She may have had perfect blonde ringlets and perfectly starched petticoats, but Little House on the Prairie’s Nellie Oleson was one mean little girl! Interestingly, the character who would eventually become “Nellie” was actually a conglomerate of three different real-life characters from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood. It was child actress Alison Anrgrim, however, who brought TV’s favorite brat to eternal life on television in 1974. It would prove to be perfect casting. Arngrim would play the role of nasty Nellie for seven seasons, and become an enduring villianess of pop culture for decades to come. Melissa Gilbert’s “Laura” may have been the main character and the proverbial “good girl”, but Nellie was the girl we all loved to hate. Despite their characters’ constant feuding in Walnut Grove, Arngrim and Gilbert remain good friends to this day. Arngrim tells me, “Melissa Gilbert loved the character of Nellie. After I left the show, she said, ‘It’s so boring around here! Can’t you come back?'” Thirty-six years after Little House wrapped its final season, Alison Arngrim is busier than ever. In 2010, she wrote a best-selling book named Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated. The book was adapted into a one-woman show, which Arngrim has performed all over the country to sell-out crowds. Her most ardent fans include gay men and Little House on the Prairie fans. Arngrim has been sainted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, served as Grand Marshall for the 1996 Golden State Gay Rodeo, and has done tireless amount of work for HIV/AIDS awareness. She is also an advocate for victims of child abuse. Arngrim lives in Los Angeles and is married to musician Robert Paul Schoonover, who has been at times called “Mr. Arngrim”, “The Prairie Guy”, and, best of all, “Mr. Nellie Oleson”. The couple will be celebrating their 25th anniversary in November this year.
Alison Arngrim took the time to speak to be about her upcoming show, “Bonnetheads”, being used as clickbait, “Nellie defenders”, and much more!
JR:Hello, Alison. Greetings from New York City!
AA:That’s where I’ll be soon! I’m flying out to Philadelphia, hanging out and doing the show there on Friday night, and then jumping on a bus and doing the show in New York on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon!
JR:I can’t wait! So, without giving too much away: For those who have never seen Confessions of a Prairie Bitch before, what can audiences expect… or, for those who have seen your show on tour in the past, what new surprises do you have in store for us?
AA: I always say, there’s something for everyone! There is absolutely a lot of stuff for people who have watched a lot of Little House on the Prairie. If you watch the show and you know Nellie Oleson and the various tropes and cliches of it, then yes, you’ll die laughing as I talk about “Baby Carrie” and all the insanity of the show. But what I love is that sometimes, I have people who come to the show — especially during Mother’s Day weekend– and tell me, “Look, I got dragged here! My wife said ‘What I want for Mother’s Day is for you to take me to the damn Nellie Oleson show!'”
AA: They say, “I never watch your show. I got dragged here kicking and screaming, but oh my God you talk about all this other stuff and I was having a wonderful time!” So, we cover a lot of ground. If you didn’t watch every single episode of Little House on the Prairie, it’s OK! You can still come to the show! We’ll still talk about things besides Little House. We have videos from The Dance Fever Christmas Special, we have that Fantasy Island stuff. Oh my God, “hashtag MeToo, Hervé Villechaize!” (Laughs) Ricardo Montalban is in there too. He was nice! Every show is a little bit different, because we always have the “Ask Alison” segment, where we do the Q and A. We actually have cards printed that say “Ask Alison anything!” I put it in writing. I’ve gotten the damndest things; it’s pretty funny. I don’t screen the questions! I get them minutes or even seconds before I go on, and then I say, “It’s time for questions!” I snatch up the cards and flip through them, so that I know how crazy the room is! But yeah, I answer all their stuff!
JR:Wow! So, your biggest fans are gay men and Little House on the Prairie fans. I imagine that both those groups can be a little crazy at times! Have you ever gotten, shall we say, any “overzealous” audience members?
AA: Oh yeah! We call our Little House fans “Bonnetheads”!
AA: My website is actually called Bonnetheads.com! (Laughs) Amazingly, I was able to get that name! There are people who are hardcore Bonnetheads. You can always tell because their cards come up, and the whole card is full. They’ve written in itty bitty little serial killer handwriting, like it’s a whole book. It’s like 20 questions all on one card! Then there are the ones who ask about a specific season and episode and dialogue, and it gets very much like Star Trek and the Tribbles! So, we do get some people who are a little bit obsessive, a little bit kooky– which is hysterical. We love that. Generally I have to say with fans of Little House on the Prairie, 99 percent of the time they are really nice. I must say, I am glad I was on that show. I have friends who were on other shows in the 70’s, ’80’s, ’90’s… and some of their fans are weird, and some of them have stalkers and horrible people trying to hurt them. Little House people are generally nonviolent. (Laughs) Even when they are bonkers, they are generally good fans!
