Most people would wince if you called them a bitch. Not Alison Arngrim. As a matter of fact, it is a name she has become quite comfortable with over the years. Not by choice but rather by default. Though she has had an extensive career in the entertainment industry, Alison is most widely known for the character she played on Little House on the Prairie, Nellie Oleson. A character so hated, Vanity Fair declared her “TV history’s #1 bitch.”
Alison’s ability to not only accept, but embrace the moniker, is just one small glimpse into the warm, loving and accepting world that is true of this lovely actress. She has leveraged her talents and notoriety to the stage of the Long Center to imbue life’s lessons calling on a little bit of Nellie Olson, a little bit from the AIDS crisis, a little bit from stand up comedy and a whole lot from life.
We chatted with Alison about her show, her friends from Little House, her involvement with AIDS Project Los Angeles, teaching sex-ed across the U.S. (including Denton, TX) and her first trip to Austin.
LY: Your one-woman show, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, runs April 28-May 3. That is quite a title there! What is the impetus for the saucy titled show?
AA: In a bit of a reverse order, the show came first, then the book. There are things in the book that aren’t in the show and vice versa. The show came about because I have been doing stand-up comedy since I was 15 years old. Since I started my acting career at 12 years old on Little House on the Prairie in the 70’s, as an actress, I was expected to “do something.” The shows like Dinah Shore and Mike Douglas showcased actors and actresses with diverse talents…those who could “warble a tune.” In fact, there is this great video of Melissa Gilbert doing “If They Could See Me Now” on American Bandstand that is making the rounds on YouTube. But I wasn’t good at that! I can’t sing and can’t dance to save my life! My father managed the Village Idiots who were on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and they wrote my very first stand-up act. It ended up that not only did I like it, I was pretty good at it. That act got me on the Merv Griffin Show, all of the appropriate talk shows and eventually on tour. This meant I got to hang around all of the comedy greats of the time like David Letterman and Jay Leno as a teenager and hated by all of the comics who went on tour in hopes of launching a television career! (laughs) I lived in LA since I was three, had been a star of a hit television series and was attempting to break into standup comedy. The other comics just looked at me and said “Why are you here! You already have the show!” (laughs) I stayed with it until the ’80’s when I became deeply involved with different AIDS Projects when Steve Tracy came public with his AIDS diagnosis.
LY: You refer to the late-Steve Tracy who played your on screen husband, Percival, as your “other” husband. Tell us a little about Steve and your off-screen friendship.
AA: Steve was one of the first famous actors to come public with his AIDS diagnosis in late-1985 and he died November of 1986. No one was talking about it back then. Rock Hudson went to his grave denying he had AIDS. Liberace was on the “watermelon diet.” Steve did the opposite. He went on talk shows saying if someone from a show like Little House on the Prairie can have AIDS, anyone can get it. Well, people went berserk and I found myself in the “Linda Evans position” because I had kissed him on TV. My phone rang off the hook…”You kissed him on TV! You have AIDS now!” It was awful. Awful. No one knew how low a risk that was and it was because of that hysteria I got involved. I went to AIDS Project of Los Angeles and volunteered for their hotline because they offered the most comprehensive training. It was weeks and weeks of training. This prepared me for all interviews where I could finally give accurate and medically based information. Armed with this information and our connection to Little House on the Prairie, I toured the smallest of towns across the country including Denton, Texas! I toured all of the MCC’s (Metropolitan Community Church) with my friend Reverend Steve Pieters doing lectures on AIDS prevention.
LY: Your show started in France and then came to the U.S. Tell me more about that unlikely path!
AA: In 2002, I went to France for the first time and everything went berserk. I found out I had this rabid, cuckoo, religious cult of Nellie Oleson followers. The show is in 140 countries so I knew that people knew of the show, but I did not know that France was insane. What happened was Little House started running really early over there, just a few years after our 1974 start in the U.S. The pilot was aired as a Christmas special and then the series came on at noon. It is customary for French families to go home for lunch and we were on one of the three channels to chose from. And they went crazy for my character. The French people don’t think Nellie Oleson is mean, they just think she is French. (laughs) In the show, I have a clip of these French audiences humming and chanting the Little House theme!
LY: And did I hear this correctly? You did the show entirely in French?
AA: Of course! (laughing) Pourquoi Pas? Bien Sûr!
LY: So you brought this French show based on an American character to the states?
AA: Yes and added a Q&A piece called, “Ask Alison Anything.” Before the show, these cards are distributed to the audience and then brought to me to answer. We don’t screen them. They ask hardcore fan questions. They ask very risqué bizarre questions. And I answer them all! We do all sorts of kooky things in the show. I talk about the French. I talk about my mother having been Casper and Gumby and Sweet Polly Purebred (Underdog’s girlfriend) and Davey of Davey and Goliath. I talk about my crazy gay Dad and his habit of saying totally inappropriate things at inappropriate moments.
LY: Did you just say my crazy gay Dad?
AA: Dude, you’ve got to read the book! My father was born on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada and was in an orphanage the first several years of his life. His birth mother worked and sent money to the orphanage but they didn’t feed him. He had malnutrition and rickets when he got adopted. He then lived on a farm with twelve siblings and he was the “Albert Ingalls,” the orphan on the farm. My father hated Little House on the Prairie. He said, “I did this. I left home at 15 and if I never see another f***ing cow again as long as I live it will be too soon. I am not watching Little House. Oh, now there’s orphans? There’s orphans on a farm? F**k you, I’m not watching this show!” As for his sexuality, as kids we were on a “need to know” basis. And we didn’t need to know. My parents stayed married till “death do us part” but it was pretty known that he was…well…he was assigned to Liberace, for God’s sake! (laughing) Or as I say in my show, “How friggin’ gay is that? It is a the gayest job ever!” (laughing) He went from the farm to Hollywood manager. I grew up in West Hollywood in the gay community. I was raised by so many gay people I am really only a “half-breeder!”
To hear more about her parents, “other husband” Steve Taylor and his brave, public battle with becoming the face of AIDS in Hollywood and perhaps meet Nellie, herself, wig and all, be sure to snag your tickets to Confessions of a Prairie Bitch running April 28 – May 3.
More information and tickets here – http://thelongcenter.org/event/confessions-prairie-bitch/