Alison Arngrim’s nasty “Nellie Oleson” made her first appearance on TV’s Little House on the Prairie in 1974, and subsequently cemented her status in pop culture as the original mean girl: the bratty, manipulative kid that everyone loved to hate! Fast forward to 2020, and Arngrim still joyfully embraces both her iconic character Nellie as well as the enduring legacy of Little House. Arngrim’s 2011 book Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated, became a New York Times Best Seller. In her post-Little House years, she has appeared in movies, on TV, and on the stage. Her enormously popular one-woman show Confessions of a Prairie Bitch debuted in New York City in 2002, and has been selling out venues in cities all over America and beyond since. After bringing Nellie Oleson into our living rooms for decades, actor/author/activist Alison Arngrim is now delighting her transgenerational fan base in a unique way during the coronavirus crisis: For two Saturdays, audiences are now invited into Arngrim’s living room with the all-new Confessions of a Prairie Terror: a 30-minute, live version of her critically acclaimed stage show. The online event promises enough buzz, bitchery, and bonnets to satisfy all levels of Little House on the Prairie devotees… and guarantees that Walnut Grove will have more than a few new visitors!
Alison Arngrim took the time to speak to me about her upcoming show, what to wear to Zoom parties, and the secrets to surviving multiple plagues:
JR: Hello, Alison. Greetings from New York City! Thank you for speaking with me. How are you holding up during the lockdown?
AA: I’m stuck at home. I’m in LA, in a Little House in the Big Woods! It is a little house, but at least there’s more than one room– and we really ARE in the woods! I’m practically in the Angeles National Forest, whereas my friends in New York are in 10′ X 12′ rooms with a fire escape… and I’m like, “Yikes!”
JR: Yep! A New York City apartment is like a Tic Tac with a bathroom!
AA: Right! And that’s a lot harder. I mean, it’s one thing in California with the sun shining. You could go out in the garden. It’s another thing to be locked down in New York City!
JR: Well, I have a “two bedroom”, so it’s considered a like a mansion by New York city standards!
AA: That’s like… palatial! (Laughs)
JR: Exactly. I mean, I can look out my window and see the birds. They have total freedom and they don’t care about social distancing. Is it wrong that I’m jealous?!
AA: They’re birds. They don’t get it!
JR: Indeed! So… For so long, you’ve been entertaining US in OUR own living rooms. Now, with Confessions of a Prairie Terror, your upcoming event, you’re jumping on the virtual entertainment bandwagon. You’re now doing the show from YOUR living room for us. How does that feel?
AA: It’s so crazy. Yeah, it’s just wonderfully nuts! It started when I said, “Well, what am I going to do?” as I watched my calendar go blank, like everybody else here. I had my plane tickets and everything to come to New York and play at The Laurie Beechman Theatre. I LOVE The Laurie Beechman so much! And everyone was like, “No, no, no, you’re not doing that and you’re not doing THAT either!” I kind of sat in the living room thinking, what exactly am I going to do? I mean, everything is just gone. I said, Well, I’m going to go back to the beginning and read the Little House books. And then I thought, Why not share them with people? Other people are bored and stressed out and freaking, so let’s go! I went on Facebook and have been reading the Little House books every day on Facebook live. This has just generated a huge following. I mean, they were already fans, but now they’re like, “We can hang out! Instead of watching the news, we can watch Alison read a book. This is great!” So, we’re all kind of doing that together… and Chip Duckett said that obviously everything at The Beechman was canceled, but that we were now looking into this platform that a lot of cabaret people were using. I was like, “Do it! Do it!” So… On Saturday night– as I tell my fans when I’m reading the books– I’ll be performing from that corner of the living room over there! (Laughs). My husband and I are gonna rearrange the furniture. I’ve got one of those backdrops, the kind you have when you do the “at home auditions” over the phone. So, I got the backdrop thing; I have a couple of different ones. We’re going to try them out in the next few days. I’ve got lighting: I use the ring light but also couple of big lights. I have a nice new wireless microphone and a new camera, and we’re just going to set all this stuff up. Confessions of a Prairie Terror is only a half an hour: not as long as the Beechman show. So we won’t be doing the video, but I still want to do the Q&A. How the heck do I do Q&A? (Laughs) So, I scanned the “Ask Alison Anything” cards that I normally hand out at the Laurie Beechman show, and we put it up on Facebook and said, “OK, start posting your questions!” I already have over 130 questions, so I don’t think I’ll be able to answer ALL of them! I’m going to write them on cards as if it were in the theater, do the Q&A, and just do as much material as I can cram into 30 minutes!
