Career Transitions for Dancers Honors Legendary Ann-Margret with Rolex Dance Award
By: Ellis Nassour
The captivating 5’4" dynamo of screen, TV, recording, and Vegas legend Ann-Margret created a towering presence singing and dancing in films, TV, and onstage. There’ve been Oscar [two] and Golden Globe  nominations. She won five Golden Globes and six Emmys. And not just for musical comedy.
Now in the fifth decade of her career, Ann-Margret segued from her rebellious sex kitten [with a whip] image and "bad girl" period into an acclaimed dramatic actress. A recent magazine poll named her "One of the 100 Sexiest Stars in Film History."
"It’s truly been unbelievable and wonderful," says Ann-Margret. It wasn’t always peaches ‘n cream, however. In spite of personal challenges she and her husband Roger Smith have encountered, she feels "I’m the luckiest person in the world."
Her devotion to dance will be honored Tuesday at City Center at 7 P.M. when Career Transitions for Dancers [CTFD] bestows upon her their coveted Rolex Dance Award at their 28th Anniversary gala, Broadway & Beyond: Celebrating Theatre & Dance. Ann-Margret was one of the first to recognize the organization’s outreach work and became a charter member of its advisory committee. It’s 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 Oscar-winner, four-time Tony-winner, two-time Golden Globe winner, and Legends Grammy honoree, Liza Minnelli, the recipient of the 2012 Award.
"Dance has been a part of my life since age eight," explains Ann-Margret. "I know the need for CTFD. So many of the dancers I’ve worked with had a rough time transitioning. It’s hard when your only passion is dance. Our shelf life is only so long. CTFD is there – emotionally, financially, and in so many other ways, to provide assistance."
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."
CTFD’s Broadway & Beyond: Celebrating Theatre & Dance is a 90-minute [no intermission] extravaganza with non-stop dancing and singing "to bring to life the magic of theater through the universal scope of dance in pop culture." Among the stellar participants are Tony/Drama Desk winner Kelly Bishop, Tony/Drama Desk nominee Christiane Noll, Rosie O’Donnell, dancer/choreographer Noah Racey, artists from the ABT, and Cirque du Soleil.
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.
For much more on the career of Ann-Margret, visit www.Ann-Margret.com.