Written By: Ben Cosgrove

Fifty-odd years ago, a young singer/dancer on the verge of breaking into the movies visited LIFE magazine’s Los Angeles bureau and for once, the news hounds who worked there were speechless.

“Everybody was working on typewriters back then, so it was very noisy,” remembers editor Richard Stolley, who was the L.A. bureau chief at the time. “I’m sitting in my office and suddenly it got quiet. All the typewriters stopped. I thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’ So I got up and I walked to the door. And what was happening? Ann-Margret was walking through the newsroom.”

Years later Stolley and Ann-Margret reminisced about that time. “That,” Stolley says of the picture at left, “is what you were wearing when you came in to the bureau.”

“It was a light blue, lambswool sweater,” Ann-Margret recalls, laughing. “That’s the only outfit I had at the time. The only one! Oh, dear.”

In the decades after that first encounter, Stolley served as the top editor of both LIFE and PEOPLE magazines, and that fresh-faced 19-year-old starlet did pretty well, too: Ann-Margret, born Ann-Margret Olsson in Stockholm, became one of Hollywood’s most vivacious stars, her energy and talent lighting up movies as varied as Bye Bye Birdie, Viva Las Vegas and Tommy. Through the years, Stolley and Ann-Margret remained friends.

In 2012 the two discussed these photos made by Grey Villet (“Oh, I loved him,” Ann-Margret says of the late LIFE photographer) 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. Many of the photos in this gallery were not originally published in LIFE.

A quick excerpt from Stolley and Ann-Margret’s chat in 2012:

STOLLEY: How important was the LIFE story to your career?

ANN-MARGRET: It was incredibly important. I had not done anything. Nobody knew me. I was amazed and shocked. What can I say? My parents were just beaming.

STOLLEY: The opening page on that story had a picture of you pointing, and the headline was “Who, Me? $10,000 a Week!” That was what we predicted would be your salary if you got the role in State Fair. How did you feel about $10,000 a week?

ANN-MARGRET: I had never heard of such money! That’s just sci-fi.

STOLLEY: How old were you when you came over to the States from Sweden?

ANN-MARGRET: Six years old. And it was my mother and I, because daddy had come to America [earlier] looking for work. That was during the war, and he thought it was much too dangerous for mother and I to cross the ocean. So five years later, my mother and I got on a huge ship and came to America. And neither one of us, of course, spoke English.

STOLLEY: There’s an unpublished picture here [the final image in this gallery] which is kind of fascinating. It’s you walking down the dusty back-lot street with a big, long shadow in front of you. The reason I like it is because it’s kind of a precursor, a forecast of the long shadow you were going to cast over Hollywood and the entertainment industry.

ANN-MARGRET: I had no idea at the time. Of anything.

STOLLEY: Nor did Grey, but he took a very prescient photograph. When I say something like that, what’s your reaction looking at this picture?

ANN-MARGRET: I’d never been to Los Angeles. Never. I wanted to be a …. [Trails off and chokes up] I can’t, I’m starting to cry!

STOLLEY: Don’t do that I’m sorry.

ANN-MARGRET: When you guys [at LIFE.com] 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, 1961

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret, 1961

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

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret, 1961

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

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret

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

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret, Robert Parrish, David Hedison

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

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

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

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

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret

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

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret

Ann-Margret with actor David Hedison, 1961.

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret, Hollywood, 1961

Ann-Margret, Hollywood, 1961

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret, 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.”

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret In Makeup

Ann-Margret, 1961

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret

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

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

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

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

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret

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.

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret

Ann-Margret during a screen test, 1961.

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret and George Burns

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.

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret

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

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

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.

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret

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

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret dances with her father, 1961

Ann-Margret dancing with her father, 1961.

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret

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.”

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret, 1961

Ann-Margret with her uncle, 1961.

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret, 1961

Ann-Margret, Fox Lake, Illinois, 1961

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret

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.

Grey Villet/TIME & LIFE Pictures

Ann-Margret

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.”

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret, 1961

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.

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

Ann-Margret, 1961

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

Grey Villet; LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

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