Opening note: The 1963 film Bye Bye Birdie is unashamedly one of my favorite musicals, so I thought I’d come back to my blog by dedicating a post to its starlet Ann-Margret and the impression she made on audiences, especially in the 1960s. This also gives me a chance to work with two subjects that are very dear to me: film history and fashion. I’ll highlight her performance in the aforementioned film and look at her iconic style and screen presence.
Ann-Margret, often known in history as Elvis’ #1 leading lady and ’60s sex symbol, was born Ann-Margret Olsson in Sweden on April 28, 1941. When she was young her family moved to the United States near Chicago after World War II and lived in the funeral parlor that her mother Anna worked in as a receptionist. As a girl Ann-Margret took up dancing and she was a natural, thriving at her lessons. By the time she was a teenager she had been appearing in various talent contests and by the age of sixteen she got to showcase her musical talent on the national television show “The Amateur Hour” in 1957.
In college, Ann-Margret teamed up with three men to form a jazz band called the Suttletones. She completed her freshman year but afterward moved to the West coast with her band members to seek out musical success. This meant performing in cabaret clubs in cities like Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada.
Her big break came in 1960. It happened one night in the lounge of the Dunes Hotel in Vegas. Legendary comedian George Burns spotted her performing and was taken with her. He asked her to perform for his Christmas show at the Sahara Hotel for $100 a night. By the next year she dropped her last name, got a recording contract and began her career in show business, starting with the film Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and then the not-so-successful 1962 remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair.
Here’s one of her screen tests from 1961 which won the executives over at 20th Century Fox and earned her a 7-year contract. Take note of her energetic jazzy style:
Ann-Margret, as mentioned earlier, was known onscreen as a sex symbol and was brushed off by some as just that. (In real life, she is actually more shy and laid-back than her usual screen persona.) It would truly be difficult for anyone to deny that she had a unique quality in her performance style: a mix of sweet, sultry, and sassy; and she was undeniably charismatic.
In Bye Bye Birdie (1963), she got to show off her singing and dancing talents along with an all-star cast, including Janet Leigh, Dick Van Dyke, a young and adorable Bobby Rydell, and the hilarious Paul Lynde. The story may have been extremely silly and a bit far-fetched, but I think the role of over-the-top but endearing fangirl Kim McAfee was well-fit for her. She was wonderful. By now, just about everyone knows the opening to the film: Ann-Margret singing the title song, running on a treadmill-like contraption off screen, singing, almost shrilly, to the love of her life, rock star Conrad Birdie–heavily inspired by Elvis Presley. I was going to post the video but A) I’m including several videos and a handful of photos so it’d probably be an overload and B) I realize not everyone loves the song (many people find it to be very annoying; I am not among that crowd…I love it.) If you’re a fan of fluffy, silly musicals and you haven’t seen Bye Bye Birdie I really do recommend watching it. It’s two hours of pure fun.
Another notable screen role was with Elvis in the 1964 musical Viva Las Vegas. They proved to be a great screen team with sizzling chemistry–which is said to have carried off-screen for a short time. Many believe Ann-Margret and Elvis were meant to be together in real life, but their affair never led to anything further. They remained dear friends until Elvis’ death in 1977.
She met Roger Smith, who was in the television show 77 Sunset Strip and they were married in 1967. He also became her manager and led her on to more dramatic and serious acting roles. They’ve been married for forty-seven years. Pretty cool.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, Ann-Margret had a great sense of fashion in the 1960s and ’70s. A natural brunette, her hair was eventually dyed red when her career took off. Her sense of fashion seemed to especially be influenced by her onscreen personality: vivacious and playfully sensual.
*Click on individual photos to view full-sized*
Her career has spanned for decades. From films to albums to live shows, Ann-Margret’s legacy lives on. There’s so much more that I could say about her and in the future I’d love to continue writing about her…and maybe one day show her films to crowds of people. For now, I hope I’ve done her justice. From what I’ve heard, she seems to be one of the kindest most down-to-earth actresses out there–not to mention completely adorable. If I could meet any movie star of my choice, she’d be at the top of my list. I keep thinking I’m going to write her a letter someday. I think I’ll do that soon. Here’s to you, Ann-Margret. Keep on dancin’ on.