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Ann-Margret, in the Flesh 

Beyond age 60, the legendary sex kitten has an adoring Castro crowd writhing in ecstasy

Wednesday, Feb 27 2002
I still remember the first time I saw Viva Las Vegas. More accurately, I remember the first time I saw Ann-Margret dance, with her bed-tossed hair, those tight black leggings just hinting at sheer, and that bright red shirt rippling and wrinkling like a state flag flying in a hurricane. Even though I was watching the movie on a snowy black-and-white television set, I knew that Ann-Margret's shirt was fire-engine red; she just didn't seem like a woman who would be satisfied by any other shade. Not moving like that. Even in my media-deprived youth, I knew Ann-Margret was hot. Every inch of her 5-foot-5 frame lit up when she danced -- wild, uninhibited, and nearly ecstatic with rhythm. Elvis Presley had it, too, almost. At the time, I didn't know the man Ann-Margret shoved in the swimming pool during "The Lady Loves Me" was already the King, but I knew he was a good match for Ann-Margret. When she smiled at him her entire upper lip disappeared, the way it will when really close childhood friends see each other again for the first time.

That exceptional blend of neighborhood-girl authenticity and vixen abandon is what President John F. Kennedy doubtlessly noticed when he requested a private birthday performance from Ann-Margret, just one year after Marilyn Monroe had topped the same cake. Unlike Monroe, though, Ann-Margret had a vulnerability that never turned to helplessness. She never publicly pouted over Hollywood's desire to typecast her as a sex kitten; she just let the kitten grow up and get messy in such Oscar-nominated roles as the voluptuously damaged Bobbie Templeton in 1971's Carnal Knowledge or the baked-bean-and-chocolate-bathing Nora Walker Hobbs in 1975's Tommy. Between takes in her 40-year acting career, Ann-Margret has nurtured three children, one dog, at least six cats, and 38 years of marriage. Last year, she turned 60 while playing the most infamous madam in stage history, and still, she's just a shy little lady from Valsjobyn.

"I've heard she's really, really super shy," says 34-year-old Sensie Lyustin, clutching the ruffled skirt of her Bye Bye Birdie-inspired dress. "So this is a really rare opportunity to hear her speak. I came up from Los Angeles. My best friend got me tickets. It's so exciting." Lyustin lets out a tiny, high-pitched squeal, also seemingly inspired by Ann-Margret's 1963 role as a rock-crazed fan from Sweet Apple, Ohio. Lyustin's friend, a tall, cavalier, abundantly pierced brunette named Craig Rhodes, rolls his eyes in the direction of the Castro Theatre marquee, which reads "Viva Ann-Margret!"

"Really, she's never like this," says Rhodes, flicking Lyustin's puffy short sleeves. "It's just that Ann-Margret has this ... hmmm ... what does A-M have? Besides an incredible snarl and legs and attitude to match? And that husky man-eating voice and that hair! She went braless on Carson, you know. Did you see her in Streetcar? She was incredible. OK, OK, it's very, very exciting."

Lyustin and Rhodes grasp hands and glance back over their shoulders where the pre-ticketed line stretches up the block and around the corner. Inside, most of the theater seats on the first floor are already full. Garlands of petite pink roses hang from the lip of the stage while, overhead, images of Ann-Margret twist, swing, sing, bounce, and wink in Technicolor glory. Delightful movie trailers, rare film tests, and truly bizarre television appearances, including some disco moments in black satin, an animated solo as Ann-Margrock on The Flintstones, and a nipple-popping rendition of Kiki Dee's "I've Got the Music in Me" as performed on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, keep the audience shouting and giggling before the man with the pink tuxedo and the "Mighty Wurlitzer" launches into an organ-fueled version of "Viva Las Vegas." In raptures, the sold-out crowd claps and sings along to the title song's chorus. Clips from 1964's Kitten With a Whip -- "She uses sex like an animal uses teeth ..." -- are followed by a slinky, bouncy, sweaty, silly live-dance routine, choreographed by Marilynn Fowler and inspired by Ann-Margret. Then baby pictures fill the screen; the crowd aaaahhs appreciatively, and continues as baby settings give way to ballet studios, which give way to school stages and sound studios and movie sets with psychedelic body painting (in 1966's The Swinger). Gasps, grunts, and giggles proliferate in the theater as Ann-Margret writhes in cocoa sludge and baked beans in Tommy, but there's not a whisper as she delivers Blanche Dubois' always-censored speech about a soft boy and a revolver. Finally, the feature attraction, Viva Las Vegas, erupts on screen. And erupt it does. No one can imagine how lascivious this rock 'n' roll classic can be until he's viewed it with a Castro Street crowd. Whistles, howls, and guffaws punctuate the subtle innuendo about car engines and hydrogen bombs, but Ann-Margret doesn't need punctuating. During her song-and-dance routines, the crowd seems satisfied to stomp its feet and clap boisterously.

It's quite a shift of gears, then, when Ann-Margret arrives at last, in the flesh. Although she is buxom and betasseled in bright red western raiment, designed by Bob Mackie for her lead role as Mona Stangley in the touring production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Ann-Margret is, as always, soft-spoken and demure. This real-life shyness, the quality that allied her with Elvis Presley more than her swiveling hips, led reporters to sneer in the '60s, but tonight the interviewer is childhood friend and former People Are Talking host Ann Frasier, and, for a moment, Ann-Margret's upper lip disappears beneath her smile.

Frasier leads Ann-Margret from Sweden, where her mother sang folk songs for a town of 150, across the ocean aboard the Gripsholm to New York City, where her father immediately took her to see the Rockettes with an Al Jolson movie at Radio City Music Hall.

"It was so huge and so, so beautiful," says Ann-Margret in a voice filled with husky excitement as she scoots to the edge of her seat and stares up at the gold-gilt ceiling of the Castro Theatre. "I couldn't speak a word of English, but I had never seen anything so beautiful. Thirteen years later, I was on a marquee. I still can't believe that."

Frasier invites her to talk about George Burns, who discovered her singing in a nightclub and brought her on tour; and Montgomery Clift, who brought her to the set of The Misfits when she was still singing with a band; and Bette Davis, who taught her the meaning of a close-up; and Jack Nicholson, who taught her how to cry; and Mike Nichols, who believed she could be a serious actress; and Roger Smith, her husband and manager, who believed she could be anything. But Frasier skirts the subject of Elvis, a tender topic that still makes Ann-Margret teary. (A-M and Roger Smith were among the very few celebrities to attend his funeral.)

Folks wanting "dish" will have to wait. Folks wanting Ann-Margret get tales about a fluffy white dog named Missy and owning the same house for 34 years. They get a glimpse of what it's like to stare into the business end of a giant baked-bean cannon while pretending not to see it; they get to chuckle at a woman's age, even if it's not really 105, and learn facts about real-life Texas madams; they get to hear rousing renditions of the Illinois New Trier High School cheer; and discover how music can make a polite small-town girl feel free.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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