Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
The walls of Roger Smith's office are covered with pictures of Ann-Margret. Here she is as a sex kitten, on the cover of Life. There's a cover from Entertainment World, a forgotten show business magazine. All in a row are three recent covers of People. And here are an oil painting of Ann-Margret, and a lot of cartoonist's caricatures, and some framed ads and telegrams and the usual backstage memorabilia. In one corner, almost hidden behind a file cabinet, is Roger Smith's only souvenir of his own career: A framed ad for his stage appearance as a folk singer at the "hungry i" nightclub in San Francisco, in 1964.
"That was where we met for the second time," Ann-Margret remembered. "The first time was in 1960, at O'Hare Airport. I don't think I really noticed him, can you believe, I'd never seen him on '77 Sunset Strip.' But that night in San Francisco I thought he was terrific. What a kind, nice man. He asked me out. That was in 1964. We've been together ever since."
She was curled up on an overstuffed sofa in the big living room of their home in Benedict Canyon, up in the hills above Beverly Hills. Bogart and Bacall used to live there. The walls were covered with Impressionist paintings; the room, decorated in yellows and bright greens, was filled with plants and flowers and sunlight, and Ann-Margret was sipping grape juice. Roger had just finished talking with one of those Hollywood exercise experts who makes house calls so you can pump iron in private, and now he was waiting for the laser-beam expert to arrive. The laser-beam man was going to explain a new effect for Ann-Margret's current national tour, which brings her to Chicago, her hometown, Thursday through July 24, for a series of concerts at the Auditorium. It will be the first time she has brought her road show here.
It was sort of a quiet Saturday afternoon at home for the Smiths, if you didn't know about all the things going on under the surface. Ann-Margret and Roger (who permanently quit acting to become her husband, manager and confidant) are in the mainstream of a career that has never been busier and more successful, and in the middle of a personal crisis that they are trying to deal with one day at a time.
Smith learned almost two years ago that he has myasthenia gravis, a progressive muscular disease. The doctors have given him perhaps 10 years to live. He has days (like this day) when everything goes well, and then other days or even a week at a time when he lacks the strength to get out of bed. "That really bothers me, when there's nothing I can do to help him," Ann-Margret says.
There is the irony that it was Roger Smith who saved Ann-Margret's career. In 1972, when she fell from a scaffold during a Lake Tahoe production number and he refused to let the doctors open up her crushed face, insisting on flying her to Los Angeles where surgery from inside the mouth repaired the serious damage and left her famous beauty intact. That accident, she now says, was the turning point in her career; as she recovered, she read and personally answered every one of the thousands of letters she received, and she began to develop a new philosophy about performing.
"When I first started out," she said, "I was really, really scared when I performed before an audience. I'd look over their heads. Now there's a more personal connection. I think that some of the people who wrote those letters are in every audience. The accident really showed me something, and I'm much freer on stage now."
Although Smith has been advised by his doctors to cut back on his workload, there are no indications that he's taking their advice. The national tour is the most ambitious Ann-Margret has ever attempted, and Smith is masterminding it right down to the light cues. It comes after her three major movie roles in the last year ("I Ought to Be in Pictures," "Lookin' to Get Out" and "Return of the Soldier"), a highly rated made-for-TV, movie ("Who Will Love My Children?"), and a major new TV movie in the works (she will play Blanche Dubois in "A Streetcar Named Desire," co-starring Treat Williams, Beverly D'Angelo and Randy Quaid). And Ann-Margret continues to appear regularly at Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe.
"But we've never taken the show on the road before," she said. Basically, we've only done it in Nevada and London. And the reason for that is pretty simple: This is a big, Vegas-style production that is incredibly complicated to tour with. This isn't just me onstage with a microphone and one dress. I travel with 38 people. I bring along five sidemen, a conductor, seven dancers, three backup singers, carpenters, projectionists, the laser people and a whole road crew. It's a matter of pride that we're presenting a real show, not just a scaled-down road version."
When she was talking about the "real show," I said I wondered if she was thinking about her stage beginnings in the Chicago area, where she starred in musicals at New Trier and Northwestern before catching the eye of George Burns, who plucked her out of a group named the Subtletones and put her into his Vegas act.
"Oh, definitely," she said. "It's the whole let's get the show together and go on the road routine, But it was just always so complicated to tour with this show. Aaron Gold, God rest his soul, was always after Roger and me to play Chicago. After all, it's my hometown, I have relatives there. My mother is going to be in the opening-night audience, and about 50 other relatives, too, So anyway, finally, last February, Roger and I went to Chicago to took at possible theaters. And we just fell in love with the Auditorium. The stage is so close to everybody, I could stand on the stage and use my normal speaking voice, and Roger could hear me up in the top row of the balcony."
The doorbell rang. Roger himself slipped out of his office, humming a little tune, and opened it. A young man in running shoes stepped inside. "This is Rich," Roger said. "The laser man." Rich was carrying some science-fiction gimmickry under his arm.
"We were the first act in Nevada to incorporate laser effects into our show," Ann-Margret said. "And people think we're crazy because we only use them in one number: You're spending all that money and that's all you're using it? But it's right for one number."
"We have a lot of complicated things in this show," Roger said, sitting on the back of a couch.
"Explain about the click track," Ann-Margret said.
"We have," said Roger, "a section of the show that is so hard to do that I don't know how Ann-Margret does it. She appears onstage, and there are three screens behind her. She's on all three screens. And she does a three-part performance with herself as her own backup. It involves perfectly timed cues, to mesh Ann-Margret with the film.
"So, Marvin Hamlisch and I worked out this stereophonic feedback system in which the music comes in on one channel and a metronome comes in on the other. Of course, the audience doesn't hear the metronome. And then Ann-Margret also has closed-circuit TV so she can see what's going on with the three screens. Then there are all these complicated cues - like at one point a dancer leaps offstage and then leaps onscreen. Well, naturally you want him offstage before he's onscreen. Little timing things like that. Not, to even mention laser beams."
He grinned. "I was asking Rich one day, How do you handle a laser beam? And he said, Very carefully."
Roger and Rich went into Roger's office and shut the door behind their discussion of new laser effects. Ann-Margret sipped her grape juice and said she would give me a notion of her schedule just now.
"I worked until 5 this morning, filming 'Streetcar.' It's the finest role I've ever had, and it's taking the most out of me. I'm not a technical actress, I'm an emotional actress, and if Blanche Dubois feels something, I do. Monday, we finish the scene. Then I go to San Francisco for six nights. Then back here, then to New Orleans for one final day's shooting on 'Streetcar.' Then we take the show to Toronto, Atlantic City, Chicago and St. Louis. Then to Aspen. That's for R & R. I'm keeping pretty busy. But one thing I've learned is that the experiences you go through, the good and the bad, make you stronger."
Experiences like Roger's illness?
"That, yes, and other things. Going through with this tour might seem crazy, everything considered, but we both love it. I love to be onstage. It's an electric thing with me. It has been since I was 4 years old. Before the curtain goes up, I'm like a racehorse at the starting gate. I can't wait. Roger, on the other hand, never wanted to be a performer. He did it, but he was happy to stop. For him, it was work. For me, it isn't. One's enough in the family. Roger is a producer. He loves to engineer things and coordinate things and get everything to happen all at once on schedule in the way it's supposed to. We get our little nucleus together, Roger and me and our choreographer, and we're really happy, because we really believe in putting on a show."
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