JR: I should hope so! I hope they learned SOMETHING from watching every episode of the show! The message was always “Be nice!” (Laughs)
AA: You would think so! My friend Pamela Bob, who’s an actress on Broadway, wrote and stars in a web series called Living on a Prairie… and it’s a little autobiographical, because it’s about a woman who is completely obsessed with Little House on the Prairie— to the point where she’s crazy and she can’t keep a relationship going or anything. EVERYTHING relates to Little House! I play her therapist in it! (Laughs) I actually try to talk her into having a relationship with real people!
JR:Nice! So, one of the shows is on Mother’s Day, true?
AA: Yes! It will be Mother’s Day weekend, so I’m gonna talk about my mom a lot. My mother was the voice of “Casper the Friendly Ghost”, and “Gumby”, and “Sweet Polly Purebred”, Underdog’s girlfriend! And then, there was Davey and Goliath, which was the demented Lutheran Clay-mation show.
JR:I actually admire that show. They did all that Clay-mation by hand, before all the technology!
AA: I know! That was all by hand! Art Clokey— that VERY crazy Art Clokey person– did a lot of LSD! He did the “Gumby” thing, where Gumby walks out of a book… and he had his pal “Pokey”… and it just got weirder and weirder as it went on. They added characters called “Prickle” and “Goo”… and my mother not only voiced Gumby but later she also voiced “Goo”– who was just this little blob! She was also Gumby’s mother, and Gumby’s sister, and several of Gumby’s friends… and in Davey, she’s almost every character. A guy voiced Goliath, but she was Davey– as well as Davey’s mom, Davey’s sister, and pretty much all of Davey’s friends! If there was a scene with Davey, and Davey’s sister, and Davey’s mother, and four friends, she was EVERYBODY! She was having a seven-way conversation by herself! ,
JR:Wow! That can have severe psychological effects on a person! (Laughs)
AA: It was all very weird, because Art Clokey did all this very far-out, ’60’s Gumby stuff, and all this very trippy, druggy kind of strange– and then he got hired by the Lutheran Church to do Davey and Goliath! (Laughs)
JR:Oh, God! The stories he must have had!
AA: This was all done with little clay things and stop-motion animation! There were no computers, no CGI, no nothing! It’s just amazing to watch it now. You’re like, “How in the hell…?” They can’t even do half that stuff now. It took forever to do!
JR:Yeah…! So, comedy– especially when it comes to women in comedy, because people seem to be tougher on female comedians– has been going through a really tough time lately, because audiences can be so sensitive. We heard about what happened at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and what happened with Kathy Griffin last year…As a comedian, do you ever want to just say, “Lighten up, people! This is comedy!”
AA: Right?! With the Correspondents Dinner, she went after everybody! She targeted both parties and the press, so I thought it was kind of weird that people said, “Oh my God, she was so mean!” I was like, “Well, wait… she kind of went all around the room and down the list. She didn’t really single anyone out. EVERYBODY got it!” I think there’s also lots of fake outrage, which is weird. I’m on Twitter all the time, and I sit there and read all the fake outrage. There’s a lot of stuff where I wonder: Were people REALLY upset by that… or was it just to get more hits? There’s also fake outrage generated by the people they are talking about, and this is really weird and creepy– and I’ve seen this! Yes, there are people who get legitimately attacked…but sometimes, if a movie comes out, and let’s say that maybe it’s not selling as many tickets as it should… and then, suddenly, miraculously, and out of nowhere, it will be announced that someone is mortally offended by something in the movie. It will be something odd– not something obvious. You’ll sit there and go, “Wait, OK, the movie didn’t have racism or sexism. It didn’t have… Wait… WHAT?!” It will be something vaguely obscure, and may even be the opposite thing– where a racist or sexist group is mad at the movie… and there will be some huge article about how SOMEONE is insanely upset about this movie! Everybody loved Wonder Woman. It was a big hit. But by golly, there were these articles that there were a group of men who really hated the fact that there was a Wonder Woman movie!
