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Scratching new ground at the Chicken Ranch

In her 40-year career, some of Ann-Margret's biggest film hits have been musicals. She sent pulses racing in 1963's Bye, Bye Birdie, partnered with Elvis Presley in 1964's Viva Las Vegas and, in 1975, after a stage tumble that nearly ended her career, came roaring back as Roger Daltry's sex-kitten mom in Tommy.

And she has been a huge hit in her glitzy song-and-dance revues.

But it wasn't until this year that she combined her Oscar-nominated acting talents with her singing and dancing abilities in a live play, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, coming to Ruth Eckerd for a five-day run starting Tuesday.

"I love it," Ann-Margret, 60, said in a recent interview. "I've toured for 40 years with my own show, but this is my first time doing a play on stage. I love the cast, the show . . . We have fun, so the audience has fun."

"Gary Sandy (who co-stars as the town sheriff) is just wonderful to work with," she continued. Sandy is best known for his starring role in WKRP in Cincinnati, but his leading lady points out that there's much more to his resume.

"You know, he has been in about 72 plays _ he's not just a TV star with nothing to do."

As Miss Mona, Ann-Margret, who lately has been pictured on billboards around the area swathed in just a sheet, wears lots of glitzy duds.

"I get to wear Bob Mackie gowns all through it _ can't beat that. The show starts out sort of slapstick, pretty broad comedy, but then as it goes on, it gets a little more serious, as you get to know and care about the characters."

The show, written by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson with songs by Carol Hall, was originally directed on Broadway by Tommy Tune in 1978.

"Nobody in this show now has seen the original on Broadway," Ann-Margret said. "So we're all coming to it with new eyes, new thoughts."

Ann-Margret stars as Miss Mona, the proprietor of the famed Chicken Ranch, one of the longest continuously open houses of prostitution in America. Opened in 1844, the Ranch got its name for accepting poultry in lieu of cash during the Depression.

The show still is mildly controversial. In 1999, a production at Massachusetts' Wentworth College was canceled by faculty, which declared the title of the show "dangerous for students."

The Ranch was open until 1973, when a crusading TV newsman got it closed, which is the story told in Whorehouse. The play is based on an article King wrote for Playboy in the '70s.

"It took me the longest time to meet Larry," Ann-Margret said. "He doesn't travel anymore and never came to the show, and I started referring to him as the Phantom. Then we were playing Washington, D.C., where Larry lives, and this dear man walks up to me and said, "Hello, I'm the Phantom.' "

The show's current director, Tommy Walsh, has worked with Ann-Margret before, lending her the confidence she needed to do the show. The show features Walsh's new choreography.

"He was a dancer with me when I toured with my show," she said. "But really he's just one of my directors. There's Tommy, and Roger (Smith, her husband), and Gary . . . really, I have about 17 directors."

Deciding to do the show was a difficult choice, Ann-Margret said. "I've been offered many . . . well, a few shows," she said. "I hated the idea of being away from my family for that long. But I talked it over with Roger, and we decided we could do it. Roger travels with me; I won't be away from him."

Born in Sweden, Ann-Margret Olsson was discovered by George Burns in 1961 and made 50 movies. Her film career took steps forward with two Oscar nominations in the '70s, for Tommy and Carnal Knowledge. As her career went on, she was nominated for three Emmy Awards and was in the hit films Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men.

But these days, it's all about Whorehouse. "Carol Hall wrote me a new song for this tour," she said with delight. "It's called A Friend to Me, and it's just beautiful. It asks a question everyone asks, you know, "Who will be a friend to me?'

"The hard part is my identification with who I'm playing. This is a pretty up character, so it's not so bad, but when I was Blanche Dubois (in a TV production of A Streetcar Named Desire), that was hard. We shot it in sequence, so as the production went on I got more and more depressed, and finally Roger took me aside and reminded me that I was acting."

Up next:AUDIO FILES

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