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Roger Smith

The Odds Are With The Lady

It is September, 1960. Vice-President Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, the senator from Massachusetts, are locked in a close race for the presidency. While the Eisenhower administration is reeling from the blow of Fidel Castro's revolutionary triumph in Cuba, the candidates are debating the national security interests in relation to the islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Such realities do not intrude on the green-felt playgrounds of Las Vegas. In the lobby of the Dunes Hotel, gamblers and tourists are hugging the gaming tables, so intent on the fast deal of the cards and the roll of the dice that they are oblivious to everything else, including the pretty singer picking her way among them as she heads toward the hotel lounge.

Fresh out of Winnetka, Illinois, nineteenyear-old Ann-Margret Olsson shyly strides across the lobby, self-consciously tugging at her bright orange, spaghetti-strapped sheath, keeping her eyes focused on the brightly patterned rug. She silently prays that her smoky-gray nylons and plastic spring-olator pumps with rhinestone buckles are not making her appear too conspicuousespecially at five 0' clock in the afternoon. She is too naive to know that her flashy outfit blends into the overstated kitsch that is a Las Vegas hallmark, that the people around her are more interested in seeing those triple bars line up on the slot machines than in noting what the lead singer of the Suttletones is wearing to work.

Surrounded by a piano, bass, and drums, Ann-Margret perches on the raised bar stool. She takes a deep breath, tosses her auburn hair, and launches into the first song of the group's three-hour daily stint. Her soft, vibrato-filled voice caresses a smooth rendition of "My Funny Valentine." She is drowned out by the loud, festive chatter of the celebrating crowds clinking glasses in the lounge. Her efforts are met with indifference. Undaunted, she moves on to a jazzy, fingersnapping "I'm Beginning to See the Light." The cacophony of the casino floor seeps into the room. The Suttletones compete with the din of whirring wheels and clanging bells, with the croupier's yells that bring ecstatic whoops from the winners, stony silence from the losers. At the end of the thirty-minute set, the group exits to a smattering of applause and wolfish whistles from the businessmen who catch a glimpse of Ann-Margret's legs. Checking with the musical director, she learns that "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" has replaced "My Funny Valentine." When fighting for attention in a place of multiple distractions, an up-tune is better than a ballad. Ann-Margret bounds out of the darkness of the lounge and into the brightness of the casino. She knows nothing about gambling, but a dealer once advised her not to try, because the edge is always with the house. She ambles across the lobby, holding the slits of her brightly colored sheath. Nobody notices her. Lady Luck reigns supreme on this turf of milling gamblers looking to that one big roll.

The airport limousine pulls into the driveway of the Las Vegas Hilton late at night. The monolithic structure rises in the cool desert air, forming a futuristic Stonehenge with the other equally imposing hotels lining the strip. My friend, Frank, and I peer out the window of the car and see maintenance men juggling with the letters that will emblazon the name "Ann-Margret" across the marquee. It is Frank's first visit and my fifth, but I can tell by our sudden rush of energy that both of us ar~ being drawn into that invisible magnetic energy field that surrounds the city, separating it from the rest of the world. I had first become fascinated with Las Vegas six years ago, when a group of us college students piled into a Volkswagen and drove from Los Angeles to the Vegas Hilton (then called the International) to see Barbra Streisand talk down to her audience. Three years later, on assignment from After Dark magazine, I flew to Vegas to interview Ann-Margret, who was appearing at the Tropicana Hotel. The story appeared in the February 1975 issue, to coincide with the release of Tommy, the Ken Russell film of the rock opera. The following month, After park presented Ann-Margret witn the 1975 Ruby Award for Entertainer of the Year. Now I've returned to this neon playground to see Ann-Margret's new nightclub act, which opens tomorrow night in the Las Vegas showroom.

