Variety was the spice of televised life in the 1960s and '70s, and Ann-Margret was among the hottest flavors on the tube as she strutted her sex appeal and her talents as singer, dancer and actress in a number of TV specials. The titles included From Hollywood With Love, When You're Smiling, Ann-Margret Olsson (her birth name), Ann-Margret Smith (her married name) and Rhinestone Cowgirl.
Variety as a televised genre may have all but vanished, but not Ann-Margret, who turned 61 on Sunday. She'll be in Baltimore May 7-12 as Miss Mona Stangley, the pragmatic but principled madam of the Chicken Ranch, in a touring revival of the 1978 Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Last summer, after performances of Best Little Whorehouse in Houston, Ann-Margret adjourned to the same recording studio where the Big Bopper cut "Chantilly Lace." Over several nights, she laid down vocals for her first album of gospel songs.
God Is Love: The Gospel Sessions was released in the fall on Art Greenhaw Records, a tiny custom label out of Mesquite, Texas. Sales have been scant, says owner Greenhaw, but the album has been nominated for a Grammy and a Dove Award, the highest honor in the Christian music industry.
Life for the Swedish star has been strewn with obstacles. Among them are a fight with alcoholism in the 1970s, infertility, her parents' initial coldness toward her husband, former TV star Roger Smith (77 Sunset Strip), Smith's ongoing battle with myasthenia gravis (an immune-system disease that causes muscle weakness), and Ann-Margret's own susceptibility to bone-breaking accidents - among them a life-threatening 22-foot fall in 1972 from a platform during her Las Vegas nightclub act.
True to form, Ann-Margret debuted as Miss Mona with her left wrist in a cast. She says she was trying to coax one of her six cats into her Beverly Hills home on Christmas Eve 2000, when she caught a high-heeled shoe on a walkway and fell. "People will say, 'Break a leg.' I say, 'Ooh, I don't usually say anything like that,'" Ann-Margret said from a tour stop in Denver.
Ann-Margret says she is delighted with the tour - "knee deep and loving it" - as she approaches her 300th performance as Miss Mona. The 40-city trek continues through mid-May, and she said she is mulling a contract renewal to extend it several months.
It is the most sustained role of her career. Other memorable moments include her star-smitten teen in Bye-Bye Birdie, Elvis Presley's love interest in Viva Las Vegas and Oscar-nominated turns as Jack Nicholson's troubled girlfriend in Carnal Knowledge and the titular deaf-dumb-and-blind-boy's mother in Tommy.
Ann-Margret says she had turned down past offers to star in musicals. This time was different. She liked the part, and Smith, who has guided her career since they wed in 1967, was eager for her to take it and felt well enough to travel with her.
She laughed when asked whether she saw any contradiction between singing gospel on CD and playing a madam on stage. As the poster for The Best Little Whorehouse makes clear, sexiness is still her trademark. It shows Ann-Margret draped in a bedsheet as she lounges atop a Lone Star of Texas.
"I know it sounds really strange," she said. "But [the religious side] is a part of me that I have not had a chance to show. I've always believed in the Lord, and I really felt good being able to express myself that way."
Producer Greenhaw says he has been an Ann-Margret fan since Viva Las Vegas 38 years ago. Along with the obvious sensuousness, he said in an interview, he also found a spirituality in her performances. That was confirmed when he read her 1994 autobiography, My Story.
Greenhaw, a member of the gospel group the Light Crust Doughboys, wrote some religious songs for Ann-Margret and sent them to her manager last year. He suggested she perform them with backing from his group and the legendary harmony ensemble the Jordanaires. She agreed, and sessions were scheduled for last June in Dallas.
The day before the first session, Ann-Margret's mother, Anna Aronsson Olsson, died at age 82. Recording was postponed for several weeks.
Ann-Margret says her mother's death brings deeper meaning to the gospel CD, her first new album in about 20 years. "[My mother] was so excited about it and so interested in it, so it made me feel good to honor her with it."
Ann-Margret is not planning for future roles or thinking about taking this show to Broadway.
"I never look into the future or back. ... I just want to live right now. I feel really blessed."
Mike Boehm writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
What: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 p.m. May 7-May 10, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. May 11 and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. May 12