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Roger Smith

Ann-Margret's Voice Is As Musical As Ever

I first heard Ann-Margret's clean-cut sexy musical voice coming out of movie theater speakers in "Bye Bye Birdie," the 1963 film extolling the virtues of the waning 1950s "Era of Good Feeling," in which, as one internet pundit put it, "by and large we all knew who we were, what we were, and where we were going." Cast as the all-American girl-next-door sex-kitten, Ann-Margret's Kim McAfee was singing about her boyfriend Hugo Peabody, a tall shy reedy guy with a big Adam's apple (played by teen heart-throb Bobby Rydell), whose insecurity about his exquisite girlfriend's loyalty would grow skyscraper high when she was chosen - as president of his greatest fan club - to give a last public kiss to pop star Conrad Birdie, who was about to go off to the army.

In less than a year, the titian-haired long-legged beauty would be singing a sultrier tune to Elvis Presley, with whom she was favorably compared, in the pop-froth film "Viva Las Vegas," and, rumor had it, sharing an up-close and personal meaningful relationship with the King himself. Bookending history with these two popular culture touchstones - as expressed by the exit of Broadway-style musical theater captured on film on one hand, and the entrance of the hip-swiveling rock and roll-style musical made specifically for film on the other - Ann-Margret became a quintessential American cultural icon, and one who has endured for more than 40 years.

A few weeks ago, I heard Ann-Margret's voice again, its seductive alto (she's been compared vocally to another sexy performer, Eartha Kitt), coming at me over the telephone wires in an unexpected and delightful private performance as she burst into spontaneous snatches of songs during our brief but info-packed interview for her upcoming tour stop at L'Auberge du Lac (Thursday August 25 - Friday August 26). "Sorry to be late," she apologized, explaining that she'd been filming, and granting interviews, non-stop. "But soon Roger and I will be driving to Yellowstone Park. I've never been there. It's going to be wonderful," she enthused about the drive and the scenery.

Hmm. That's not what we imagine about an average superstar's idea of a great intimate vacation. But then again, Ann-Margret is far from average. For one thing, she's universally acknowledged to inspire and to be loyal in a business known more for betrayal and change than steadfastness. Even though her relationship with Elvis ended, the end was more than amicable. They remained friends throughout his life, as evidenced by the flowers he sent her for every opening of her stage shows, and Ann-Margret was the only
former co-star to attend the King's funeral.

And then there's her husband of 38 years, Roger Smith, an actor and Ann-Margret's professional manager. While Smith has directed her career, he also suffers from myasthenia gravis, and Ann-Margret has devoted much of her life to his care. But she never dwells on that aspect of their relationship, instead telling me that he is the driving force behind the details of her extravagant and glamorous stage shows. "Roger and I plan all my shows and we always have. He decides what will work best. This time I'm going to have
some wonderful new Bob Mackie gowns, and a few surprises."

Bob Mackie, for those of you too young to remember, has been a gown maker to the stars forever, suggestively pasting glitter to gauze for Cher's memorable outfits, and draping Carol Burnett for a comedy sketch take-off of
"Gone With The Wind" in literal drapery, rod and all. With her sultry kitten's growl grown more lush and inviting, and a wardrobe of biker gear and Bob Mackie costumes, Ann-Margret's coming to Lake Charles is going to be a do-not-miss event.

"Isn't it interesting," Ann-Margret said, when I admitted that I'd sung the Kim McAfee role in my Junior High School's production of "Bye Bye Birdie", "that in all these years of performing, I haven't sung songs from "Bye Bye Birdie" or any of the Elvis movie songs onstage, and now I'm going to sing from both in this new show in Lake Charles, Louisiana. I don't know why I never did sing those them before, because I've always loved them," she said. I truly can't wait to hear them, or any of the old and new surprises that will make up the Las Vegas-style extravaganza. "There'll be a motorcycle number," Ann-Margret promised, "and some of my favorite songs. It's a great show with numbers from different periods of my career."

Then she turned the focus on me. "And do you still sing and dance?" she asked, with genuine warmth in her voice. I thought about the differences between us - she's in gorgeous shape for a woman of any age, and growing older, gracefully, while remaining a sex symbol, as anyone who's seen her stellar performances in the movies "Grumpy Old Men" and "Grumpier Old Men" can attest to. Me, I'm still opting for exercising my money by paying dues to my health club, but avoiding any actual exercise inside its walls. "Regretfully, no," I admitted, but immediately started day-dreaming a successful theatrical comeback with a role in a Lake Charles Little Theatre production.

"Please make sure to come back and say hello," said the star, parting for more interviews, more dress fittings, more rehearsals. "I'm looking forward to being in Lake Charles."

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By Leslie Berman

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From The Times of Southwest Louisiana August 28, 2005

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