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Roger Smith

Nothing Stops The Champ!

That's the sign on Ann-Margret's dressing room - and this is why it's there..

"Nothing stops the champ!" says the hand-lettered sign on the dressing room door. Inside, the scent of roses is heavy in the air. Every available space in this garish subterranean chamber seems taken up with flowers, messages - the telegrams lining the wall read like a "Whos' Who" of show business - and people come to pay tribute to an act of raw courage.

It is Ann-Margret's comeback time. Only 11 weeks ago she lay bleeding and broken on the stage of a Lake Tahoe night club. While preparing to make her entrance, she had fallen head first from a 22-foot platform, crushing the left side of her face and driving pieces of her shattered cheekbone up into the sinuses. The world was properly awed by melodramatic accounts of husband Roger Smith's flight through murky weather to get his songbird to UCLA Medical Center, and wondered if she would ever perform again. Surgeons found it necessary to remove damaged tissue from her cheek, and to so wire up her jaw that she could be fed only through a tube.

Tonight, just recently off her liquid diet, and her face muscles still stiff from disuse, she had come on stage as if she had never been away. She was "happy to be back here, happy to be anywhere", she said cheerfully. "How would you like to have to tell your husband, 'Roger, bring me a glass of prime rib?'" Later the dancers tossed her around in an extremely physical number called "Return of the Kitten with a Whip", a spoof on her old image. At the finish, a big, teary rendition of "When You're Smiling", the packed Las Vegas Hilton International Showroom rose and cheered in what one reviewer called "one of the most stunning personal triumphs ever witnessed".

Under the circumstances it would seem enough of an accomplishment for one day. But there are "legends" beiung nurtured here, and the legend makers are relentless. It is hard to tell who works harder in the making - this frail blonde girl with the irrepressible compulsion to perform and please, or her managers who are so set on giving her what she wants: a nonstop career at the top. After the ovation, which she received in tears, is the ceremonial reception in the hotel suite, as stiffly stylized as a medieval morality play, with its milling photographers, smiling P.R. men, and famous guests jockeying for position near the star.

The star herself, a 22-carat diamond flashing from her finger ("Hey Roger" cracks Cass Elliot, "why don't you hire Peggy Fleming to skate on it?"), moves like a sleepwalker through the crush. The real girl - if there is one - is hidden behind the hoopla. Her responses seem almost automatic, as if someone had programmed her to play this part. No wonder. Her day has begun at 2 P.M. with the dress rehearsal and will end with the midnight show.

Twenty-four hours later, most of the well-wishers have left town. Tonight there is no "reception". She has just done the dinner show and it has gone well. She sits alone in her dressing room. There is a dark splotch just below her left cheekbone.

She sighs. "I was in such good shape before the accident. Now my energy level is down. There are certain steps I just don't do because I'm not sure all my muscles will move. Last night I had this terrible fear I might not be able to stay on my feet.

"Stiil I had to do this. If I don't work I climb the walls. You see, entertaining is what I do. I've been doing it since I was 4, and I don't do anything else. If I stop, the world might not come apart. But I would."

Little things keep popping into her head. How kind George Burns was 12 years ago when she, as a trembling schoolgirl, first auditioned a soft-shoe dance to the tune of "I Ain't Got Nobody" and he gave her a place in his act. She was afraid then. She still is afraid, she says.

Men help alleviate those fears. "Men are my buffers", she is saying. "I've been completely dependent on them all my life. I'm very emotional. I'm shy. It's the strangest thing. I stay in the house a lot. I have the faith of a child. So obviously I've been hurt a lot.

"Roger understands these things. He knows what makes me happy and what makes me sad. He brings me out of my shell." Then , in a tiny voice: "I just don't understand how he does it."

Actually there are two men who "understand" her. The serious-minded Roger Smith, the original sandbox detective from the old "77 Sunset Strip", took up with A-M in 1964, flew her around in his private airplane a lot, and gave up acting to write and produce movies and to supervise her career. Allen Carr, the personable onetime boy-impressario from Chicago, has been Roger's long-time manager-partner-friend.

They not only understand her, they protect her as a father might protect a precocious but unpredictable child. They see to it that she has minimal contact with the outside world, during her engagements at least.

Her working day in Las Vegas consists of a show at 8.30, roast beef in the dressing room at 10.15, and a midnight show. She goes to bed shortly after 2 o'clock. She customarily sleeps until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, Roger, an early riser and compulsively busy man, treats her like a mythical princess.

