Ann-Margret: Still Stunning, Sweet, and Being Honored by Career Transitions for Dancers with the Rolex Dance Award on October 8
By: Ellis Nassour
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  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."
Broadway & Beyond: Celebrating Theatre & Dance will include numbers from Broadway shows and appearances by Tony and Drama Desk winner Kelly Bishop (A Chorus Line; TV’s Gilmore Girls), Dulé Hill (Broadway, After Midnight; TV, Psych), Andrea McArdle (original Annie), Tony and Drama Desk nominee Christiane Noll (Chaplin), Rosie O’Donnell, and dancer/choreographer Noah Racey. Also on the bill will be artists from the ABT, Cirque du Soleil, and N. Y. Song & Dance Company.
Tickets are available at $45 – $130 and are available at the City Center box office or through CityTix at www.nycitycenter.org or by calling (212) 581-1212. For more information, visit www.careertransition.org.
End of Part One. Part Two will appear on Monday.