Today, it seems audiences know "Bye Bye Birdie" only from the prominent mention of it on "Mad Men," when the Sterling Cooper agency tried to copy Ann-Margret's minimalist opening number for a diet soda commercial. But when the movie musical premiered 50 years ago (on April 4, 1963), it was a huge smash. It made an instant star out of the Swedish-born actress, as well as boosting the fame of co-stars Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde.

Based on the Broadway hit musical, "Bye Bye Birdie" was seen as a trenchant pop cultural satire at the time. Everyone knows that Conrad Birdie, the hip-swiveling rocker who is drafted into the Army, and who stages a publicity stunt on the Ed Sullivan show by agreeing to kiss a teen fan before reporting for duty, is inspired by Elvis Presley, who had to put his career on hold in 1958 when he was drafted. But even "Birdie" fans may not know how Ann-Margret landed the part, or how the production made co-star Janet Leigh depressed, or the profane wrap-party event involving Ann-Margret and co-star Maureen Stapleton. Here, then, are 25 things that even "We Love You, Conrad"-singing members of the Conrad Birdie fan club might not know about "Bye Bye Birdie."

1. "Conrad Birdie" is clearly named after Conway Twitty, who, if not as popular as Elvis, was still a well-known rockabilly star at the time (with hits like "It's Only Make Believe"), before he became a country music mainstay.

2. Producers approached Elvis himself to star as Birdie, but Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, nixed any roles for Elvis that could be viewed as self-parody.

3. Three of the principal cast members had appeared in the hit Broadway production: Dick Van Dyke (as harried songwriter Albert Peterson), Jesse Pearson (as the drafted rocker Birdie), and Paul Lynde (as Harry McAfee, the nervous dad of Kim, the Ohio girl who wins the chance to bid Birdie farewell). As Albert's secretary and fiancee, Rosie, Chita Rivera had given a legendary performance, but she was replaced in the film by "Psycho" star Janet Leigh. Bobby Rydell, a real-life teen pop idol, landed the role of Hugo, Kim's jealous beau, replacing Michael J. Pollard from the stage version.

4. Director George Sidney had worked with Leigh twice before, on "The Red Danube" (1949) and "Scaramouche" (1952).

5. Sidney was also a veteran director of musicals, including "Anchors Aweigh," "The Harvey Girls," "Annie Get Your Gun," "Show Boat" (the 1951 version), "Kiss Me Kate," and "Pal Joey."

6. Ed Sullivan was embarrassed by the Broadway production's choral hymn praising him and his TV variety show. Watching the play with his wife, he recalled in his memoir, "I only wanted the floor to open up and swallow us both." Nonetheless, he agreed to cameo in the movie as himself.

7. Also performing a cameo as himself was veteran radio and TV newsman John Daly. The CBS correspondent who had announced to the nation the attack on Pearl Harbor and the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt was chosen to deliver the momentous news that Conrad Birdie had been drafted into the Army.

8. Ann-Margret had appeared in prominent roles in "Pocketful of Miracles" and "State Fair" before landing her star-making role in "Birdie." As she recalled in a 2011 interview, Sidney cast her after spotting the then-20-year-old performer while she was dancing the twist with friends at the lounge at the Sands resort in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve 1961.

9. On stage, Kim was a supporting character who performed just two songs. But on screen, George Sidney was so entranced with Ann-Margret that he expanded her part to five songs, at the expense of Leigh. Her character's "Spanish Rose" number from the stage show was cut.

10. One of those additional numbers was the new title tune. Sidney and Ann-Margret filmed the number -- with the redhead running back and forth before a bright blue background while belting out her flirty farewell to the unseen pop star -- six months after principal photography was finished, at a cost of $60,000. Ann-Margret has said that Sidney paid the money out of his own pocket, though the studio reimbursed him when executives saw the completed film.

11. Also cut were the stage version's songs "Baby, Talk to Me," "What Did I Ever See in Him," and "A Healthy, Normal American Boy." So was the dance number "How to Kill a Man."

