I have known many publicists over the years, but I have never known a publicist like Prudence Emery. Wild, wildly lovable, highly intelligent, no-nonsense, a combination gypsy, therapist, drinking buddy, and den mother, I covered more movies with Pru than I care to remember. Together, we turned the moon to blood from Toronto and Montreal to Barkerville in British Columbia and Eilat in Israel. Now, having retreated to Victoria, B.C., Pru is writing a memoir of her movie life. I can’t wait to read it.She’s asked me to contribute memories of our (occasionally) wild times together. Here is my favorite memory–the one for which I am forever grateful to her…
This is the story of how I came to kiss Ann-Margret. Or, more accurately, I suppose, how Ann-Margret came to kiss me.
It is a story that begins during the long, hot, boring summer of my fifteenth year, on the afternoon I sat in the Capitol Theater in downtown Brockville to see a new movie musical titled State Fair.
I’m not sure why I went to a Rogers and Hammerstein musical that I knew nothing about, other than the fact that it was a movie, and in those days I was willing to see anything that moved on a screen at the end of a darkened room.
State Fair starred Pat Boone, Bobby Darin, and Pamela Tiffin. The plot was simple enough: a Texas farm family attends the annual state fair where brother Pat and sister Pamela learn a few easily digested life lessons in Technicolor with lots of songs, while dad (Tom Ewell) sets out to win a prize for showing his beloved hog (I kid you not; Ewell even sings a song called “Sweet Hog of Mine”).
Sitting alone in the almost deserted Capitol Theater on a sultry summer afternoon, I watched as on the screen innocent Pat (what else could he be?) is introduced to a much more worldly singer-dancer named Emily played by a young (twenty-one at the time) newcomer named Ann-Margret.
Ann-Margret, I remember, arrived in pale yellow: a yellow polka dot blouse tucked into figure-hugging yellow shorts. She had the most luxurious hair, flame-red, falling past her shoulders, a husky purr of a voice, and the clear face of a slightly decadent angel. The moment she appeared, I was, just like Pat Boone, smitten.
I’ve fallen in love since, mostly in real life, but I have seldom experienced the hit-in-the-gut sensation I experienced that afternoon. My stomach was in knots as I stumbled out of the theater into the sunlight. For the first time in my life–but certainly not the last–I knew the pain of love. Roy Orbison was right. Love hurts.
State Fair played at the Capitol for the next three days. I went back every day and sat through the movie in lovesick agony, impatient to get past the first twenty minutes before Ann-Margret appears.
I bought the soundtrack album and played it so many times on the stereo in the dining room of our house that my poor brother, who, as far as I know, has never seen State Fair and had absolutely no interest in it, nonetheless has the music and lyrics hardwired into his brain to this day.
I was so in love with Ann-Margret that summer I wrote her the only fan letter I ever wrote in my life. She never wrote back. I was devastated.
It was actually her next musical, a screen adaptation of the Broadway hit, Bye Bye Birdie, that made her a star. In the years that followed, I saw her on-screen often, but she never had quite the same effect on me as she had in State Fair. I’ve tried to analyze my feelings about this any number of times. I believe my reaction had something to do with age (of course), with boredom, and with the loneliness of an unhappy teenage boy. It also had a heck of a lot to do with Ann-Margret.
Many years went by, and now I’m an adult, married, living in Toronto, raising two children, and writing magazine pieces for a New York-based syndicate. Prudence Emery, my favorite publicist and a good friend, called to say she was doing PR for a movie shooting in town titled Middle Age Crazy. It starred Bruce Dern. And Ann-Margret.
Ann-Margret? The memories flooded. Pru suggested I come to the set and interview her. I actually hesitated. Ann-Margret was so fixed in the youthful, blissful fantasy land of my mind, that I wasn’t so sure I wanted it ruined by anything as intrusive and heartbreaking as reality. I had long since learned that the best part of movie stars was up there on the screen. The worst part was meeting them in real life.
Still, when you have the chance to meet a dream, how can you resist?
By this time it was 1979, and Ann-Margret was no longer the movie ingénue flirting with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas, playing the Kitten With A Whip sort of roles she was often saddled with in her twenties. In her late thirties now, she was taken seriously as an actress thanks to her Academy Award-nominated performance in Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge.
Pru introduced us on the set of Middle Age Crazy. I was tense and nervous. She was, well, she was kind of flirtatious, actually. And lots of fun, it turned out. After the day’s shooting, she suggested I meet her and her husband, Roger Smith, back at their downtown hotel suite.
On the way to the hotel, I told Pru the story of my tortured, unrequited teenage love for Ann-Margret. That’s why, I explained, I’m probably acting a little strange. Pru was fascinated. Back at the hotel, she went off to see if Ann-Margret was ready for more conversation.
A few minutes later, I was ushered into the suite and we spent a delightful hour or so chatting–no, that’s not it–that word flirting again comes to mind. She possessed a teasing sense of humor, exuded warmth, and with that slightly breathless, throaty voice, you could easily understand how she drove all the boys wild. You could understand, too, how she might charm a formerly lovesick magazine writer grappling with the fact that fantasy had become reality in a hotel sitting room as evening descended and the shadows shifted.
Finally, it was time to say good-bye. Just the two of us in the room now. We stood and I held out my hand to thank her for a lovely day. She looked at it, and shook her head. “Oh, no,” she said, coming toward me. “Oh, no, no, no.”
The next thing, she put her arms around my neck and drew me down to her, and she kissed me.This was no peck on the cheek; this was a real movie love scene, deep, sensual kiss.
The kid who sat in that small town movie house so many years before yearning to kiss Ann-Margret was–kissing Ann-Margret. Long held movie fantasy momentarily intersected with reality and became–heck it just became a great kiss.
Then it was over and she was moving away, eyes twinkling. That throaty laugh, a last squeeze of my hand, and Pru was guiding me down the hall. I floated into the elevator. The teenager kissed by a movie star.”I’ve never seen you like this,” Pru said. I imagine not. I was well and truly shaken.
And, of course, it all happened because of wonderful Pru. She had whispered the story to Ann-Margret, and the movie star, seizing the moment, knew how to be a movie star and played the scene superbly.
The years go by and memories fade but that kiss–ah, yes, that kiss lingers.
Thank you, Prudence.