JR: Wow! So you asked your followers for questions, and it looks like the response was through the roof!
AA: Yeah, they went nuts. OK, no: I’m not answering all 130 questions. I only got a half an hour! But I will go through and pick several good ones and, just like in the show, I’ll be able to pull an index card: “Well, so-and-so wants to know…!” It will be like Romper Room. Oh, it’ll be very silly. It will be great!
JR: It’s gonna be a “Little House on the Prairie” overdose. I love it!
AA: I cannot believe the response I got! I have things that I sign at autograph shows, like books and picture and… bonnets! On my online store I also have bonnets for sale. A lot of people are now taking pictures of themselves in the bonnets reading along. So they’re all gonna be sitting there in front of their laptops on Saturday night with bonnets on. It’s kind of nutty!
JR: Oh, I love that so much. It’s kind of cool but also a little bit scary at the same time! (Laughs)
AA: (Laughs) But I guess it’s something to do, you know? I’m amazed at the speed with everyone has embraced this technology. All my actor and performer friends were going, “I don’t know what to do!“, and 10 minutes later were like, “I’m on Zoom! I’m on V Live! I’m on Stageit!” They’re on everything, and I’m like, “You barely knew how to work your phone two weeks ago. What is happening?!”
JR: I know. It’s great. I’ve been going to Zoom parties. I never know what cologne to wear to them…! (Both laugh)
AA: I went to a Zoom birthday, and most of the people were in their sweats or in their underwear on a couch. The birthday boy was dressed. My husband and I got dressed up too. My husband was like, “Oh, we’re going to a party! Finally! What do I wear?” We dressed up like we were going to a club and we sat on the couch… and people were in their sweats! I was like, “Come on man, it’s a party! We can see it!” So do you dress up when you do Zoom? I mean, you don’t have to wear pants, obviously…!
JR: (Laughs) I do dress up, and I’ll even wear pants, but I’m usually barefoot! And I turn on the disco strobe light to make sure I have the funkiest “box” on Zoom!
AA: Nice! You have to liven it up! I got one of those ring lights, like the YouTube makeup girls. They have the fancy ones. Mine is the $39.99 plastic one– but I was like, “Fine! It’ll take it!” And it works pretty good. I look pretty good at my readings! I dyed my hair this morning. I color my own hair, I’m doing my own nails… I’m ALL over it, man! (Laughs) I’m very brave. Boxed color can go very wrong. But if you’re very careful and you made sure you pick one shade lighter, it’s usually OK. Pick a decent one! Don’t buy the super discount one that you don’t know (Laughs). Get a brand you’ve heard of! You may see the six dollar one, buy the nine dollar one! They say on the box that you’re supposed to go a little lighter. You’ll say, “That’s a good color.” NO! Go the NEXT one down and don’t leave it on too long. Follow the instructions and err on the side of caution. Cut it off a minute less. Don’t just go, “Well, if 20 minutes are good, 40 minutes will be better.” Don’t do that! These are generally designed for people who don’t know what they’re doing. So, it’s hard to REALLY screw up. But as long as you get like a shade lighter than normal and actually follow the instructions, your hair should not be too awful. So people are freaking out: “I can’t get to the hairdresser!” Most of the drug stores are still open… and you can also order it. I ordered the hair dye. I got it delivered.
JR: Nice! One of my friends posted on Facebook that she did her own nails, and posted these close-up photos to go with it. Let’s just say that I didn’t comment…! (Laughs)
AA: Yeah, I had acrylics and I’m not going to do acrylics at home. So I did sort of a “fake fill”. You can get that Sally Hansen heavy duty nail stuff. It’s so gooey that you can like sort of fill in, and that’ll work for a few days. But now that it’s grown out enough, the acrylic tips are just like… well, that’s the last of them! They’re all popping off. So, I will have (Gasp!) my own nails. I haven’t seen my own nails in years. Like my hair color. I have no idea what my real hair color is! I’m filing and painting and they’re, well… not awful! (Laughs) They’re reasonably OK!
