A GoPride Interview

Alison Arngrim

Alison Arngrim is set to confess at the cabaret

Sun. May 5, 2024  by Jerry Nunn

Bears dig Little House on the Prairie
Alison Arngrim

alison arngrim

photo credit // gor megaera/ loose gravel

Alison Arngrim packs up her Nellie Wig this week

Alison Arngrim will always be remembered as the character Nellie Olsen on NBC’s Little House on the Prairie. There’s a whole other side to the talented person who began her career at twelve.

She’s a New York Times Best Selling author of Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Olsen and Learned to Love Being Hated. The book was born from her engaging stories depicted in a one-woman show started in New York in 2002. She even performed the show entirely in French to boot.

When her cast member Steve Tracy, who played her fictional husband Percival Dalton, passed away from AIDS this activated her to volunteer at food banks and hotlines to assist with the cause.

She returns to Chicago to drop in on the Venus Cabaret Theater with her Confessions act.

Arngrim shared stories on the phone before her arrival back in the Windy City about wigs, bloomers and much more.

JN: (Jerry Nunn) So the last time we talked was in 2010.

AA: (Alison Arngrim) When the book came out!

JN: I’m excited that you are returning to Chicago.

AA: I am packing at this very moment. I will be at the Venus Cabaret which is part of the historic Mercury Theater. People ask me if it was once a strip bar and I tell them it might have been!

JN: [laughs] The show starts at 7 p.m.?

AA: Yes, it’s like a dinner show with no food and it’s time to eat!

JN: Well, they do sell snacks and drinks at the bar in the back of the cabaret room.

AA: Thank goodness, I need snacks! It is going to be awesome. I have added several things to the show like a video homage to my mom, who voiced Gumby on The Gumby Show, Casper the Friendly Ghost and Sweet Polly Purebred on Underdog. There were things they did on Davey and Goliath that I don’t know how it got past the sensors.

I put it all together and it’s hilarious.

JN: I was wondering how your show has evolved since 2002.

AA: There’s all kinds of wacky stuff and new things. During the strike, I wasn’t allowed to promote any struck work. It was for projects like Barbie and Oppenheimer who couldn’t talk about stuff on the red carpet.

I was told that I couldn’t show any clips and I asked about older shows. They told me the fans could talk about it, but I couldn’t mention the titles of the shows. I made Confessions of a Prairie Bitch strike version in New York. I could show certain clips if they were signed off on and any of my YouTube videos.

JN: Now you can do whatever you want.

AA: Exactly. I have a huge question-and-answer segment with my Ask Alison Anything cards. I never know what to expect. What am I thinking?

JN: Well, it can open the door to trouble from random people in the audience.

AA: Yes, if I asked them to raise their hand then they have to be seen so they can be inhibited and embarrassed. The shy people won’t ask anything at all. With the cards, the shyest people will still write things down. Other people will ask insane questions because I can’t see them and sometimes write weird things and then write their names!

They will write a wild question and then sign it “Suzy Smith in the third row.” They out themselves…

JN: This keeps you on your toes.

AA: It does. I don’t prepare fake questions. A couple of minutes before I walk onstage I am handed the stack and maybe I will flip through it if I see a good one.

JN: This is very Carol Burnett and how she interacts with an audience.

AA: That’s where it came from. When I was a teeny little girl I would watch The Carol Burnett Show. My favorite part was when she would stand there and ask questions. I remember thinking that was what I wanted to do for a living. Now I have the job I wanted when I was six years old!

JN: Are you packing up the Nellie wig?

AA: I am bringing the wig and the nightie. I have to talk to my tech person there, but we usually have a wheelchair too. That clip of me going downhill in the wheelchair never gets old.

JN: I wore the wig back when we met up last time in Chicago.

AA: That one is a facsimile. The real wig that they put on me and Nancy, that horrible adopted girl that took over when I left. I don’t know what happened to the real wig. Larry Germaine helped design it as a wig maker. I would not be surprised if his grandchildren have the wig at their house, but I don’t really know. I have been on a quest to find it.