I tip the driver handsomely, since one of the prevailing superstitions among gamblers is that if you tip the driver well, you will be lucky at the tables-a superstitior) created, no doubt, by the cab drivers of Las Vegas. I do it out of habit, since I have no intention of gambling this trip. I have left all checkbooks and creqit cards safely out of reach, since I arrl more easily seduced by the sight of a blackjack table than a nympnomaniac on MDA is seduced by an Italian stallion. Glancing up to the top floor of the hotel, I wonder if Ann-Margret can see the maintenance men placing her name on the marquee. Seventeen years after she and the Suttletones first rode into this boom town in a dusty station wagon, Ann-Margret is at the top - literally. She and her husband-producer Roger Smith are quartered in the Imperial Suite Penthouse of the hotel, where they will be staying for the duration of her engagement. During the past ten years, Ann-Margret has become a familiar headliner in Las Vegas ever since that night in 1967, when as the pretty leader of the pack, she gave the signal and twelve Triumph 500 choppers came roaring onto the expansive stage of the Tropicana. She was an international film star by that time - a name the Casino owners knew would bring in hundreds of tourists, espepially the high rollers who would drop hundreds of dollars at the tables. Ann- Margret's premier engagement as a headliner in Las Vegas must have been something of a homecoming for her-a return to the place where it had all started for her, where that one clean, lucky break sent her to Holly wood and stardom. Since then, Las Vegas has become a second home to the Smiths. Ann-Margret's exhausting schedule keeps her hopping around the globe, but she is probably more comfortable here than in any other place outside her posh Beverly Hills estate in Benedict Canyon.

Frank and I check into our room at the hotel, but the flashing neon lights and excited commotion on the casino floor quickly lure us back into the lobby. While Frank gleefully loses himself among the rows of gleaming one-arm bandits, I sit at the bar in the lounge, sipping a beer while watching a chubby lady dispassionately plunk down hundred-dollar chips at a blackjack table. The lounge singer, a pretty brunette with a teased hairdo and a tight dress, warbles "Chances Are," an appropriate accompaniment to the flurry of money exchanging hands in the casino. A Las Vegas casino - an island of total irrelevance and escapism - is a return to infantile pleasure for the adult. The lights, the noise, the excitement, even the gambling hunches appeal to the child in all of us. That Ann-Margret came out of this world as a performer, that a large part of her career remains centered here is not surprising. Ann-Margret has a childlike simplicity, an earnest desire to please her audience that is completely in sync with the underlying rhythms of this town. There is a little girl in Ann-Margret that feels completely at home in Las Vegas, absorbed in the pleasures of its glimmering night life as much as anybody else. In this circus of visceral delights and gleaming promises, she perfectly plays out the role of the beautiful lady in pink tights.

A month earlier, I had met with Ann-Margret at her suite at the Regency Hotel in New York. Over a quiet lunch, she had talked about her early years in Las Vegas, humorously describing her outrageous wardrobe and naive attitudes. Out of that conversation, I mentally sketched a portrait of the young Ann-Margret in Las Vegas. It is partly a Cinderella story, A pretty girl arrives with her college band in Las Vegas, hoping to break into the big time. They arrive in an old station wagon at the Nevada Club in the raucous downtown area, only to be told that their expected gig has been canceled. After starving in Los Angeles for a couple of months, they land back at the Dunes lounge, playing during the rough afternoon shift. George Burns happens to catch their act. Suitably impressed with the sexy lead singer, he asks her to be in his show at the Sahara. His good friend, Jack Benny, asks her if he can introduce her on his enormously popular television series. Talent scouts in the audience for "The George Burns Show" spot the pretty ingenue and sign her to a film contract for Twentieth Century-Fox and to a recording contract on RCA. In a January 1961 issue of Life magazine, a lavish photographic spread chronicles the swift rise of newcomer Ann-Margret, almost eclipsing the coverage given to John F. Kennedy's inauguration.

But there is an invisible edge to the fairy tale, I think, as I sit at the bar in the lounge, studying the gum-cracking cocktail waitresses, all of whom could be played by Diane Ladd in a film! After all, Ann-Margret was an impressionable teen-ager, thrown into an adult world of fast-talking agents and high-rollers of hype. Because of her waif-Iike vulnerability, Ann-Margret has always been protected. Yet she has a steely inner fiber that was probably forged in that early Las Vegas chapter. Trying to look older and singing above the roar in a smoky Las Vegas lounge, Ann-Ma!gret learned a lot during those years, including the dealer's admonition to her that the edge is always with the house. Damn right, I concede, as I throw out my accumulated pile of losing keno tickets. I order another beer and give my undivided attention to Miss Tease, the lounge singer, who is fighting a losing battle with a frozen smile.

