In all of television history, there probably isn’t a single TV villain that got deeper under the audience’s skin than Little House on the Prairie’s Nellie Oleson. With her blonde ringlets, blue eyes and pretty dresses, Walnut Grove’s resident bully was a sharp contrast to sweet and pretty Melissa Gilbert. Through her sneers and sharp tongue, Little House’s prairie bitch was an important element on the show that branded her way on our memories. Over four decades later, we are still angry at Nellie Oleson,
But as for the actress that player her, there isn’t anyone more beloved within Little House fan culture than Alison Arngrim. With a dazzling sense of humor and a large personality, Alison is one of the most prolific former cast member who connects with fans at autograph shows and events worldwide, making her one of the keepers of the series.
During the darkest days of the COVD-19 pandemic, while the world was locked down, Alison became a comforting presence to her fan base when she took to Facebook daily to do readings of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie book series. While the world was shut down and trying to navigate a pandemic unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetime, Alison’s daily readings got thousands of views by people just looking for something to smile about. As a result, more opportunities came her way including numerous on-line shows, a movie role, and directing an on-line comedy show featuring the legendary Rich Little on October 15 (to purchase tickets visit https://www.stageit.com/rich_little/live_in_las_vegas/87139). The pandemic has allowed Alison Arngrim to reinvent herself as an internet celebrity, and she is suddenly busier than ever.
Having interviewed Alison on a number of occasions, I’ve followed her social media activity for years, and as I went through my own COVID journey, her readings and videos came into my home. Many a quiet day, with the world still around me, I’d sit in my big chair with my cat on my lap and allow my anxiety to be settled, if only for a little while, and let Alison Arngrim read me a story. In the strange times we live in, one might thing that only during a pandemic could Nellie Oleson be a voice of comfort via the internet. But, when you experience the joy that is Alison Arngrim, it actually makes a great deal of sense.
Sam Tweedle: During the dark days of COVID, when it was really bad, I was watching you read Little House on the Prairie on Facebook. I didn’t necessarily watch every day, but I watched a few times a week. It brought me a lot of comfort to be able to sit and watch you read these stories for an hour or so and to just leave what was scaring me for a while.
Alison Arngrim: This is what people are saying. I’m getting not only Facebook messages and emails, but letters. People send me candy and mixed nuts and they make me masks and send me letters that say “You don’t understand. Everything is awful. I’m stuck in my apartment but, for an hour a day, it’s just Alison reading Little House on the Prairie and everything is okay.” One person said “We didn’t know we needed Alison Arngrim in a bonnet reading Little House, but we all did.”
Sam: What made you decide to start doing that?
Alison: Well I was in the same fix. March comes and I was all booked up, and all my gigs were suddenly cancelled. I was booked in New York for the Mother’s Day show I do every year and now I’m sitting in the middle of my living room floor wondering what I’m going to do. Luckily my husband Bob was declared essential because he works for a big construction company, so we still had health insurance and if I did nothing at least we wouldn’t be in the streets. But I’ve been working since I was twelve and I felt that I should be doing something. Well, I decided that I should go back and reread the Little House books in order and watch the way the character of Laura develops. I’d read On the Banks of Plum Creek, and most of the others, at some point. But I hadn’t read all of The Long Winter, and I don’t think I’d ever read Little Town on the Prairie. When was the last time I read By the Shores of Silver Lake? I know I had never sat down and read them one after the other in order. So I thought it’d be an interesting mental exercise. But then I thought – wait. Everybody else is bored out of their mind, I should go on Facebook and do it on Facebook Live and let everybody else join in. The next thing I knew it was mid-March, and I slapped on a bonnet and started reading book one, Little House in the Big Woods, page one and it got fifty thousand views. It was ridiculous. People were tuning in in droves saying this was the best thing ever, and I had no idea how much people wanted this. I suspect that because I needed it, they needed it.
Sam: One of the things key elements to the on-line readings is the bonnets you wear. It’s become part of the show, sort of like Mister Rogers and his shoes and sweater.
Alison: Well I had this big box of bonnets because I was supposed to be at RuPaul’s Drag Con and Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival and all of these other things. So I decided I’d wear a different color bonnet every day. Well, when I start doing the live videos I start getting these messages saying “I love the bonnets. Where can I get one?” I was going to sell them at the autograph shows so I said “Yes, you can buy the bonnets at my store. “ I have a little store on-line, where I would sell a book here and an autographed photo there. Well, they sold so fast that I had to call The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota and say “I need to order more bonnets. How many can you send?” They were sending them to me fifty at a time but they couldn’t keep up. So then the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Missouri said they had a different kind of bonnet and they started sending them to me. Then one day I drank some milk out of a tin cup during a reading, and suddenly everyone wanted to buy tin cups. So now I am also selling tin cups at the store. I just added the CD’s of my book, bonnets, tin cups, autograph photos and now it looks like an Amazon fulfillment center in my living room.