AA: Did you ever meet any of them? Because I didn’t! All the guys I know were like, “That was a great movie!” (Laughs)
JR:(Laughs) I never met any of them either… although I did see the articles on social media!
AA: And how many of those accounts are real? Now we know in 2018 that so many accounts aren’t real! There’s actually an app you can go on and insert a celebrity’s name, and see how many of their followers are fake! It’s kind of depressing. I’m like, “Oh, that’s too bad! I thought I had more followers!” And then there are the REAL people who are paid to go and say stuff about things! So, between that and the completely fake stuff, what do we really know? But when there’s REAL outrage, you can tell: “Yeah, that sounds bad. That gets me mad.” But then some stories will come out and you’ll be like, “That sounds a little… OBSCURE!” And, sometimes I say, “OK… had you ever heard about this show or this movie prior to this article about how somebody, somewhere was mad at it?” Oh, wait… no, you didn’t! How interesting! What are the odds that so many people are pissed at this movie, since nobody actually saw it? So, it’s really hard in this world now, with fake accounts on Twitter, and fake bots, and fake news. Is this REALLY someone who is mad at this TV show or this entertainer… or did their publicist and the entertainers sit up last night and come up with this? Because weird things are happening, and they’re happening so fast and so much that it gets difficult to weed through it!
JR:(Laughs) Nowadays, you may not even be talking to a real person on social media!
AA: That’s why I don’t like to get into arguments with people on Twitter. I will put stuff on there and say, “Well, I think this…” and I’ll retweet… but arguing with people? It’s ridiculous. You’re yelling at a complete stranger. You don’t even know this person. You can’t even see them. Not only are you screaming at someone you don’t even know on the other side of the world, but you may be having a screaming match with someone who doesn’t even exist! How dumb would you feel at the end of the day if you just found spent hours and raised your blood pressure screaming at someone, and there’s a guy doing algorithms in a basement, and it’s not even a real person! Oh, those algorithms! Did you see the ones on Facebook for a while which had famous celebrities moving to various small towns?
AA: I LOVE that one! I was not in it. I was bummed. But it was hilarious, because some of them were people I knew: “So and so” (some huge star) has left Hollywood for “blah, blah, blah”– all these adorable small towns. And people were like, “Oh, that’s nice!” (Laughs) Meanwhile, they’d never even been there. It was one of those “insert the name of your town here” article generators. It was bananas! Now, I’m very proud: I am in the “Child Stars Who’ve Become Horrible Looking” and the “Child Stars Who’ve Lost Everything”.
JR:Oh, please! I’ve seen those too!
AA: Now, there’s a picture of me as Nellie Oleson, and a picture of this poor woman who seems to have severe dental problems and just not doing very well. I guess she’s blonde and blue-eyed, and they’ve decided that she was ME in this side-by-side picture. Now, I have the first nickel I ever made and squeezed it till it screamed, so I know it’s not me! I’m not on this list! My friends were all sending it to me over and over again, and were like, “Oh my God, this is terrible!” First of all, if you do God forbid click on the article, it lists a bunch of celebrities and I’m not even there. I’m the “headline”, and they don’t even mention me. They don’t even try to come up with a story that some terrible thing has befallen me. There’s just a picture of me as Nellie and a picture of this rather unfortunate woman– who, oddly, is smiling in the picture, so maybe she’s OK. I think it’s a mugshot from “Best Mugshots” or whatever. Well, not only did I put this up all over my own Facebook and made it my cover page for one week, but a friend of mine who’s even crazier than I am found the T-shirt that the lady in the mugshot picture is wearing… and bought it for me! (Laughs).
JR:Now that’s what I call a good friend!
AA: So, now I can go out as this “other me” on Halloween if I choose!
JR:Wow! That’s pure clickbait!