JR: Well, if we tune in live on Saturday night and you’re wearing gloves, we’ll know what happened. (Laughs)
AA: We may just go with elbow-length opera gloves. I may just give up and do that. Yes, you’ll know! And if I’m wearing a hat…well, the hair just didn’t work out! (Laughs) Then it’s, “What to wear?” We’re in our homes. Do we dress up like we’re going to the Laurie Beechman Theatre, or do we dress up like we’re in our living room? I don’t know. I may go all out. I mean, I’ll just dress up like I’m going to the Beechman. I figure, What the heck, right?
JR: Yeah, absolutely. It would be a shame to have all that fancy fancy lighting and the new camera and not put it to good use!
AA: Yeah! I have not done this before. I’ve done little video things and now I do Facebook live, but I’m excited to see how this goes. My friends are all trying this new platform. So I’m gonna try this on Saturday. It’s like a soundcheck and a practice, and then we do it again on the 16th– so by then I’ll be good at it! (Laughs) Like I said, I have decent lighting in here, and I think it’ll be fun. It’s weird because I will be in people’s homes. I mean, I’m used to obviously doing this in a nightclub. I’ll be doing this and I’ll be basically alone. My husband and my cat will be here, but that’s not like having a studio audience. It’s not really the same thing. So that’ll be strange. I’ll have all these people sitting there– and I know that they’re all on their couches either naked or in their underwear watching. That can be a very peculiar sensation! So, it will be interesting to see how this feels.
JR: Well, they could be wearing the bonnet, but you don’t know WHERE they’ll be wearing it! (Laughs)
AA: Yes, they could be wearing the bonnet and nothing else. I don’t know. That’s entirely possible with my fans! (Both laugh)
JR: Exactly! So…without giving too much away, can you share some of the surprises you’ll have in store for the audience?
AA: We have prize packages that you can bid on, where you can get a bonnet, and a tin cup, and a copy of my book, and stuff like that. So that’s going to be cute. Yes, little prizey things! And we have the live Q&A. I will shuffle the cards and not know which one I’m pulling, so that will be fun. If you’ve been to the Beechman, you know that at the end of the show we have the Nellie moment with the wheelchair! I actually do have a wheelchair. So, do we go “full out”? Do we put the wheelchair in the kitchen and roll onto the stage from the dining room? Do we do this? I think we’ll go for it and bring out the wheelchair. We’ll do the whole thing! This is going to be epic!
JR: Wow! I can’t wait!
AA: I’m going all out!. Like I said, I’ve never done anything like this. This is absolutely crazy. But everyone is trying this out now. So, I will be the guinea pig and give this a shot. I think it will be fun because May 9th is Mothers’ Day weekend, and I have traditionally always done Mothers’ Day weekend in New York at the Beechman. It felt bad to be missing that, and to not see everybody, and not have them see me, and not to get up and get the questions, and not do the ritual of coming down there and doing my show. That would have been May 9th, and to be able to still do that even in this completely wackadoo way where people can still go, “Oh, there she is. Oh, she answered my question!” without leaving their house is great. We’re still doing this and we can still have that kind of insanity, even though it is electronically. I’m pleased, ’cause I was feeling bad about not being able to come into New York for Mothers’ Day weekend!