Sam: One of the things I loved about the Little House readings was when you brought some of your former co-stars on to also do some readings. That was great. I watched Dean Butler read some of Farmer Boy, but even cooler was when you had Charlotte Stewart doing readings. Of course, Little House fans know her as Miss Beadle, but as a horror film fan I love her as Mary X from Eraserhead! So having Mary X read Little House books was really surreal!
Alison: I know! Isn’t that cool? When we were kids on the show, Charlotte was making Eraserhead while she was filming Little House. She was exhausted. She’d be up all night doing Eraserhead, and then be on the Little House set in the morning. So Eraserhead finally came out and it was playing at the New Art in Santa Monica at midnight. I saw it because I was sixteen and I could drive. I shouldn’t have been able to see it because you were supposed to be eighteen to get in. But then the kids on the set all found out that there was this movie called Eraserhead that Charlotte did. Well, Melissa Gilbert said “We’ve got to go see this!” I said “You guys can’t go see this.” Melissa always had a plan, and she comes to me, and she has the baby Carrie twins, Robin and Rachel, and she says “Me and the twins, and Matt and Pat Labyorteaux are going to tell our parents we are having a slumber party at your house, and you’re going to drive us to the New Art at midnight and get us in and we are going to see this movie.” I said “You guys are out of your minds and I’m not going to do this. Let me list all the reasons why. Number one, you are all so not eighteen. Some of you are ten. You are not going to the New Art at midnight to see Eraserhead. I’m not driving you guys in the middle of the night. I’m not lying to your parents. There I’m going to be the next day when you guys are all hysterical and having nightmares, and I have to explain to your parents while I thought it’d be a good idea to drive you all downtown in the middle of the night to a midnight X-rated horror movie. Are you insane?”
Sam: Since the Little House readings you’ve suddenly seemed to have reinvented yourself as an on-line celebrity. Did that happen organically?
Alison: Suddenly everything came from this. I started doing Cameo, where celebrities do the birthday greetings. It was Mother’s Day, and suddenly everybody’s Mom needed a greeting from Nellie Oleson. I did a thing called Coach the World, which is a lot like Cameo, but where people can have a fifteen minute Zoom call with some kind of a coach to teach you something, or with a celebrity. Suddenly I’m on Zoom with a woman from Japan getting a tour of Tokyo. I was so upset about not going to the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York but then the people that booked the show called me and said “We’re thinking of doing the shows on-line. You could do a live pay per view streaming show out of your living room.” I said “I’m in.” So next thing I knew I was doing Confessions of a Prairie Terror live on-line and it was a smash. People loved it. I have a Halloween show coming up called Nellie’s Scary Prairie, which will be on the 27th of October. I have a Christmas show coming up called Nellie’s Nasty Noel which will be on December 17th. I’m still able to do the Q and A. I have people write down their questions on Facebook and we put them on the cards just like in the show. Bob is running camera and, luckily, he laughs at the right places during my shows. He’s able to see the comments and give me the thumbs up that people are laughing. So I’m doing speaking gigs, I’m doing live stand up, and I’m still reading. We’ve gone through all nine of the Little House books and now I’m reading Rose Wilder, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, first book Let the Hurricane Roar.
Sam: One of the big projects you have on-line is that you are moving into directing and teaming up with Rich Little! How did that come together?
Alison: So I started helping my friends get on-line to do live videos. I’d write up little cheat sheets and tell them what to do. Well, next thing I know Harlan Boll calls me and says “Rich Little wants to talk to you.” Well, Rich Little is not only still alive, he’s not even retired. He was doing four nights a week at the Tropicana. So, of course, he’s going out of his mind that he can’t perform. He’s also old, so they are wrapping him up in plastic before he can even leave the house. He’s going squirrely and he wants to do something. Well he heard I had done some kind of on-line show and it worked. I talked to his tech team and talked to him, and on October 15th Rich Little will be going on-line with Virtually Speaking, and streaming a show. I’ll be directing because, as performers, it’s really weird doing a show the first few times when you’re in your living room yelling at a computer and a camera.
Sam: I found the hardest thing for me during COVID, even as a writer was that I often didn’t feel like I had an audience. I did a few of my own live videos, and on-line content got popular. You obvious recreated yourself to have an on-line audience. What was it like for you to not have an obvious audience in front of you?
Alison: It was freakin’ weird to not have an audience. I do standup comedy and live theater. I do autograph shows and personal appearances. So suddenly nothing I did was safe. But with Facebook Live I can see the comments. They’ve all become friends, and they’ve become a community. I can have a little back and forth. Bob can see the comments during the show and can alert me to things. On the Zoom calls for Coach the World I can see people and I’m one on one. But it’s very surreal.
Sam: I heard that in the middle of the pandemic you actually managed to appear in a movie? What was it like doing that under current conditions?
