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Ann-Margret: Still Stunning, Sweet, and Being Honored by Career Transitions for Dancers with the Rolex Dance Award on October 8


She says, "I've lived life to the fullest, and I'm still here and going strong." That's screen, TV, recording artist, author, and Vegas legend Ann-Margret talking. She's a 5'4" dynamo who created a towering presence in show business. Stunning and with a charming and devilish sense of humor, she still possesses that rebellious "sex kitten" [one of the labels pinned on her in her youth] voice. It's just much more soft spoken.

Her body of work is awesome. The roster of stars she worked with is jawdropping: From, Jack Benny, Danny Thomas, and George Burns to Jack Nicholson, Elvis Presley [with whom she was famously-linked romantically], and John Wayne; not to mention such legends as Bette Davis, Alice Faye, Lucille Ball, and Claudette Colbert.

She's "proud and thrilled" to be in town as the star attraction of Career Transitions for Dancers [CTFD] 28th Anniversary gala, Broadway & Beyond: Celebrating Theatre & Dance, on Tuesday at 7 P.M. at City Center, where she'll be honored with the coveted and glittering Rolex Dance Award. CTFD is the only U.S. nonprofit solely dedicated to helping dancers discover rewarding careers when performing is no longer an option.

The award will be presented by none other than Oscar-winner, four-time Tony-winner, two-time Golden Globe winner, and Legends Grammy honoree, Liza Minnelli, the recipient of the 2012 Award. The 90-minute [no intermission] extravaganza will be non-stop dancing and singing "to bring to life the magic of theater through the universal scope of dance in pop culture."

"This recognition of my career means so much," she says proudly. "Dance has been a part of my life since age eight. I was the first to join the Advisory Committee for Career Transitions for Dancers and know, first-hand, from all the incredible dancers I've worked with, the need for such an organization. Some had a rough time transitioning. It's hard when your only passion is dance. Our shelf life is only so long. The wonderful thing about Career Transitions is that they are always there - emotionally, financially, and in so many other ways, to provide assistance."

She says she's long been envious of classically-trained dancers, "because I was never a technical dancer. I didn't have formal training, but I loved movement." And, oh, did she move! Still does!

Though little has been made of this, Ann-Margret has always been supportive of all aspects of dance. She was instrumental in introducing up and coming choreographers to producers of film musicals, and also using them in the Vegas stage shows.

From the beginning of her career in the early 60s, she was acclaimed as beauty personified: "The All American Girl," even though she was born in Sweden; "The Girl Next Door," and don't we wish! Then, she segued into her "bad girl" period, as dream girl and Miss Las Vegas. Just over 10 years ago, a magazine poll named her "One of the 100 Sexiest Stars in Film History."

"I was very flattered by the sex-kitten thing," she reveals, "because I never thought of myself that way. I never sought that title." She admits that, growing up, she was shy and introverted, and, on arrival in the U.S. from Sweden, didn't immediately adapt to American culture. "The press had this image of me, and they wouldn't accept any other. To them, I was a joke, like a cartoon character. I wanted to be taking seriously."

Ann-Margret was an interesting study in juxtaposition. She was reserved, even shy in her personal life, but wildly exuberant and sensuous in front of the camera and onstage. She said, "I could easily transform myself from Little Miss Lollipop to a sexpot-banshee once the music began."

It may now be forgotten but Ann-Margret has always been regarded as one of the nicest persons in show business. Happily, that hasn't changed. The smile, the manners, the nicety are still there in spite of her fame. She's still that gal you wouldn't mind taking home to Mama, but she's taken - and has been for over 45 years to actor/screenwriter Roger Smith [film, Auntie Mamie; TV, 77 Sunset Strip, Father Knows Best, among many others].

[Triva: In an attempt to break out of her sex-kitten phase, Ann-Margret was starring opposite French star Alain Delon as his wife in the 1965 crime drama Once a Thief, shooting on location in San Francisco where there were long weather-related delays. She had met Smith, starring in the TV series Mister Roberts, based on the Broadway play and film. It turned out he was appearing at a club in the city. They ended up getting reacquainted. Marriage followed two years later.]

Ann-Margret starred in countless films, starred in and guested in countless TV shows and film for TV, had her own TV specials, and numerous hit records. She was also one of Vietnam-era soldiers' favorite pin-up gal.

How many awards and citations and honors have there been? "Oh, my, I've lost count. It's been unbelievable, wonderful." And, in spite of numerous personal challenges, she says, "I'm the luckiest person in the world."

Let's see, there've been Oscar [two] and Golden Globe [10] nominations. She won five Golden Globes and six Emmys. And don't think this was just in musical comedy. No! Ann-Margret fooled the powers-that-be.