JR: Oh, I know what you mean. I think we’re all like that. In New York, there was never a shortage of things to do. In fact, there were often MANY enticing options that were available seven nights a week, and they often competed for attention. In the months of March and April, all the events I had lined up were cancelled, one by one. I full dance card, and all of a sudden, in the words of Billy Idol, I was “Dancing With Myself”! (Laughs)
AA: Yeah! I had just been in France in January, and I got back February and then went to what was I guess was the last autograph show. I went to the Fayetteville, Arkansas Comic Show with Charlotte Stewart, who was “Miss Beadle”. We did a thing there. At that time people were starting to not shake hands, and we were so excited because our autograph table was right near the secret exit to the ladies room that nobody knew about. (Laughs) We could wash our hands every three seconds. It was starting to get weird. And then we got home from that, and that was it. That was like the last flight out of Dodge. We knew they were not going to have an autograph show like that anytime soon. And then, things started to close. There might have been a period where I’d come home from a trip and not go anywhere for a couple of weeks, because I’d be exhausted! But now, it’s been long enough. It’s like, “OK, about now we’d be going out for sure!”... and we’re not. It’s starting to become noticeable. It’s very weird for people who entertain. All the stuff I do involves large crowds of people. I do stand up comedy, I do theater, I do autograph shows. And then there’s the Prairie events where I go to the real Walnut Grove, Minnesota and all those kinds of places. That all involves my interacting with large groups of people. I don’t do anything, creatively, that doesn’t involve at least 300 people. This is weird!
JR: Yeah! But I’ve learned something over the last month: I think that the people who are socially conscious have become more socially conscious. The people who are creative have become more creative. The people who are optimistic have become more optimistic. Unfortunately, it works both ways: The lazy have become more lazy, the cynical have become more cynical, and the “Negative Nancy’s” have become more “Negative Nancy-ish”…
AA: Yes! And anyone who was paranoid and waiting for the end of the world are like, “THIS IS IT! THIS IS IT!” The murder hornets put it over the top! It’s like The Hunger Games and they released the tracker jackers now! So, it’s come to that… Everyone has traits: Whatever you were doing, you are now still that but more so! People who were kind of lazy and were like, “Well, if I don’t have to leave the house…”, that’s it. They’re in their sweats. They’ve gone to pajamas. They haven’t put on shoes in a month. People who were kind of horrible before have just gone berserk now. But then you have people who care about their friends and are helping people out. They’re doing things like helping out with the food banks here. My friend Brenda, who can sew, is making all these fabulous masks. She won’t take a penny for them. She’s out in Arizona and she’s just putting them into envelopes all day and sending them all over the country. She sent me a gorgeous, gorgeous little mask. I’m doing a friend’s laundry ’cause he’s so immunocompromised. The doctor said, “Nope, Nope, you can’t even go to the store. You’re not going anywhere. Do not leave the house!” He has everything, except there was no laundry facility in his building. He was going to the laundromat. No more! I don’t know if they were price gouging, or if that’s what they always charged, but they charged insane amounts of money to deliver. I was like, “Oh, for heaven sake, I’ve got a washer and dryer. I’ll just mask up, glove up, come over, get your laundry, do it, and bring it back.” (Laughs) OK, I’m selling bonnets, and performing in my living room, and taking in laundry. What is happening?! (Laughs)
JR: Welcome to 2020! (Laughs)
AA: My friends and I call each other. Everyone’s checking with each other. We’re like, “OK, do you need toilet paper? ‘Cause we have toilet paper. Do you need food? Did you need this? Do you need that? Are you okay? Do I need to Venmo you some cash? What are you doing?” So yeah, people are either cocooning completely and baking bread and what not, or they’re out in the car delivering stuff. Have you heard about Quinn Cummings? She was the little girl in The Goodbye Girl who was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress… but she’s a writer now, and she’s on Twitter, and she’s very funny, and she’s a big animal activist person with a cat rescue group. She does “Cocktails For Kittens”. Her hobby is bartending. She likes to make exotic mixed drinks. But she doesn’t really drink that much, and she’s said, “I don’t know what to do with them once I’ve made them.” So she makes these cocktails, and she realized other people want them. If you make a donation to Santé D’Or Foundation, she will mask up, glove up and bring a paper bag of fancy drinks to your house.
JR: Oh, nice. How far is she willing to travel? (Laughs)
AA: Unfortunately, she’s in Atwater. I don’t think she’s going to hop a bus to New York unless you make a really big donation (Laughs). But yeah… I have friends who are delivering masks, I have friends who are delivering food, I’m delivering laundry, and Quinn is out there dropping off paper bags full of booze on people’s doorsteps. People are doing what they were doing, only escalated to a crazy degree. And I always like talking to my fans, even the hardcore little house on the Prairie bonnet-y fans. And now I’m literally talking to them every single day at 1:30PM while wearing a bonnet! I also do Cameo.
