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Roger Smith

Ann-Margret gets her act
together and takes it on the road!

In 1959, in the annual student variety show at New Trier High School, she squezzed into a chartreuse sheath slit beyond teenage propriety and wiggled her way through an old Irving Berlin number, graphically illustrating such lyrics as "She started this Heatwave / By letteing her seat wave". Winnetka, Ill., had never seen anything like her; fathers (as one confessed later) "were melting in their chairs". Twenty-three years later, the heatwave is still sizzling. Having survived two decades of sometimes sniffy reviews and a near fatal accident, Ann-Margret, 41, is currently undulating cross-country in her first U.S. road show. The ultraslick production - which includes lasers, a 26-piece orchestra, seven dancers and three back-up singers - has broken box-office records in Atlantic City, Atlanta and Dallas, and may be headed for Broadway. Dripping with perspiration and black-and-blue from being upended in a torrid dance, the star leaped off-stage after a recent ovation into the arms of her husband-manager, Roger Smith. "I feel like I've been shot out of a cannon!" she squealed, as breathless and amazed as if she were still melting those Winnetka fathers instead of 4,600 screaming Atlantans at $15 per. "Yahoo!"

In a 40's cabaret number, she follows some old costume advice from George Burns: "Annie, people want to see where that voice is coming from!"

"It's show time",
she belts,
"and I've just got to let go!"

A punk Ann-Margret glides through fog and
lasers in "Everybody Nedds Somebody Sometime".

Ann-Margret implores us to
"Hold Me, Squezze Me".

"I'm very familial"

When she starts singing, "said a director of one of her early movies, "I have to chase my kids out of the room". Film critic Pauline Kael has observed that no matter what role Ann-Margret plays, audiences perceive her as a bad girl who "gleams with built-in innuendo". It's an ironic image, for as soon as she walks offstage, the Elvis pelvis stops gyrating, the siren's wail becomes a whisper, and (perhaps as compensation for the children she would like to have) the wanton woman becomes a clucking mother hen. She kisses her dancers after the show, plays video games with the crew, applauds Roger's home movies (starring the cast, not herself) and recently, deciding her associate producer looked peaked, announced, "You need potassium!" and fed him a banana.

In a Dallas honky-tonk, A-M shot pool with Roger and, dazzled by country and western, sang "Your Cheatin' Heart" all the way home in her limo.

"I'm a late bloomer who takes everything in baby steps"

"Is she still a kitten with a whip", asks her choreographer, Lester Wilson, referring to one of her more forgettable film roles, "or has she become a lioness with a buzz saw?" Whatever, Ann-Margret says, she is finally, if belatedly, growing up. She has even graduated from "bullfeathers", which used to be her favorite expletive. Though she received Academy Award nominations for "Carnal Knowledge" and "Tommy", her struggle for recognition as an actress may be convincingly won this fall with the release of her 35th and 36th movies. In "Lookin' to Get Out" she plays a Vegas ex-hooker, and in "The Return of the Soldier" (co-starring Glenda Jackson and Julie Christie), a dowdy spinster in high-necked dress. A-M says she has tamed the "demons" that once gave her ulcers and made her throw up before each performance, though her hands still turn icy before she goes onstage. "Let her have a little stress", teases Roger, lamenting her passion for vanilla ice cream with chocolate-covered almonds. "It'll help her lose weight". Roger, 49, once ruled his wife's career, finances and psyche with an iron hand. Now, in their 16th year of their amazingly durable marriage, he is more mellow, she more assertive. The decisions are shared. One reason is Roger's capricious health. Three years ago he discovered that he has myasthenia gravis, a muscle disease that can be both progressive and debilitating. Though he was strong enough to produce his wife's road show, he stays in bed on bad days and gets tired even on good ones. Ann-Margret remembers that a decade ago Roger was at her side day and night after she fell 22 feet on a Lake Tahoe stage. "When one of us is weak", she says, "the other has to be strong. It's my turn now".


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