Years ago, her friends nicknamed her Slugger. Now, you know why. Ann-Margret has never stopped slugging away.

"I really don't know where I found the energy to do it all!" she laughs. "I look at my movies, recordings, and stage work and simply can't believe I had the energy."

She segued from "America's Sweetheart" and "Sex Kitten with a Whip" to becoming not only an acclaimed dancer but also top-caliber dramatic actress. While it's not official, she may also be one of the most photographed women in show business.

When other A-Listers have waited years to have their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Ann-Margret achieved hers when she was only 21! Another great honor was in 1982, when King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden presented her with the Swedish American of the Year Award in Stockholm.

As memorable as this visit will be, she wished she had more time to visit. "It comes down to scheduling. I love New York, but I only get here about twice a year. That's mainly because of Roger's condition." [After recovering from surgery for a blood clot in his brain, years later Smith was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease. His condition went into remission in 1985, but his health has declined.]

They're an inseparable couple. "He's the most important thing in my life. It's difficult for Roger to travel. He was always there for me in so many ways, so I try to be here for him. I'm happy to say he's well enough to come to New York to see me accept the Rolex Dance Award."

If circumstances were different, Ann-Margret says she would have loved to have done more theater. She did a 2001 tour as Miss Mona in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. There was also a L.A. production of Love Letters with Burt Reynolds.

The sexy, flashy, sex-kitten [with a whip!] image of Ann-Margret isn't forgotten nor is it dwelled upon. Now, she's transitioned into a homebody and wife.

The Smiths live "high up in the Santa Monica mountains" in Coldwater Canyon on 10 pristine acres, "with huge bay windows looking out on rolling hills and beautiful vistas. We're surrounded by years of memorabilia, our pets, and wildlife. I've traveled the world, but this is truly heaven. I feel so blessed. Truly blessed. I had all these dreams, but I had no idea what was going to happen."

Ann-Margret Olsson was born in Stockholm, Sweden, but grew up "in a small town of lumberjacks and farmers high up, and I mean, high up, near the Artic Circle."

Her father relocated to the U.S. in the 40s, to find work. "Because of the war, Daddy thought it was too dangerous for us to come. Mama and I came three years later [November, 1946] ." The day of their arrival, "Daddy took us to Times Square. It was unbelievable. Then he took us to Radio City Music Hall. I can't imagine what my face must have looked like when we entered that lobby, the gold-arched auditorium, seeing the orchestra, then the stage show with the Rockettes!"

No one spoke English. "My aunt and uncle taught Mama, and she taught me. I never had a Swedish accent growing up because I learned so young and tried so hard to capture the correct pronunciation."

She was introverted and found it difficult adjusting to American culture. "I used my love for song, which I got from Mama, and dance as a means of expressing myself. I sang at weddings, private parties, church socials, anywhere anyone would listen."

That evening at the Music Hall influenced Ann-Margret, because not long after she entered dance school, "where I excelled beyond my wildest dreams." By age 14, she had appeared in a number of school revues and plays, and was a frequent winner of talent contests. That led to bookings on early TV variety shows. Then, because of her father's job, the family relocated to Illinois.

After graduating high school in 1959, Ann-Margret enrolled at Northwestern as a speech major. "I didn't do lots of theater. I wanted to sing and dance. I joined a jazz group, the Suttletones - piano, bass, drums and me singing and playing the maracas!"

"But after freshman year, I headed West with the band. We got booked in Southern California and Reno and Las Vegas casino lounges. In Reno, I had this chance encounter with Marilyn Monroe, who was in the area shooting The Misfit. We chatted about my dreams and aspirations, and she encouraged me."

Pierre Cossett, later the legendary producer of the Grammy Awards for TV and a Broadway producer, was a Las Vegas agent. While the band was performing in the lounge of the Dunes, he arranged an audition with George Burns. "He hired me for his show at the Sahara," she says, bubbling with excitement, "then had me on his holiday TV special."

It was a fortuitous meeting. Variety raved, "George Burns has gold mine in Ann-Margret ... she has a definite style of her own, which can easily guide her to star status."

"I became friends with George and Gracie," she explains. "We rehearsed at their home. Gracie, who was pretty savvy, watched with an eagle eye." On the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Miss Allen's persona was that of a lovable scatterbrain, "but she was anything but. She'd give advice and direction. If she nodded approval, that's what we did.

"I still crack up watching Gracie's hilarious bits with the hats male visitors would leave behind as they hurried to exit," she adds laughing, "and how George manipulated poor Harry von Zell, who was the announcer on the show, and Gracie slyly involved him in her schemes."

A succession of offers followed for the 18-year-old, including a contract with RCA, and a seven-year film contract with 20th Century Fox.