JR: Isn’t that where you give shoutout to fans online?
AA: Yeah. It’s like “Happy Birthday” stuff, and when I first saw it I was like, “Oh, stop!” It was an odd selection of celebrities, and seriously: You’re, like, paying people to say “Happy Birthday”? Is this really a thing? Now, because everybody’s at home, it’s become really big. And then I went and saw that there were people I knew on there. OK, what the heck? My agent was like, “Everyone’s on it. Really!” I don’t gouge my Prairie fans. I don’t charge half as much as most of the people on there. But Mother’s Day is coming, and my phone is blowing up with people who decided that what their mother needs is Nellie Olsen saying “Happy Mother’s Day!” I’m like, “Okie dokie!”
JR: (Laughs) Is that so their mother may think, “Oh my God, I thought MY kid was bad, but I could have had a kid like Nellie Oleson!”
AA: Right! I’m waiting for the ones from the people who don’t like their mothers asking, “Could you say something awful to my mother? I never liked her.” I’m waiting for those. Those should be next! So far, it’s just like, “Oh, my mom loves your show. Would you say hi?”, but I’m waiting for “I cannot stand my mother. Could you please insult her for Mother’s Day? We really need to do this.” So yeah, we should be getting the evil ones any minute now. (Laughs) I wanted to keep busy. At my house, there’s no sweats. I’m awake, and dressed, and fully made up, and doing stuff all day!
JR: Oh wow. That sounds like so much fun! So… during the lockdown, many of us are eating a lot, drinking a lot, and watching a LOT of TV. In New York City we get Little House on UpTV. In fact, I caught an episode just today: “The Werewolf of Walnut Grove”. It was the one where an impossibly beefy blond bully named “Bart” was terrorizing his teacher and his classmates.
AA: Yes. He’s like 30 years old and in the seventh grade!
JR: Yeah, I thought that was a little hard to believe. But anyway, I didn’t think that Nellie Oleson was in that episode, and then just when you least expect it, she appears, as wicked as ever! Nellie doesn’t even change the nasty expression on her face for a second as she joins the conspiracy to get the teacher fired! It’s just quintessential Nellie… so EVIL!
AA: (Laughs) I was just always there to ruin something for people: just to show up to generally make things worse. The big fuss lately is that some stations have rerun “The Quarantine Episode” and “The Plague Episode”! I was in both of those, so I had both typhus and anthrax. We had to deal with ANTHRAX! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) You were ahead of your time!
AA: We were WAY ahead of our time. In 2001 when there was that thing with the envelopes and the weaponized anthrax going out, during the first week everyone was saying, “Well, maybe it was an accident, or maybe this or maybe that…”, and I said, “No! You don’t get inhaled anthrax! You get anthrax through your skin, or you get it by eating something… but it’s not contagious from person to person…” And people would ask, “Why on earth do you know this much about freaking anthrax?” I’m like, “We had it on Little House on the Prairie!” So yeah, Inside Edition is now doing a thinkpiece on how Little House dealt with anthrax and typhus in the quarantine episode. (Laughs) I think that that’s been a running theme: I’ve been reading the books, and we just did the chapter where they all had malaria. We also just did the plague of locusts chapter. That was depressing! A running theme with the books and with the shows that it was way worse than the 1870s than whatever the hell is happening now. When things went wrong in the 1870s, it was worse because they couldn’t even get on the phone and call anybody. In the books, when they all get malaria, the entire Ingalls family almost dies, because there’s no one there! It is only because there’s a doctor– a “Dr. Tann” going door to door randomly because he heard that there was a malaria outbreak– that they even survived the episode, because there was just no contact. So, people were completely cut off in the 1800’s when these horrible outbreaks of disease would happen– and they couldn’t get on the phone, let alone see each other. And, of course, medicine was in its infancy. “Doc Baker” really couldn’t do a whole hell of a lot for you. Um, you were kind of screwed. So, the 1800’s basically sucked. That was an awful time period. A lot of people have been digging into the books and to the show because they’re like, “Well, okay, here is a situation that’s beyond our control.” We’re so used to just calling the doctor and getting a pill if we get sick, and now here we’re stuck. Here’s something that doesn’t have a treatment, doesn’t have a vaccine, doesn’t have this or that. And we don’t know what the hell is going to happen next. It’s like the 1800’s. Oh my God! And then we ask, How did the Ingalls deal with this? So yeah, it’s amazing how many people are glued to the tube for Little House reruns or going back to the books. It’s quite the phenomenon. Who knew? I mean, it’s 2020 and people who weren’t even alive when the show was being made are writing articles about the quarantine episode. It’s like, “Wait, what just happened?!”
