnation of a non-nuclear family is not without its historic importance, especially considering the high profile the program had as a CBS and Desilu product.
(Another way Paige/Stewart seemed to be an innovator: on the shows, she’s often seen wearing capri pants. It’s a “breakthrough” usually, erroneously credit to Mary Tyler Moore in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” of 1961.)
As mentioned, Janis and her daughter resided in New York City, the Manhattan’s East Side to be exact. She had a small apartment which she and her daughter shared with two roommates. The inclusion of roommates on the show, is a unique nod to realism especially rare on the small screen - then and now--where TV characters are often seen living alone in spaces far beyond their means. Stewart’s two roommates were Pat Murphy (played by Patricia Bright), described in press materials as a “hardboiled secretary,” and Val Marlowe, a pretty blond model (played by Merry Anders). Rounding out the cast was a young Arte Johnson as a deli delivery boy who worked downstairs but visited often and Sid Melton who played Janis’s agent, Harry Cooper.
One of the comedic cruxes of the program was to be how Jan was to raise her daughter within a milieu of so many adults. Additionally, three single ladies all living in NY presented the possibility of many dating scenarios. The star-studded big screen version of “How to Marry a Millionaire” had been a box office hit in 1953 and several small screen shows, if not following the husband-hunt theme directly, certainly liked the idea of presenting a trio of leading ladies. (Interestingly, when a TV version of “How to Marry a Millionaire” was done in 1959, one of its original co-stars was “Jan” vet Merry Anders.)
Though not a fan of its first episode, by November “The Hollywood Reporter” had come around to liking “It’s Always Jan.” About a month after its launch, the publication reassessed the show and complimented the new “juice” injected into the series by producer-writers Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf. “Variety” meanwhile called the series “good, warm and friendly.” “Broadcasting” magazine, however, wasn’t a fan - they lamented the attempts the show made at “Lucy-esque” antics…and did not believe it succeeded at them.
As a Desilu production, and, probably, as a series built around a woman, it seems critics could not help but compare “Jan” to “I Love Lucy.” Many press accounts of the time even had to note the identical hair color of Lucy and Janis Paige. It’s quite indicative of the powerful shadow that Ball’s success was already casting even then that no program could escape a comparison to her.
In “Jan’s” timeslot of Saturday night, the show aired 26 episodes. And, many episodes do focus on Jan or her friends’s love lives; the world of dating then, as now, being a consistent go-to for sitcom writers. And other episodes spin various sitcom-y set-ups. In one episode, Janis gets a hot stock tip on uranium that isn’t so hot after all! In another, delivery boy Stanley (Arte Johnson) decides to move to... Arabia! But other installments, have interesting and prescient plots. Consider episode #14, “The Diary,” where Jan, feeling she has been ignoring her daughter, turns down a lucrative singing contract. It’s an examination of working mom’s guilt, decades before this term would enter the everyday vernacular.
As mentioned, in most installments, the producers find a way for Paige to perform at least one song. During the course of the series, Paige sang such tuns as “Carolina in the Morning,” “I Feel Like a Feather in the Breeze,” and “Nothing Could Be Finer,” among others.
Sadly, despite Paige’s talent and the show’s good pedigree, “It’s Always Jan” would not survive beyond one season. Its last original ep aired on April 28, 1956.
Meanwhile, Paige’s marriage barely lasted longer than the series. In April of 1957, she filed for divorce from Arthur Stander. Her next marriage, to lyricist Ray Gilbert, was much more enduring, lasting from 1962 until his death in 1976. The end of Paige’s one attempt at leading sitcom fame did nothing to slow down her career, however. Along with a plethora of film and stage roles, Paige has been a highly consistent presence on TV either in guest spots on “Eight is Enough” and “All in the Family” or as a cast member on programs like “Gun Shy,” “Lanigan’s Rabbi” and “Trapper John, MD.” She was also a cast member of the daytime drama “Santa Barbara” for several years, playing the wonderfully named Minx Lockridge. Paige’s last role, a TV part, was in 2001. She turned 100 years old last year.
Though shows like “It’s Always Jan” are often ignored or diminished by a variety of authors like Susan Douglas and Judy Kutulas, they deserve their remembrance. They remind us that the “early days” of television was a far more interesting, diverse place than we are usually lead to believe while simultaneously giving various remarkable women their proper due.