I grew up watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie (LHOTP), the TV show which was inspired by the book series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. As little girls, my sister and I would act out the scenes as we watched LHOTP on syndication. I would portray the older sister Mary and my sister would play Laura. Now, that’s actually a bit funny since I am actually the younger sister, but I liked Mary’s long blonde hair better than Laura’s brown braids and thus insisted. You know, four-year-old logic.
Well, the joke was on me, wasn’t it? Because Mary later loses her eyesight and her baby burns alive in a school fire. Seriously, yes: baby burning. While LHOTP is widely known as a puritanical, saccharine show, I’ve come to realize that Michael Landon (who played “Pa” and was often writer/director) clearly had a penchant for dark, tragic episodes. I’ve watched some pretty disturbing episodes as an adult that we never viewed as kids… such as the aforementioned school fire episode, where I should also mention that a long-standing character was killed off in that same fire and the culpability of the fire fell onto one of the show’s most beloved characters. The episode basically sucks. Don’t watch it. In case you’re feeling horrified right now, rest assured that the real Mary Ingalls did not have a baby that burned alive in a fire. Only the TV Mary Ingalls did. But thanks, Michael Landon. Thanks for the memory of that episode seared into my brain forever.
Looking back on those early days of reenacting LHOTP, I’m wondering why neither my sister nor I wanted to play the show’s child villain Nellie Oleson. After all, she is one of TV’s best, most widely recognized villains with many of the best lines. And she was so fun to watch! From that smirk on her face to her too-tight blonde curls to her whiny voice when she didn’t get her way, Nellie wreaked havoc on the show, but it never really felt like she “won.” She got her comeuppance many times, and she showed moments of humanity and humility as well. Despite it all, you couldn’t help but like Nellie Oleson… at least a little bit.
As an adult, I occasionally watch LHOTP still today. When I need to give my busy mind a break from everything, I can turn on a favorite episode, such as Back to School, The Werewolf of Walnut Grove, The Spring Dance, The Richest Man in Walnut Grove, Blizzard, The Race, As Long as We’re Together, Wilder and Wilder, or Stone Soup.
So of course I was excited to hear that Alison Arngrim was coming to the Pacific Northwest to perform her one-woman show at the Port Orchard Film Festival. Alison spent over seven years playing Nellie Oleson. Since 2002, she has performed a one-woman show “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch” across the USA. In 2010, she published a memoir entitled Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.
A few years ago, I read Alison’s memoir and I absolutely loved it. After a lifetime of watching LHOTP, I was very curious about what working on it was like for the young actress. The book does not disappoint in details about the LHOTP prairie set, which was filmed on location in blistering hot Simi Valley and also on sound stages. Alison shares stories about her own experiences, about her co-stars, and about her fan interactions. One of the themes of the book is how she came to peace with playing one of the biggest TV villains of that time, eventually embracing the role and loving the fact that as the villain she wasn’t expected to be “perfect” or America’s sweetheart.
The book is often laugh out loud funny, but it’s also sometimes disturbing or tragic or sad. The book covers serious topics, including the sexual abuse she suffered as a child and her friendship with Steve Tracy (“Percival” on the show), who later passed away from AIDS, which in part led her down a path of LGBT activism.
I admit that sometimes I don’t enjoy memoirs penned by those who don’t write books as their profession, but this one is well written. It’s a fast read in a conversational tone. I recommend it to anyone who likes memoirs about people that have led unusual lives. And it’s a must-read for any LHOTP fan.
So on to Alison’s one-woman show….
I attended the show with my sister (of course), my husband, and my mother. We arrived to Port Orchard a bit early. Since the downtown is filled with antique stores, we perused and I looked for photo opportunities to place my Alison Arngrim ticket amongst the antiques so I could put some weird photo of it in this blog.
Then it was off to the show where we sat front row and filled out the “Ask Alison Anything” cards that were being handed out. My sister and I tried to think of something funny to ask her that wouldn’t be one of the standard questions that she gets over and over again. We finally settled on something so specific and ridiculous just because it made us laugh:
Did you feel it was a little over the top or did you enjoy doing the dream sequence scene in “The Music Box” when Nellie had to hang Laura?
When the lights came up and Alison burst onto stage, she gave a high energy introduction, and she remained animated the entire time, regaling us with stories of her showbiz upbringing, her time on the set of LHOTP, and a lifetime of strange interactions with fans, some of whom can’t seem to separate Alison from the fictional character of Nellie.