JR: The books and the show hold up through the decades, that’s for sure! So, what’s the best thing to eat or drink when you’re binge-watching Little House on the Prairie?
JR: I would go for the cornbread! It’s easy to make. They eat it in almost every episode. They’re constantly eating corn bread or corn dodgers or corn SOMETHING in the books– because the cornmeal kept, and they could schlep it across counties. It was easier to get than flour and it kept better. So, they were constantly making corn bread– and you didn’t really need an oven. You could make it in the cast iron skillet. Ma would make little patties of corn bread and just put them in the fire! And, it’s really tasty! I did make corn bread for one of my readings. I also made molasses-on-snow candy one afternoon. I used my crushed ice maker and some molasses. Corn bread is really easy to make. Everybody’s gone nuts and is baking, so there’s no flour in the supermarket this week– but there’s some cornmeal left! There you go. The normal recipe is cornmeal, flour, sugar, milk, and eggs and what not. But you can go all “Ma Ingalls” and do straight cornmeal. It’s a little crunchy! Also, cornbread goes with lots of things. It’s good with chili, it’s good with a lot of the canned goods you might have stocked up on, and it’s good with your leftover GrubHub takeout. It feels decadent and buttery even though it’s a very basic food. And it totally goes with Little House on the Prairie!
JR: I think I’m getting some cornbread cravings now! So, I love to ask this of everybody: What’s the first thing you’re going to do when the pandemic is over and the masks come off?
AA: Jump in the car, drive around to all my friend’s houses, and hug them and kiss them on the face!
JR: That sounds so nice! I personally plan to go out EVERY SINGLE NIGHT when this is over!
AA: And, of course, to have a party and invite everyone we know: actually have people over our house!
JR: That sounds great! So, anything else you’d like to tell the masses? Besides, obviously, “But your tickets for the show?”
AA: Wash your hands! (Laugh) I also tell people: Get some rest and take a nap. If you feel, “I can’t deal with this anymore, I gotta take a nap.”, it’s not your imagination. You’re traumatized and bored silly at the same time, and this is not a good combination! To have these constant shocks, where you’re constantly being traumatized over and over again, AND you’re also really bored: That does not often occur simultaneously, so the human body is not really prepared for that. Scared and bored is not a good combination! If you’re lucky enough to be well, and in a house: stay put, keep your hands clean, take care of each other, call your friends, and GET SOME REST! That weird tired feeling is not your imagination! You actually ARE that tired!
JR: Agreed! And I believe that if you’re gonna be quarantined, being on lockdown with Nellie Oleson is not too bad! Thanks again, Alison! See you Saturday! Now, what to wear?!
Alison Arngrim’s Confessions of a Prairie Terror, a live stay-at-home online version of her critically acclaimed Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, will take place on Saturday, May 9 at 8pm EDT / 5pm PDT and Saturday, May 16 at 11pm EDT / 8pm PDT. Tickets are $10.00 and can be purchased here . For more information, visit here.
Alison wears a bonnet and reads from the books to fans every day. It’s completely free and can be viewed entirely on her Facebook page.
From 1983, until 1986, I toured with a ministerial team. We dramatized music so it would take on new meaning for the Deaf (Yup, I am Deaf, myself.) In Don Francisco’s “The Package,” I played the devil, so I know how it is, playing characters that have absolutely NOTHING to do with how you really are.
I did, however, play one character, who has almost exactly like I. From what I’ve read, I don’t think the character Nellie fits that bill.
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