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April 28, 2024

Fascinating Photographs Capture Daily Life of the Young Starlet Ann-Margret in 1961

Ann-Margret Olsson was born on April 28, 1941, in Valsjobyn, Sweden. She was born into a tightly knit family in a small fishing village near the Arctic Circle. Her parents, Gustav and Anna, migrated to America after World War II, and settled in the Chicago suburb of Fox Lake. The Olsson’s eventually relocated to Wilmette, Illinois, where they lived in the funeral parlor that employed Anna.

Ann-Margret was an introverted child, who found it difficult adjusting to American culture. In her early years, she used her love for song and dance as a means of expressing herself. She began to sing at weddings, private parties and church socials. By the time she was 14, she had appeared in a number of school revues and drama productions, and was a frequent winner at local talent contests.

After graduating high school in 1959, Ann-Margret enrolled at Northwestern University as a speech major. Within her first few months at college, she teamed up with three male students to form a jazz combo — The Suttletones. After her freshman year, she withdrew from school, and headed for the West Coast with her newly formed band. They spent most of their time performing at various cabaret clubs in Reno, Las Vegas, and Southern California.

While performing in the lounge of the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, Ann-Margret was given the opportunity to audition for Hollywood veteran George Burns. Immediately after, he invited her to perform for a 10-night engagement at the Sahara Hotel, where the 18-year-old earned rave reviews. A succession of offers followed, including a record contract from RCA, and a seven-year film contract from 20th Century Fox.

In the early 1960s, Ann-Margret’s burgeoning career was chronicled in LIFE magazine, who classified her as Hollywood’s next young starlet. She made her film debut as Bette Davis’ daughter in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961), and released her first album And Here She Is, Ann-Margret.

These stunning photos made by Grey Villet for the 1961 LIFE article that introduced Ann-Margret as a hot Hollywood prospect while she auditioned for a role in the film, State Fair. “Oh, I loved him,” Ann-Margret says of the late LIFE photographer. “When you guys [at LIFE magazine] sent me all these photographs, what a rush. It all came back to me. It’s just ... I’m so blessed.”

Ann-Margret, 1961

Ann-Margret with costume designer Don Feld before a screen test, 1961.

Ann-Margret dining with actor Peter Brown at Har-Omar restaurant in Hollywood, 1961.

Ann-Margret with actor Peter Brown at Har-Omar restaurant in Hollywood, 1961.

Ann-Margret looking over a script with the screen test’s director, Robert Parrish, and the actor who would read opposite her, David Hedison.

Ann-Margret face-to-face with actor David Hedison, 1961.

Ann-Margret and David Hedison rehearsing a scene on Fox’s back lot, 1961.

Ann-Margret with actor David Hedison, 1961.

Ann-Margret, Hollywood, 1961

Studio hairdresser Helen Turpin taking care of Ann-Margret for her State Fair audition in 1961. The film’s director wanted Turpin to give her a “kind of wild, Alice in Wonderland look.”

Ann-Margret, 1961

Outfitted for a screen test, Ann-Margret with costume designer Don Feld, 1961.

Ann-Margret studying costume designer Don Feld’s quick sketch of what she’d wear during the second half of her screen test.

Ann-Margret doing the song-and-dance half of her screen test, during which she performed the old jazz standard “Bill Bailey” wearing that memorable combo of lambswool sweater and black leotard.

Ann-Margret during a screen test, 1961.

At some point during the shoot for LIFE, Ann-Margret visited with her mentor, the legendary George Burns, in a prop room of a studio where he kept an office, 1961.

With help from friend Scott Smith on piano, Ann-Margret auditioned for Dick Pierce (far left) and others at RCA Victor Records, 1961.

To fully illustrate the Ann-Margret story for LIFE, Villet traveled to Fox Lake, Illinois, where he photographed the starlet with her loving family. She, her parents, and her aunts and uncles had all immigrated to the United States from Sweden. Her father stands above her at far left, above, and her mother is in the middle of the photo.

Ann-Margret with family and friends, Fox Lake, Illinois, 1961.

Ann-Margret dancing with her father, 1961.

Ann-Margret’s Uncle Roy gave her a playful spanking after she tried to tickle him, 1961. “It’s wonderful,” she said, “that Grey [Villet, the photographer] was there to capture that moment.”

Ann-Margret with her uncle, 1961.

Ann-Margret, Fox Lake, Illinois, 1961

In Los Angeles, Ann-Margret practiced her golf stroke in the office of her manager, Pierre Cossette, as her friend Scott Smith (far left) and another acquaintance looked on, 1961.

With friends at her manager Pierre Cossette’s house, 1961. From the reporter’s notes: “Whenever these kids get together they perform for one another; that is, they did not stage this hoedown strictly for [photographer Grey] Villet’s benefit.”

According to the reporter’s notes, in this photo Ann-Margret was “exploring the back lot alone and doing a few exuberant leaps around the deserted western street.” But the image was so joyful that LIFE used it to illustrate Ann-Margret’s good news, which came after Grey Villet had finished shooting: She’d nailed the screen test and scored a movie contract with Fox.

Ann-Margret on a studio back lot, Hollywood, 1961.

(Photos by Grey Villet/ LIFE magazine)


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