For example, not long after the show first aired, Alison was pelted with a half-full cup of orange fountain pop. As she shared this story, she took us through her adolescent realization of how hated she had become as a result of playing LHOTP’s villain… until it finally happily dawned on her that if she was that hated, it also meant that she was that good as an actress.
As an adult, Alison had a strange encounter at a celebrity autograph show at the Los Angeles County Fair. A woman walked up to her and just stared at her, huffing and puffing, turning red in the face with anger until she finally blurted out: “I forgive you!” And then the woman turned and marched away.
Apparently, “Nellie” made a serious impact on some people. Bizarre stories like these are especially funny to hear Alison tell with her trademark dry wit and those familiar voice inflections that sometimes sound just like good ‘ole Nellie.
She also cracked up the audience as she shared her stories of constantly being invited to pioneer museums, historical log houses, and anything frontier-related, and how the eager proprietors of these places will often ask her in utter seriousness: “Don’t you wish you lived in the 1800s?” Describing this to the audience, Alison’s eyes got wide and she went off in a hilarious rant about how No, she didn’t wish she lived in the 1800s! There were no antibiotics. If you got a cut, you died!
Overall, the two-hour show was very entertaining. My sister and I laughed especially hard at all of the LHOTP references. I was already familiar with some of these insider stories from reading Alison’s memoir, but it was fun to hear the stories first-hand of her friendship with Melissa Gilbert (“Laura” on the show), her less friendly interactions with Melissa Sue Anderson (“Mary” on the show), and her memories of the larger-than-life Michael Landon, who loved the fans, practical jokes, and alcohol in the morning.
In addition to LHOTP stories, Alison also talked about growing up in West Hollywood in the ’60s and ’70s with a talent manager father (who represented Liberace) and voice-over artist mother (voice of Casper the Friendly Ghost and Gumby). Some of Alison’s stories involved actors and TV shows from that era that I’m not familiar with, but I noticed my mom laughing at these things, including Alison’s impersonation of Eartha Kitt.
Alison also screened some clips from various shows, but the cinema was having some issues with the playback of its sound. Alison rolled with it, narrating the silent scenes for us. This was possibly better than seeing the scenes as intended with the audio, because Alison had to improvise jokes instead.
Toward the end of the show, she pulled out the “Ask Alison Anything” cards to answer the audience questions. The answer to the question my sister and I posed is this:
Yes, Alison and Melissa Gilbert both enjoyed doing the dream sequence scene where she is the executioner and Laura is to be hanged, but she also felt that is the episode where Nellie was actually too mean, making fun of and mimicking a sweet girl with a stutter (an actress that Alison is friends with today).
After the show, we went to the Meet and Greet so my sister could purchase Alison’s book and I could have her sign my own copy. I found the “people-watching” while in line to be one of the most interesting parts of this event. The space was a small upstairs loft above a Bistro. The line wrapped around the table and some of the LHOTP fans were getting huffy at what they perceived as some people “cutting.” My sister and I stepped out of line altogether and joked around with another laid-back woman who was also finding the spectacle silly. Once the crowd had mostly diminished, my sister and I got into the back of the line.
I’m actually more familiar with Meet and Greet type of things from the greeting perspective, such as when we’ve held premieres or film events or I’ve acted in a movie. I believe the only other time I’ve gotten in a line to “meet” someone was in the mid ’90s at a USA Men’s Soccer game in Portland to get a signed poster from professional player John Harkes. That poster hung on my wall for years.
So I enjoyed this last bit of the event, just sitting back like a fly on the wall while people grilled Alison with questions about acting techniques as Alison signed their things and sipped a glass of wine. Finally, we said hello to Alison, told her we enjoyed her show, had her sign our books, and posed for a photo. And no, that is not my stuffed monkey on the table in front of me. I have no idea why that monkey is sitting there and didn’t even notice it until I looked at the photo later.
If you have opportunity to see Alison’s one woman show, I recommend that you go! She is witty and warm and sarcastic and sometimes foul-mouthed and silly.
You can check out Alison’s website for information about her memoir, her current web series, her appearances, her one-woman show, and links to her various social media pages:
And if you do get a chance to meet her, please ask her why a stuffed sock monkey totally photo-bombed us.
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer and editor. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.