Saturday, July 21, 2012

"Confessions of a Prairie Bitch" by Alison Arngrim (aka Nellie Oleson) at Camp Bar

As a little girl growing up in Minnesota, I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. I loved the Little House on the Prairie books and especially the TV show; it was my favorite show as a kid and I've seen every episode multiple times. Laura was my hero - I wanted her life, I wished my parents were more like Ma and Pa, and I thought Almanzo was dreamy. And of course, I hated Laura's nemesis, that mean old Nellie Oleson. But it was very much a "love to hate" feeling. What would Little House be without Nellie? Boring. Alison Arngrim, Nellie's portrayer, has made a career out of being the mean girl (aka "prairie bitch"), and what choice did she have? She will forever be known as Nellie, so why not embrace it and have fun with it? It's quite obvious from her show at the Camp Bar in St. Paul this week that she does, and so does the audience.

Alison has long been a stand-up comedian, and decided a few years ago to include her Little House experiences in her act, to much success. She published the book version of Confessions of a Prairie Bitch in 2010 (which I haven't read yet but will soon), and has been touring with her stand-up act for a few years. She told many great stories about her years working on the show and dealing with the fame that came with it, as well as her crazy life growing up in Hollywood. As the daughter of Liberace's manager and the voice of Casper the Friendly Ghost, she grew up among lots of famous and interesting people. Alison also answered questions from the audience, and did a hilarious bit listing the 10 most commonly asked questions (Was the hair real? Are you and Melissa Gilbert friends? What was Michael Landon really like? Is Albert gay?) and later answered them in rapid-fire succession (It was a wig, Yes, Awesome, How should I know what Albert's into?). Along with the stories were video clips, including a hilarious montage of baby Carrie's incoherent rambling, and Alison's favorite scene - rolling down the hill in the wheelchair.

A few interesting tidbits:

  • Michael Landon was always in control of the Little House set (he was a producer, director, and star of the show).  He worked everybody hard and demanded professionalism from everyone, even the child actors, and they all loved him for it. Alison noted that anytime Charles was injured, it was always his ribs that were broken so he would have to take his shirt off. Michael knew who was watching the show and what they wanted to see. It sounds like he was an interesting mix between a man who liked fast cars and drinking and was married three times, and a talented and driven man who created one of the best loved family shows in the history of TV. Alison said he was always very good to the fans, and often reminded her that she was working for them. Not him, not the network, the fans. I think that's a key to his success and I wish more TV executives today had that attitude! It was obvious that Alison has a great deal of admiration for him. As do I. I had the opportunity to meet his youngest daughter, three-time Emmy-winner Jen Landon, a few years ago, and I'm afraid I gushed a bit about how much I love her father. I felt like I was in the presence of TV royalty. (You can currently see Jen on the best soap on TV - The Young and the Restless.)
  • Someone asked Alison about Little House the Musical (which premiered at the Guthrie in 2008 before embarking on a nationwide tour, and which I loved so much I saw it three times), and she said she would have loved to have played Mrs. Oleson opposite Melissa Gilbert's Mrs. Ingalls, except that there was no Mrs. Oleson in the play. She also noted that the Laura/Nellie song was just like Elphaba/Glinda in Wicked, which I also observed at the time. It's the one that that bugged me about the musical, that Nellie was a copy of Glinda. But come to think of it, maybe Glinda was a copy of Nellie. Isn't Nellie Oleson the prototype for every "bitch" role in TV/movies/theater?
  • Alison and Melissa Gilbert (Laura) are good friends to this day, and didn't get along with Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary) at the time. She complained about her character going blind, and Alison thought - have you read the books? Alison visited Melissa at Dancing with the Stars to support her, and when asked if she'd consider doing the show, responded that at the age of 50, she wasn't so sure she wanted to stand on her head and let everyone see her panties. Alison said most of the cast is still in contact and supports one another in their various endeavors.
  • Alison recently appeared at "Laurapalooza" in Mankato, which was fun and a little scary. Some people she met romanticize the time period depicted in the show and books, and asked her "wouldn't you love to live in the 1800s?" Alison's response is a hearty NO - they didn't have antibiotics in the 1800s, or appletinis or botox! But she was very excited about the "What would Nellie do?" shirts and other memorabilia available at Laurapalooza.
I'm so glad I went to see Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. To see an actor from a show that I've loved virtually all my life is a rare treat. That she's so funny and real about it is even better. And it was even a bit inspirational. Alison shared that by being labeled a "bitch" at an early age, she was freed from the expectations of being "likable," and she could just be herself. It's not always a bad thing to be a bitch, it's often a label that society gives to strong and independent women. As they say in the movie Doloris Claibourne, sometimes being a bitch is the only thing a woman has to hold on to. Alison Arngrim is doing a great job of holding on to being a bitch, and entertaining and inspiring audiences along the way.