12. Rydell, then riding high on such pop hits as "Volare" and "Wild One," also saw his part grow from the stage version. "George Sidney must have seen some magic between Ann-Margret and myself because every day my script got larger and larger and larger," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. "I got to sing and did all of that dancing."

13. Leigh was miserable. No longer the ingenue, she felt Sidney was ignoring her in favor of focusing on Ann-Margret, as another budding star whose career he could mold. "His dismissing behavior wreaked havoc with my already precarious stability," the "Psycho" star wrote in her memoir. It didn't help that she was also divorcing Tony Curtis at the time.

14. One member of the chorus of teen dancers was an uncredited Kim Darby, then 15. She went onto greater fame starring opposite John Wayne in "True Grit" (1969) and opposite John Cusack in "Better Off Dead" (1985).

15. An infamous anecdote from the movie's wrap party had it that Maureen Stapleton (who played Albert's meddling mother, Mae) allegedly remarked, "Well, it looks like I'm the only one on this picture who didn't try to f*ck Ann-Margret." In her memoir, however, Stapleton said she liked the starlet, hadn't meant to denigrate her, and had actually said something slightly different. She'd noticed the redhead sitting on a sofa at the party, surrounded by the same group of men for an hour. Stapleton, on her way to the buffet table, said she called out to Ann-Margret, " Annie, why don't you come and sit with me? I'm the only one here who doesn't want to f*ck you."

16. The movie was nominated for two Oscars: Best Sound (which it lost to "How the West Was Won") and Best Music Scoring - Adaptation (which it lost to "Irma La Douce").

17. Bryan Russell, who played Ann-Margret's chemistry-loving, bomb-making little brother in "Birdie," also appeared in "How the West Was Won" as Zeke Prescott, in the first of the film's five segments.

18. "Bye Bye Birdie" earned $6 million at the box office, a tidy sum in 1963.

19. Sidney went on to direct Ann-Margret in two more films: 1964's "Viva Las Vegas" (opposite Elvis himself) and "The Swinger" (1966).

20. In "The Swinger," Mary LaRoche, who played Ann-Margret's mom in "Birdie," plays her mom again. Her dad is played by Milton Frome, who played Mr. Maude, Albert's new stepfather, in "Birdie." Ann-Margret's character's last name is Olsson, which is her last name in real life.

21. Ed Sullivan performed a life-imitates-art stunt when Gary Lewis and the Playboys performed on his show in 1967, when Lewis had just been drafted. As part of a publicity stunt, Lewis sang "One Last Kiss" (the same song Birdie sings on TV to Kim) and kissed a fan before reporting for military duty.

22. Also in 1967, Paul Lynde guest-starred on an episode of "I Dream of Jeannie" as a movie producer. One character asks him what Ann-Margret is really like.

23. The team that wrote the original stage production of "Bye Bye Birdie" -- playwright Michael Stewart, composer Charles Strouse, and lyricist Lee Adams -- mounted a sequel called "Bring Back Birdie" on Broadway in 1981. Set two decades later, the plot involved Albert and Rose's attempt to find the long-vanished Birdie and coax him into performing on the Grammy Awards telecast. Chita Rivera reprised her stage role as Rose, while Donald O'Connor played Albert. The show closed after four performances.

24. A 1995 TV movie version was more faithful to the stage musical than the 1963 movie had been. It starred Jason Alexander as Albert, Vanessa Williams as Rosie, Chynna Phillips (of Wilson Phillips) as Kim, George Wendt as Harry, Marc Kudisch as Birdie, and Tyne Daly as Mae.

25. Ann-Margret has said that when she and her husband Roger Smith saw the 2009 episode of "Mad Men" that paid homage to the opening sequence of "Bye Bye Birdie," tears welled up in their eyes "because it was so kind and loving."
Bye Bye Birdie Movie Poster
Bye Bye Birdie
In Theaters on April 4, 1963

When the draft selects rock star Conrad Birdie, his fans are devastated, but none more than struggling... Read More

categories Movies