AA: Right! I find it so fascinating. On the one hand, I’m like, Oh my God, the world’s gone to Hell in a handbasket, and what the hell is wrong with everyone, and I’m appalled by the things I see all the time… but on the other hand, I have this weird sort of detached attitude where I’m fascinated that this is a phenomenon, and fascinated with the things that people are coming up with. My name is used, which I take as an enormous compliment– because if you’re doing clickbait, you’re going to pull the name and face of a celebrity that is well known enough that people are going to click on it! So, if these lunatics stuck my face on as the headline for their clickbait site, then I must be doing something right that I’m considered “viable” to use as bait! If nobody knew who I was and nobody was sitting around surfing the web to see whatever happened to Alison Arngrim, then they would not stick my face on this clickbait! So, that’s really looking at the overly optimistic, bright side: Let’s try to really find a silver lining in the fact that they have a horrible picture up there, saying it’s me! But I do find this stuff utterly fascinating. It is wonderfully weird. I have an advantage having played Nellie Oleson, where people just hate me and call me a bitch: People almost expect me to be much meaner than I really am. They think I’m really gonna savage people in my act! My God, I’m practically Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms compared to how so many people think I’m going to be. I’ve had people come to my act and they say, “You weren’t HALF as horrible as I thought you were gonna be!” I make fun of Baby Carrie from Little House in the show. The first time Rachel Greenbush— who played Baby Carrie– came to my show, she said, “I was worried that you were REALLY going to go after me! I thought you were pretty nice to me by the time the show was over!” (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) What did they expect? Did they think you were going to throw things at people in the audience? Or beat them up in the aisles?
AA: Oh my God! Melissa Gilbert said that she was sometimes jealous, because she played the MOST goody-goody person in history. I mean, she was Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was the nicest freaking person in the world–not only in the show, but in the books too! It’s like being Shirley Temple: She literally was America’s sweetheart. So, she’s held to this completely unrealistic standard of behavior. If she has any kind of anything resembling a normal life, people go, “Well, she wasn’t as nice as on the show!”— because who in the hell in their right mind would be? I am generally very nice, but if I was in a bad mood or was horrible to someone, they would not even notice! No one would say anything! When people go, “Oh my God, she’s so nice!”, I think, “You know, I wasn’t even really that nice…”– but by comparison, ANYTHING I do seems nice! Melissa calls me and says, “I can’t believe you said that and you totally got away with it! If I said that, people would kill me… but you go on TV and say it! It’s OK because you were Nellie Oleson!” Well, it is a kind of advantage, I admit!
JR:I can imagine that Little House fans would expect Melissa to sign 100 autographs with a smile on her face, but would be like, “Well, I don’t know about Alison… She might get all ‘Nellie Oleson’ on me!” It’s must be great being the “bad girl”!
AA: (Laughs) It is! It’s such a relief. I have nowhere to go but up. Everything I do looks nice by comparison! Also, I do have some really rabid fans. In the two or three times on the internet when someone has tried to be mean to me, before I could even talk to them, I had fans jump online and say, “What did you SAY to her?!” and go after them. I actually had to tell them, “Stop!”. What do they call crazy fans? “Stans”, right? I have to tell them, “No, please don’t kill this person because they insulted me online. It’s OK!” But how wonderful is it that I’m 56 years old and I have freaking “Nellie defenders” online?
JR:(Laughs) That’s great! So, “Nellie Oleson” has cemented her status in pop culture forever…
AA: Isn’t it amazing? I wake up every morning and go, “Oh my God! It’s a miracle!” It’s so cool! (Laughs)
JR:Yes, it is! It’s so cool that you embraced the character and give your fans what they want. But do you ever get those moments when, let’s say you’re at the supermarket and someone yells out, “Hey, NELLLLLLLIEEEEEE!” and you’re like, “Enough already!”
AA: Oh my God! I was in Marshfield, Missouri for the Cherry Blossom Festival, and there were people who did keep calling me “Nellie”– including people who were working the event. They’d go, “Nellie, I mean… Alison!” There’s a Nellie’s sports bar in Washington, D.C. It’s not mine. I wish it was! It’s a gay sports bar. I’ve done a couple of book signings there. The guy who started it says that his grandmother Nellie inspired him. They had these great rubgy-style T-shirts with a great logo– very comfortable– and I always pick up an extra box of shirts when I’m in town. So, yes, I have been known to go out in public with a T-shirt that has “NELLIE’S” in big letters on it! But I don’t mind when people recognize me. They’re generally very nice and say nice things. When I was younger– in my teens and early 20’s– then yeah, it was a problem. There are kooks in this day and age, but at least nowadays, people have some idea that TV is TV and real life is real life. Back in the day, people were like, “It’s real!” and there were people who freaked out when they saw me, and got really weird, and were mean to me, and yelled things at me… and threw cups of orange soda at my head in parades…
AA: Yeah. I got hit in the face with an orange soda at the Christmas Parade in Hollywood. Direct hit, moving target. I was kind of impressed. So, people did get a little nutty with me. I made them so angry that they could not hold back. There was the Easter Fair where I made the near-fatal mistake of dressing up in costume with Katherine MacGregor, who played my mother Mrs. Oleson. We were convinced that it would be great. NBC loaned us the costumes and did our hair. My father said, “This is a terrible idea!” He knew! We went in costume, and sure enough, we scared the crap out of people. Nobody wanted our autograph. They wouldn’t come near us. Katherine was making small children cry. They were terrified of her. Then finally I gave up and went to get something to eat. I got a hot dog and a Slurpee, and these two little girls came up to me, kicked me in the butt, knocked me face down onto the pavement, and ran away laughing. I had a hard time getting up, because I was in the petticoat. I was like a turtle. My father came and got me, got me another hot dog, and said, “We’re going home!” That was the last time I ever attempted to do anything in the period costume! He was right. It incited people, because they thought this stuff was real. They couldn’t differentiate, and would become so angry that they couldn’t think clearly–and they’d react!