Alison: Yes. I just finished filming it. They always seem to change the titles, so it’s either going to be called Twice Upon a Song, or Even in Dreams. It’s the sequel to Twice a Dream. I play the villainous record manager. We followed all the COVID protocols from SAG. I got tested before I left. They flew me out first class. Delta won’t put anybody next to you. I arrived and they tested me again. On the set all of our temperatures were taken. We all wore masks. Makeup and hair people were all made up like they were at a dentist office. There were no extras except in one scene, where a small group of people were brought in with masks, and then they yelled “Masks off! Action!” Everyone was separated. At lunch we all sat outside, distanced, with box lunches. For the concert scene they’re going to have to CGI the crowd. But we were able to do it. I shot for four days. The movie has a very positive uplifting message for young girls about making it on your own. Of course I’m evil.
Sam: Well, you’re so good at doing that.
Alison: That’s what they said. They said I was so good at being bad and to please come and be this person. Be terrible. They gave me full creative control of my character. They said I could make her worst or better it’s on you. Do your thing.
Sam: So you and I have talked about Nellie before, but there are a few questions I’d like to ask that I thought about while watching your live videos. Nellie Oleson often shows up in Top Ten TV Villain lists.
Alison: Yes! I’ve come in number one on a few of those lists.
Sam: But as I watch your fan base react to you on-line I start to realize that beyond you, the character of Nellie also has her own unique fan base.
Alison: I know. People write me and say that they watched Little House and felt that it was too sweet and syrupy, but Nellie added the spice and the fun. People have told me that they were bullied as a kid and thought if they were more like Nellie than people wouldn’t beat them up. A gay club owner in Vancouver once told me “I was too young growing up to want to be Bettie Davis, so when I came out Nellie was my first diva.” People do love Nellie. I joke that the French don’t think Nellie is mean. They just think she’s French. But the French love Nellie Oleson. She has her own fan base. It’s like a gleeful thing like how people loved JR Ewing. Everybody loves to hate her. It’s a happy kind of hating.
Sam: In your book Confessions of a Prairie Bitch you talk about how, when you were doing the show, you were actually physically harmed by people who confused you with the character you played on a few occasions. Did you realize as a kid you had fans?
Alison: I was twelve when the show started, so I had an understanding of the difference between me and the character. Also, I liked villains. I understood that the audience was upset with the character and not me. As I was lying on the pavement at an Easter Fair when I was kicked and knocked down, I thought “Wow, I’m doing something right if they are this angry. But I’m going to get myself killed if I don’t learn how to navigate this.” When doing Nellie I went with my instincts. Something about Nellie hit a nerve with people. Little House was a very emotional show. When I meet people all over the world they tell me they love the show because they connected with what seemed like real people with real problems. So, they emotionally connected with Nellie and thought it was real. So when people meet me they never say “You are a very fine actress. I loved your performance as Nellie.” They say “I hate you, I hate you. I’m still angry at you.” Doesn’t that mean I’m even better at my job?
Sam: It was either in your book, or Melissa Gilbert’s book, that it talked about in order for the two of you to have such a heated rivalry, and in particular to do the famous mud puddle scene, that it took a lot of trust between the two of you as people in order to go to that level of rivalry on the screen.
Alison: It’s true. Melissa has talked about it and says that we were able to go places where others couldn’t go because we knew nobody was going to kill each other and we could be fun, but it would be fun to be able to smack each other in the head.
Sam: I’ve found that often the people who have played the meanest characters end up being amongst the nicest people I’ve interviewed. Do you think there could be some truth to that?
Alison: It’s a weird thing. I don’t know what it is, but by playing the nastiest villains somehow we get it out of our system. Once you’ve been evil and miserable on screen, you’ve somehow dealt with that part of your personality so you have less of it in your day to day life. People would ask my mother when I was doing Little House what I was like at home, and she’d say “She’s pretty chill. She’s got it out of her system. She comes home and takes a nap.” Stan Ivar, who played John Carter on Little House, and I were at an autograph show together years ago, with about six or seven other cast members. We were all lined up at our table and people would come up and look at our pictures, look at us and then nod. But Stan started laughing and I asked him what was funny. Stan says “Haven’t you noticed? The people come down the line, and they look at my picture and nod and smile, and then they get to you and look at your picture and back up three feet. It’s like they know we are all actors and they get to you and they think you’re for real.”
Maybe she played a bitch on TV, but I can tell you that Alison Arngrim is a wonderful woman, which is why she has become one of my very favorites. It is such a good thing when I can in person tell her how comforting she made my world during the COVID pandemic with her videos. She is a genuinely amazing woman who can make you laugh, make your cry and just make you feel that everything is good in the world. But even more, she can just make you fell. Whether you are a part of the cult of Little House fandom, or if she’s been off of your radar for a while, Alison Arngrim is someone everyone needs in their lives during these times. Visit her Facebook page for daily videos and updates, and visit her web-site at https://howiegreen.com/alison/.