Ann-Margret and her mother moved to the United States in November 1946, and her father took her to Radio City Music Hall on the day they arrived. They settled just outside Chicago, in Wilmette, Illinois. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1949 and took her first dance lessons at the Marjorie Young School of Dance, showing natural ability from the start, easily mimicking all the steps. Her parents were supportive; her mother handmade all her costumes. Ann-Margret's mother became a funeral parlor receptionist after her husband suffered a severe injury on his job. While a teenager, Ann-Margret appeared on the Morris B. Sachs Amateur Hour, Don McNeill's Breakfast Club, and Ted Mack's Amateur Hour.
While she attended New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, she continued to star in theatricals. In 1959, she enrolled at Northwestern University, where she was a member of the sorority Kappa Alpha Theta, but did not graduate. As part of a group known as the Suttletones, she performed at the Mist, a Chicago nightclub, and went to Las Vegas, Nevada, for a promised club date which fell through after the group arrived.
The group finally arrived at the Dunes in Las Vegas, which also headlined Tony Bennett and Al Hirt at that time. George Burns heard of her performance, and she auditioned for his annual holiday show, in which Burns and she performed a soft shoe routine. Variety proclaimed, "George Burns has a gold mine in Ann-Margret ... she has a definite style of her own, which can easily guide her to star status."
In 1961, she filmed a screen test at 20th Century Fox and was signed to a seven-year contract. Ann-Margret made her film debut in a loan-out to United Artists in Pocketful of Miracles, with Bette Davis. It was a remake of the 1933 movie Lady for a Day. Both versions were directed by Frank Capra.
Then came a 1962 remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical State Fair, playing the "bad girl" role of Emily opposite Bobby Darin and Pat Boone. She had tested for the part of Margie, the "good girl", but seemed too seductive to the studio bosses, who decided on the switch.The two roles represented two sides of her real-life personality — shy and reserved offstage, but wildly exuberant and sensuous onstage. In her autobiography, the actress wrote that she changed "from Little Miss Lollipop to Sexpot-Banshee" once the music began. Her next starring role, as the all-American teenager Kim from Sweet Apple, Ohio, in Bye Bye Birdie (1963), made her a major star. The rest as they say is history...