Roger Smith has the look of barely repressed panic on his face when Frank, chastened from his night of gambling, and I enter the Hilton showroom to see how the afternoon dress rehearsal is progressing. "I sure wish you weren't seeing the show tonight," he moans when he sees us. "Are you sure you can't stay and see it later in the week? The stage hands have just finished carting off the ice from the Osmonds's show. It's already three 0' clock, and we haven't even rehearsed one.single number, not to mention lighting and sound cues. It could be disastrous tonight."

It's Roger's job to worry. For the last eight years he has been Ann-Margret's buffer, absorbing the jolts and bumps that afflict any show-business career. He and super-agent Allan Carr have been the architects of Ann-Margret's spectacular comeback from the mire of spaghetti westerns in the sixties. It was Roger who helped rebuild her confidence when Ann-Margret, crushed by nasty reviews and poor press, retreated into her shell. She is totally dependent upon him, emotionally and professionally, and he is equally protective of her. They are inseparable, and their pact has inevitably given rise to nasty, though harmless, stories that Roger sells Ann-Margret for two grand a night, that he forces her to work as much as she does, evoking the picture of an evil Simon Legree standing in the wings with a whip shouting, "Dance, Ann-Margret, dance!" Roger Smith shares the lot of any person who has to be the troubleshooter dealing with the sticky problems that arise in the management of a superstar.

If his wife is constantly working, it is because she is something of a workaholic; a person who can only relax for a week or two before chomping at the bit to go back to the starting gate. Ann-Margret sees us from the stage and waves. Cool and poised, she goes through her paces, looking to Waiter Painter, the director-choreographer, for reassurance that she is doing everything properly. Number after number proceeds with a minimum of dlff!culty, and Roger becomes cautiously optimistic, though the room remains thick with tension until a break is called. "Can you believe I have to work in these things? They're killing me!" Ann-Margret says as she turns her ankle to show me her sling-back pumps with a thin high heel. It's the only whimper of the day from the lady who must carry the whole show tonight. She doesn't Seem worried as she chatters on about her latest projects. She spent most of last year in, Europe filming Joseph Andrews, Tony Richardson's Restoration comedy based on the Henry Fielding novel, Then she jumped into production of The Last Remake of Beau Geste, and has just signed to do a featured role in The Cheap Detective, the Neil Simon comedy She's excited about her new projects, but then Ann-Margret always is. Whether it's an exerc!se in positive thinking or a cheery facade, Ann-Margret is rarely negative about anything or anyone-at least not in public. But it is safe to assume that her attitude extends to all facets of her professional and personal life. Ask anyone who has ever associated with Ann-Margret for their opinion of her and they invariably reply with a litany of praises-from chorus boys to directors to the women who set up the tables while the rehearsals are in progress.

Doing the restoration comedy with Peter Firth was a challenge, she concedes. She worked with a vocal coach for weeks, trying to achieve the proper English accent to play Lady Booby convincingly. Ann-Margret responds to challenges. For Carnal Knowledge, she gained weight and slovenly moped around the screen in her blowsy role for which she received her first Oscar nomination. Then she sloshed through a flood of chocolate and beans and Ken Russell indulgence to get a second nomination for her role as Nora in Tommy. The honors were sweet vindication for a lady who had been accused of having all of her talent in her voluptuous curves. The second one was especially dear, because "it proved the nomination for Carnal Knowledge wasn't a fluke," says Ann-Margret, allowing her artistic insecurities to surface. She has consistently been underrated as an actress, probably because she came up in films as the Last Contract Player, playing the silly publicity games and being a malleable studio product. She recalls those years with no regrets. She was simply fulfilling her end of the contract, when she was put in trashy films that gave her a "kitten with a whip" image that still sticks in many people's minds today. The lucky roll of the dice that brought her the contract in the first place turned into a poor deal later on. In the last couple of years, however, she has emerged on screen as an actress of depth and sensitivity. Her roles have been well chosen, and she has brought a great deal of determination to her work. It's almost as if she dares herself to do something, and then does it. The !atest dare is a Broadway musical, possibly the madam in the whorehouse in the musical version of King of Hearts, the famous Phillippe De Broca cult film.