JN: Did Larry do the wig for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

AA: Technically no, but Larry worked with Bette Davis for years. He and Ziggy Geike worked on the Nellie wig together and when they were done they noticed how much it looked like Baby Jane.

One night Melissa Gilbert and I had stayed up late watching Whatever Happened to Baby Jane so we knew the movie. When I was in the wheelchair crew members were making jokes about Baby Jane.

JN: So none of it was your real hair?

AA: The first few episodes it was my real hair. I was 12 years old and had to sleep in curlers. I came in at four o’clock in the morning and they would curl my hair with a hot curling iron. It didn’t work because my hair was so straight. They had a wig made and it was one of the most expensive wigs made for TV at the time.

Ziggy died this past January at 93 years old. He was famous then and had a Salvador Dali mustache. He and Larry came in and built it on my head. It was permanently curled so it always stayed the same even in a mud fight.

It was painful and had a giant metal comb to hold it on in the front. I don’t know how many hairpins went in. Standing around in 110-degree heat with that thing nailed to my head was excruciating. That is probably why I was such a bitch. My head was hurting so I wanted people to leave me alone!

JN: Welcome to the world of drag at 12 years old.

AA: One of my friends visited me on the set once and was surprised I was wearing a dress. Back then, I usually wore a T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. I had a part where I wore fluffy dresses with petticoats, a wig and massive amounts of makeup. I would never wear that in real life so yes that was drag.

JN: So Melissa Gilbert was the girlie girl and you were the tomboy, but completely the opposite of Little House on the Prairie characters.

AA: A hundred percent. Her favorite episode was the dream sequence when she thinks she’s found fool’s gold. She wore a white princess dress and I was in rags with no wig. They used a handful of Dippity-do and Fuller’s Earth, which is the fake dirt used in movies, both in my hair. We were both so happy about it. I could be myself and wasn’t hot under a wig. She was spinning in her dress and laughing the whole time.

JN: I interviewed Melissa for her Chicago show When Harry Met Rehab. She was a doll.

AA: She is like my kid sister. Have you seen her Modern Prairie brand? She’s selling bloomers and bakeware. I did make Thanksgiving pies in her pie pan. The line is very successful.

She is like the Oprah Winfrey for Prairie people and goop for middle-aged ladies. There’s even an app and support groups. It’s fantastic!

JN: Back when it was age-appropriate for me I had a crush on Matthew Labyorteaux, who played Albert Ingalls. Did you ever crush on anyone in the Little House cast?

AA: No, I liked the crew and had a crush on the key grip. They were adults with muscles and tattoos.

JN: I currently work in HIV prevention and I want to thank you for your advocacy over the years.

AA: My husband Bob Schoonover ran the Southern California AIDS hotline and that is where I met him. I used to volunteer there and he was the director. We wound up there because he worked at a Methadone clinic where people used needles for heroin and he warned them there would be future problems because it was transmitted by blood. The director there didn’t believe him so he left to work at the hotline organization. He knew early on in the ‘80s that it would be spreading and rewrote the manual about it.

JN: Is he coming with you to Chicago?

AA: No. He has a real job and works for a construction company, but he is coming with me to Monte-Carlo because who wouldn’t? [laughs]

JN: Well, I am glad you are coming and I will see you at the show.

AA: Great, you will love it! I am going to Provincetown soon and I demanded it being during bear week. Bears dig Little House on the Prairie. It’s not because of Mr. Edwards, like I thought at first, it’s because of Mr. Garvey. People can figure that out!

Arngrim confesses it all at the Cabaret on May 9, 2024, starting at 7 p.m. Tickets to witness this queen of the Prairie can be purchased at mercurytheaterchicago.com.


Interviewed by Jerry Nunn. Jerry Nunn is a contributing writer to the GoPride Network. His work is also featured in Windy City Times, Nightspots Magazine and syndicated nationally.