AA: Being Nellie Oleson is an issue sometimes with my friends– because people will ask them, “Oh my God, Why are you friends with her?” When my husband Bob called his parents, he was the last kid to get married, so they were very excited. They were like, “Thank God, he’s finally getting married!” They asked, “What does she do?” He said, “She’s an actress,” They said, “Great! Has she been in anything we would have seen?” He answered, “Little House on the Prairie”. Well, his parents at the time were living in Deerfield, Ohio: population 600. So, you can imagine … They were like, “Oh my God, who did she play?” And he said, “Nellie Oleson!“. And I swear to you, it was like the line went dead. There was just this horrible pin drop silence. And finally his father said, “She’s not like she was on the show, is she?” (Laughs)
(Alison Arngrim and Jed Ryan in 2010)
JR: Oh, lawd! So… anything else you want to tell your fans… besides, obviously, “Come see the show!”
AA: Yes, come see the show! I stay around afterwards and sign autographs, and I’ll have books for sale, and free bookmarks! I’ll have scented candles: We have “Nellie’s Warm Cookie” and “Alison’s Hot Orange Tart”! I’m doing The Vagina Monologues at The Loft Ensemble in Sherman Oaks on May 18th, and I have my “Nastie Nellie Oleson Tour” around Los Angeles on the 20th. And oh, I’m in a play at the Sharon Playhouse in Sharon, Connecticut in August. It’s called Always, Patsy Cline. It’s great play based on a true story. Patsy Cline was kind of lonely, and she often befriended strangers she met on the road. She met this woman named “Louise” by chance. They became great friends. I’m Louise, and Carter Calvert, a fabulous woman who can sing, is Patsy Cline. She does all the singing, I do all the talking! It’s a fair division of labor. Louise is a marvelous character. She’s very sympathetic. At first you kind of go, “Oh, she’s this wackadoo country bumpkin hee-haw case, and she’s obsessed with Patsy Cline, and she’s like some stalker!” And then you realize that she’s really very cool, and that she and Patsy Cline really are such great friends and have so much in common and support each other. It’s such a trip! I’ll be there pretty much the whole month of August. In September I’m doing something at the Rochester Fringe Festival, and I’ll be doing Snake River Comic Con in Pocatello, Idaho, Have you ever been to Pocatello, Idaho?
JR:(Laughs) I can safely say I haven’t! Not yet, anyway!
AA: I didn’t know that “Pocatello” was a real place… but it’s in a Judy Garland song! That’s why I had to go! In A Star is Born, Judy says, “I was born in a trunk In the Princess Theatre in Pocatello, Idaho.” When I was growing up, I just thought that “Pocatello” was a made-up place that Judy Garland sang about… but it’s actually a real place!
And there is a theater like the one she was talking about. So I said, “Yes I need to go, as long as I can go to the Princess Theater!”
JR:Well… Pocatello, Idaho is a long way from Walnut Grove, that’s for sure! After what you told me, I’ll have to add it to my travel itinerary! Thanks for speaking with me, Alison. See you in New York!
Spin Cycle presents Alison Arngrim’s Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: Nellie Oleson Live:
Friday, May 11, 2018 at 7:30PM
414-416 Green Street
Tickets are available here:
Saturday May 13th at 7:00 pm
Sunday May 14th at 1:00 pm
The Laurie Beechman Theatre
407 West 42nd Street
New York City
Tickets are available here.
Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated is available in hardcover, softcover, Kindle, and audiobook editions.
Always, Patsy Cline runs August 17-September 2, at The Sharon Playhouse, 49 Amenia Road, Sharon, CT. Visit here for more information.