Despite the commotion around the showroom, Ann-Margret gives a person her undivided attention. She remains undistracted, totally involved in the conversation at hand. Her right eyelid droops slightly, giving her face a vaguely sultry quality. The characteristic is one of the few vestiges of the near-fatal accident she suffered three years ago in Lake Tahoe. While being lowered onto a scaffolding from the top of a showroom, she took a fifty-foot plunge that left her a heap of broken bones on the floor of the orchestra pit. The incident has been one of the more sensational aspects of her life that journalists have belabored. But it was a traumatic episode that fundamentally changed her outlook. It shows in her intense appreciation of the people and events around her. This is one lady who takes nothing for granted. Her appearance is different, also, probably a combination of the fall and the toll the years have taken. The effervescent prettiness of the ingenue has given way to a more appealing womanly beauty. She has no fear of aging, she tells me, and she has no reason to be afraid-she gets better-Iooking and sexier every day. Looking at her hand, she notes, "The only thing that's left over from the accident is that the nerves in my hand start to twitch slightly whenever I'm under a lot of physical and mental strain." There is no such telltale sign as she bounces back up on stage to complete the dress rehearsal. In another hour, the doors will open and the first night audience will start streaming into the showroom. She's not nervous - it's just another challenge.

Our waitress is harried with drink orders. She barrels along the aisles separating the tables in the Hilton showroom, trying to avoid collisions with the tuxedoed mattre d'hotel seating people and favoring those with crisp dollar bills showing. Money and hype are the only languages that are spoken here. When the waitress finally reaches us, I offer a little sympathy. "Oh yeah, honey," she blurts, "there are a lot of drinkers here tonight. When the Osmonds were here last week, well, you've just never seen so much milk in all your life." Our table companions from Mississippi are in a festive, back-slapping mood-a chorus of southern drawl, polyester suits and ruffled dresses, teased hair and cigars. They're looking forward to seeing Ann-Margret. They saw her "Rhinestone Cowgirl" television special and thought she was terrific in it, "a real person." The men, understandably, are more enthusiastic than the women, though they find glamour where their husbands find sex.

A mediocre comic opens the show. While he is on, the waitresses with small pen-Iike flashlights in their mouths scurry to clear the tables, since there can be no service while Ann-Margret is on stage-a change from her days in the Dunes lounge, where she had to fight to be heard. Confidently, the star sweeps on stage to a warm ovation. For the next hour, she works very hard to entertain j her audience, switching from vamp to chorine to the girl next door without missing a beat. The show is perfectly tailored to her dancing and musical talents, and ends with a big splashy musical number that has the audience cheering with satisfaction. During the rehearsal, Ann-Margret had told me; "when I was appearing with Mr. Burns, I used to stand in the wings every night and watch him and Mr. Benny going through their routines together. They had such rapport wit! their audiences. Mr. Burns would tell me, 'Annie, you've got to love your audiences. If you don't, they will be the first to know and they'll tell you about it.' " The curtain comes down on the show to the strains of "When You're Smiling," Ann-Margret's theme song, which was a particular favorite of her father.

Backstage, Roger Smith is popping champagne corks and carrying a broad smile that says, "That wasn't so bad after all." The dressing room is crammed with flowers, including a guitar-shaped bouquet from AnnMargret's friends at the Grand Old Opry in Nashville. The place is filled with friends and fans offering congratulations. Ann-Margret warmly greets everyone, never forgetting anyone's name and asking after their families. Dressed in her robe, exhaustion showing around her eyes, she tells me that she had so much fun on stage tonight. Her hand is slightly twitching.

I give her a quick hug and tell her good-bye, remembering an incident that happened at rehearsal. In the "Take a Little One-Step" musical number, Ann-Margret goes into the audience, picks on an unsuspecting individual, and asks him to dance. I had seen the number before, so I knew what to expect when Ann-Margret came up to my table while rehearsing the song. She went through the routine as usual, but a knowing glimmer in her eye told me that she was enjoying the joke. The little girl in her notwithstanding, Ann-Margret knows what it's all about. She knows because she's ultimately a survivor. She's survived Las Vegas lounges, the studio system, bad movies, bad press, and a near-fatal accident. Because Las Vegas is in itself a metaphor, it all comes down to the roll of the dice and the dealof the cards for all of us. In her seventeen years in the business, AnnMargret has been dealt some pretty rotten hands. But she's not complaining. She knows that she must cope with the bad. Everything else is a dividend to be shared and enjoyed to the hilt. I could have danced all afternoon with Ann-Margret in that empty showroom. Afterwards, I was grateful. Not because she had danced with me. Not because she hadn't complained about my clumsy feet. But because she had made me forget for a moment that the edge is always with the house.


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