What: Alison Arngrim’s “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch”
When: 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; 5 p.m., Sunday
Where: Camp Bar, 490 N. Robert Street, St. Paul
“Little House on the Prairie’s” Nellie Oleson makes Regina George look like Miss America. In the series that ran from 1974 to 1983, the she-devil of the New Frontier was constantly battling and berating poor Laura Ingalls.
Now, in a touring one-woman show based on her book of the same name, the girl who played the queen of snobbery and manipulation is getting the last laugh.
At age 50, Alison Arngrim has an entire act based on the memories of her childhood stardom. She has no trouble poking fun at the fact that her biggest commercial success occurred before she had graduated middle school.
“It’s hard to take yourself desperately seriously … when you’re most famous for going down a hill in a wheelchair dressed like Bette Davis,” she said.
Show business is in Arngrim’s blood. Growing up, her mother was a cartoon voiceover actress (she portrayed Casper the Friendly Ghost and Gumby in the late sixties) and her father a prominent Hollywood manager.
After her first gig, a Heinz Ketchup commercial at age six, Arngrim had officially joined the family business. Although staying at the Chateau Marmont for extended periods and attending social gatherings with Liberace are stories straight out of a Sunset Boulevard fairytale, Arngrim admits growing up in Hollywood didn’t provide the most stable childhood.
“It was very glamorous but also very twisted and weird at the same time,” she said, “I don’t know if I’d recommend it.”
Having two parents with thriving careers left Arngrim unsupervised for long periods of time as a young child. During these unmonitored stints, she suffered major physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her older brother.
Arngrim attributes much of her recovery from this abuse to Nellie Oleson. For naturally quiet and shy Arngrim, healing came from having an outlet to portray a contemptible character.
“This fearsome character that everyone was afraid of was such a departure for me,” she said. “It was kind of fun. [I] was this character that was always venting her rage and yelling and screaming and throwing things — what a release.”
The “Little House” set was one of the places where Arngrim felt the safest. Her onscreen arch enemy, Melissa Gilbert, was her real-life best friend, and the two, inseparable during filming, still keep in touch.
After seven seasons, Arngrim was ready to move on and decided against upping her contract and staying on for the final two seasons.
When the show did wrap, Arngrim was ambivalent. She hoped to reinvent herself, and leave Nellie Oleson behind.
“The show ended when I was 21. I was having a mid-life crisis at 22,” she said.
Finding herself in stage work and standup, Arngrim was surprised when people didn’t forget about Nellie Oleson. She now realizes that this has been her salvation as an author, actress and comedienne. Her show is part storytelling, part standup and includes an extensive question and answer section.
“Because the damn thing won’t go away and it’s on DVD and reruns all over the world, I’m able to do this crazy one-woman show,” she said
Unsure of whether being a child star gave her a head start or sentenced her to a lifetime of answering questions about “Little House,” Arngrim has no regrets about her prairie days.
“You’re told as a child star it will be like this forever. … Luckily for me, I was warned again and again — this could end tomorrow,” she said.
With shows booked in Argentina, France and around the country, Nellie the brat has provided Arngrim with a career that spans far beyond the prairie horizon.