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Janet Blair, 85, star of Hollywood musicals


LOS ANGELES -- Janet Blair, the vivacious actress who appeared in several 1940s musicals and comedies, then turned to theater and television, died Monday from complications of pneumonia at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, her children, Amanda and Andrew Mayo, said. She was 85.

"She was just a lot of fun and all about life," Amanda Mayo said. "She was an incredible talent and actress. They just don't make them like her anymore."

A native of Altoona, Pa., Ms. Blair was singing with Hal Kemp's band at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles in 1941 when she was spotted by a talent scout from Columbia Pictures.

After Kemp was killed in a traffic accident and the musicians decided to disband, Ms. Blair signed a contract with Columbia for $100 a week and changed careers. She would languish in B pictures until Rosalind Russell recommended her for the title role in the comedy "My Sister Eileen."

She won praise from critics for the role as Russell's beautiful but trouble-prone sister.

She appeared opposite George Raft in the gangster movie "Broadway" and co-starred with Cary Grant and a dancing caterpillar in the 1944 comedy-fantasy "Once Upon a Time." She was the love interest in "The Fabulous Dorseys," starring bandleaders Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, and appeared opposite Red Skelton in the 1946 sleeper hit "The Fuller Brush Man."

She also costarred with Don Ameche and Jack Oakie in "Something to Shout About," which featured a Cole Porter score that included the song "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to."

But after the 1948 swashbuckler "The Black Arrow," Columbia dropped her, and she moved on to the theater and to television.

"I gave up Hollywood, and I gave up pictures, because I was always getting parts where I'd be the girl who says, 'Oh, Red!' in a Skelton movie," she explained. "All I got were princess parts. A girl gets tired of being a princess all of the time."

Instead, she took on the Mary Martin role in the touring version of "South Pacific," clocking more than 1,200 performances in three years.

"And I never missed a performance," she noted proudly.

During the tour, she also got married to her second husband, producer-director Nick Mayo, and had two children.

From the late '40s through the mid-'50s, she appeared in such Golden Age of Television shows as the "Ford Theatre," " The Philco Television Playhouse," "Lux Video Theatre," and " The United States Steel Hour."

She returned to movies in 1957, starring opposite Skelton again, in "Public Pigeon No. 1."

She made only a handful of films after that, including "The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band" opposite Walter Brennan and Buddy Ebsen in 1968.

She joined television's "Caesar's Hour" in 1956 when Sid Caesar was seeking a replacement for costar Nanette Fabray. She left after one season.

She returned to series television in 1971 as Henry Fonda's wife in "The Smith Family."