Carr is the long-range planner, image-shaper and business brain. In 1967, due largely to an overdose of cheap exploitation pictures, Ann-Margret's celebrity, until then a hit-or-miss affair, seemed ready to collapse. It was Carr who stepped in and turned the game around. Shrewdly using television as a wedge, he created a "new" Ann-Margret - in fact, several new Ann-Margrets, one might almost say one for every day of the week.

The ploy worked well enough to catch the eye of producer Stanley Kramer, who put her in "R.P.M.", "which although it got poor reviews, re-established her as a more-or-less serious actress; then of Mike Nichols, who saw in her the perfect Bobbie Templeton, the blowsy but affecting demimonde in "Carnal Knowledge". She was to get an Academy Award nomination for that. Then, just before the accident, she starred in "The Train Robbers" opposite the Duke himself, John Wayne, who really is a legend. All in all it worked well enough to earn $2,000,000 for A-M in 1971, not bad for a reconstituted Kitten with a Whip.

Right now, the two kindly schemers sit amid the plastic geraniums of the Hilton International's coffee shop, conducting post-mortems. "They say we manipulate her, wind her up like a doll; we're ogres", Carr is saying. "We were prepared to cancel her appearance here, her TV special, everything. We never expected she could or would want to come back this fast."

"We had no choice", Smith says. "People like my wife are born to perform. When they can't, they're miserable. When she got to feeling better, she felt into a deep depression. Even the doctors agreed she had to get back up on the stage.

"Her Tahoe fall happened just after midnight. I was in town to put the kids in school, so I heard about it in my own living room. Besides the broken bones, her sinuses were caved in. I had a plastic surgeon waiting in Los Angeles. The only way to get her there fast enough was by plane, but the weather was poor and there were no planes available. So I flew her in my Cessna 337 Twin. We ripped out the seats and used my son's sleeping bag to cradle her. With all that pain she never once complained.

"It sometimes seems that when we are separated, the bad things happen. I need her. She needs me. Her fears are very great. She gets up in the morning, goes to the mirror and rubs her left cheek. 'Roger, Roger, will it stay?' she asks me."

Heavy stuff, the kind usually accompanied by throbbing violins. Yet there has always been a gaslit quality about Ann-Margret's life: her painful shyness, her extreme vulnerability, her early life in the rat-infested Chicago funeral parlor in which her mother worked and in which the family lived, her emergence as a cheerleader at New Trier High School and subsequent one-girl assault in that memorable appearance on the 1962 Oscarcast.

Carr recalls it well. "It was my first real awareness of A-M", he says. "She'd done a couple of films but nothing much had happened. Then she did the Oscarcast - a number called 'Bachelor In Paradise'. Electrifying. Next morning everybody knew her. She was offered every movie in town.

"What she got was 'Bye Bye Birdie', in which she played the girl from Sweet Apple, Ohio. America fell in love with that girl and she became the hottest thing to happen in a decade.

"That's when things started to come apart. She went to MGM and made a three-picture deal, also to Columbia, Paramount, Fox, United Artists and Universal. It was insane. She wound up with 22 picture commitments which would have kept her working six years without a break. Then she met Roger and put her foot down. 'My personal life is my own', she said.

"That's sacrilige in this town. She won the Sour Apple Award two years in a row. The press crucified her, which was easy to do. The pictures she did do were nowhere. She played shrews so convincingly that people thought she really was one.

"Roger and I had a talk. I knew there was that other Ann-Margret in there. We would have to start all over. TV is the place for that; it looks into the heart of a person. It's what makes careers. So she did 'em all - Hope, the Benny specials, Dino, Lucy - letting people see what she really was like."

Before long Carr found himself sifting three fat movie offers ("The Maltese Falcon", "Viva Max" and "The Song Of Norway"), all of which he turned down; they weren't "right" for A-M. He opted instead for the second Ann-Margret TV special (1969), in which the old motorcycle image became for the first time the subject of comedy.

Suddenly her banishment was over. She could again hold her head as an actress, move in the company of the likes of Mike Nichols, make million-dollar television specials (for which the Las Vegas show was a testing ground), and take a run at being the superstar her mentors have always assured her she could be.

And what kind of superstar might A-M become? That is an elusive question, considering all the role-playing her mentors require her to do. "A-M is a girl for all seasons", says Carr. "She can play anything you want her to. I just want to be sure that, for the rest of her life, whatever she wants to do, we'll have it covered. She doesn't have to be anything. She is your fantasy person who becomes whatever you choose to make her. Sexy but also real. That makes her everybody's dream entertainer."


By Dwight Whitney


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