After 40 years as a performer, Ann-Margret still gives it her all

Once you learn that Ann-Margret's real life Auntie Minna is 97 years old 'and going strong,' the sexy poster for 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas' falls into perspective.

It's all in the genes. Of course, Ann-Margret is still a pinup: She's only 60.

But it's her 40 years of singing and dancing stagecraft that make Ann-Margret a good fit for whorehouse madam Mona Stangley in the touring production of the 1978 Tony-winning musical, which hits Portland next week.

Ann-Margret has been on tour for a year with Gary Sandy of 'WKRP in Cincinnati' (an old hoofer himself) since the show began in Connecticut in January 2001. She took a few moments last week to talk by phone from San Francisco.

The musical, in case your education is woefully incomplete, is based on the true story of the Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas, the longest-running whorehouse in the United States. It was established in 1844 and closed down by a puritanical TV reporter in 1973.

However, real-life madam Edna Milton (Stangley in the show) had faithfully supported both civic causes and local Sheriff T.J. Flourney (renamed Ed Earl Dodd), who solved every murder and bank robbery in the county in 34 years Ñ thanks to his undercover connections at the whorehouse. The 'Chicken Ranch' appellation dated to the Depression, when cash was in short supply but chickens were not.

When the musical premiered, three of New York's seven TV stations refused to run commercials, and the show's title and posters were removed from buses. More than 20 years later, America's heartland is still having trouble with the 'w' word.

'There are a couple of pockets where we have scandalized people,' says Ann-Margret with a musical laugh. 'The radio ads in St. Louis and Chicago publicized the show by calling it 'The Best Little Hmm Hmm in Texas.'

'Then there was this senator in Wallingford, Conn., where we opened, who proposed a bill to ban every single billboard with sexual content Ñ and especially 'The Best Little Whorehouse.' I had a beige-colored bathing suit under my costume, and he said he was worried about his 11-year-old son seeing it Ñ it was dangerous. Doesn't he know his son watches MTV?'

The subject of the poster brings up the question of how Ann-Margret stays in such good shape. She says she and her husband, former actor Roger Smith, hit all the fitness-center stations daily at their hotels: 'It's quite a bit of work, but I've got to do it.'

And she explained why she'll keep working as hard as ever onstage.

'It's that feeling you get when you give out your love and whammy! you get it back. A wonderful glow.'

In a year of touring Ann-Margret says she keeps seeing new aspects to the story.

'Last week I called Carol Hall (the songwriter) to hear her thoughts on characters' songs and phrases, just to give myself a little jolt,' she says. 'She wrote me a brand new song called 'A Friend To Me' about the unrequited love between the sheriff and the madam. They had a relationship for 35 years, and he never knew that people in town knew about it.'

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