In the early 1960s, Ann-Margret's burgeoning career was chronicled in a Life magazine cover story, which classified her as Hollywood's next young starlet. When she transitioned to movies, she started at the top.

In 1961, acclaimed director Frank Capra cast her in the Reunionese Pocketful of Miracles. It was a sort of baptism-by-fire entry as it was a much-troubled shoot starring the legendary, and quite demanding, Bette Davis, who played Ann-Margret's mother.

Then came a1962 remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein's only film musical, State Fair, starring opposite Pat Boone, Bobby Darin, and screen legend Alice Faye. "I tested for Margy, the good girl," she relates. "They choose Pamela Tiffin. The studio thought I was ‘too seductive,' so I ended up playing the bad girl."

She points out she was in heady company for both films, "but my next role changed my life." She won the coveted role of idol-obsessed, all-American teenager Kim McAfee, in the film adaptation of Bye, Bye, Birdie (1963). She spoke of co-stars Janet Leigh, "the wonderful" Dick Van Dyke, "my good friend Bobby Rydell [then a reigning pop idol], Paul Lynde, the legendary stage star Maureen Stapleton, and the songs by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams.

"It was a marvelous time, and fun. It's amazing to think that it's been-." She takes a long pause, and continues, "This year has been especially memorable because it's the 50th Anniversary of the film. When I look at the DVD and all my photos, it makes time stop. It seems like twenty minutes ago!

"The premiere took place at Radio City Music Hall," she adds, "which brought back sweet memories of being taken there by Daddy on my first night in New York, going there." The movie had the distinction of becoming the highest first-week grosser for the Hall at the time.

[There was another association with the Hall, when she did her show there and "had the amazing experience of dancing with the Rockettes.]

She was on the cover of Life - a second time! A portion of the story read, "Ann-Margret's torrid dancing almost replaces the central heating in the theater." Then, she had her Marilyn Moment: that May, President Kennedy personally asked her to sing at his private 46th birthday party at the Waldorf. He was assassinated seven months later.

In 1989, a role she hadn't expected to play turned into a huge controversy. TV Guide had a cover portrait of Oprah; however, only the head was Miss Winfrey's. The body, according to official documents, "was referenced from a 1979 publicity shot of Ann-Margret."

Asked who were her favorite co-stars, she thinks long and hard. "Elvis [Viva Las Vegas, 1964]! He was quite a character, a pioneer, but I knew him as a great friend. Single-handedly, he changed our concept of music." She's not comfortable speaking of their much-ballyhooed romance, except to say, "We were soul mates. He was a man of immense tenderness." She has also referred to him as "An animal, a very interesting animal!" Maybe they were cut from the same cloth, since she has often been referred to as "the female Elvis Presley."

She notes that it was a "phenomenal experience" to work with Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, and Candice Bergen in Mike Nichol's controversial Carnal Knowledge; and working opposite Al Pacino as Cameron Diaz's alcoholic mother in Oliver Stone's Any Give Day.

Before Smith entered her life, Ann-Margret admitted trysts with Frankie Avalon, Vince Edwards, Eddie Fisher, and Hugh O'Brien.

It is rare to find a charmed life that's free of tragedy. Ann-Margret's has been no exception.

On November of 1972, while appearing in a Lake Tahoe Casino, the star had a close call with death. While performing the spectacular opening number, the 22' platform collapsed. She plummeted to the stage, face-down. Hospitalized with numerous broken bones, she then went into a coma. She required extensive facial reconstructive surgery. In what she calls "certainly a miracle," she was on the path to a full recovery and back working, though in pain, in 10 weeks.

Ann-Margret keeps in shape at the couple's 10-acre spread high up in the Hollywood Hills, "surrounded by beautiful vistas and wildlife. I work out three mornings a week for an hour at the barre and doing every sort of exercise imaginable."

It's where she wrote Ann-Margret: My Story, her 1994 autobiography in which she addresses with amazing candor the accident, the soon-after loss of her father from cancer, Elvis' death, and Smith's diagnosis with myasthenia gravis, a depilating muscle disease and how these trials led to depression and a dependency on alcoholism and her road to recovery.

Through their ups and downs and periods of rebuilding each other's lives, husband and wife have always been at each other's side. It's one of the great love stories in the annals of show business.

So while Ann-Margret has enjoyed great professional success, her personal life has been filled with more than its share of trauma. However, she says, "Through it all, I remained confident. I was amazed at my inner strength to pull myself back up. It took positive focus and much determination. When I say I am blessed, there's no truer statement I could utter.

"If anyone wonders how much longer I'll continue to perform," she adds, "Well, I'm a Taurus and a stubborn Swede, so it will be as long as I feel the joy and passion. It's a love I find difficult to let go of."


by Ellis Nassour, theaterlife.com


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