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AIDS reaches a 'Little House'

Sunday News, Lancaster, PA - November 15, 1992
by Marty Crisp - Sunday News Staff Writer

"Little House on the Prairie," the long-running television series based on the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, retired from prime time almost 10 years ago Since the series' cancellation. Pa Ingalls "Michael Landon, has died of cancer: Laura Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert) has played a Mafia wife and other roles designed to glamourize her little-girl image; and Laura's primary nemesis, Nellie Oleson (AIison Arngrim), has become an AIDS activist.

As little Nell, the shopkeeper's daughter on Little House,"Arngrim, hardly seemed destined for a career spent helping others. Nellie was hideous." according to Arngrim.

"I liked being hideous. It was nice to throw things and yell and scream and be awful. It's very freeing to play a villain. You feel nicer and calmer afterwards."

Arngrim is in Lancaster this weekend to speak out about a disease she describes as something "You can't tell by looking." She has presented her unique non-anthrocentric produce workshop" on AIDS all over the U.S., from a Cree Indian reservation in Montana to the town where "Little House" was set. Walnut Grove. Minn.

Non-anthrocentric is a phrase she loosely defines as not human, but vegetable centered-that is, she uses cucumbers and cantaloupes as visual aids to illustrate the best ways to protect both the male and female anatomy from contact with the AIDS virus.

"I pulled back from show business as my only focus when I got involved with AIDS," she said. "The whole world, especially HolIywood, seems to be in denial on this issue. I took training on the Southern California AlDS hotline, and I try to keep up with the latest research. HlV scares us, because it's like cancer and the common cold. It's a virus that mutates. it keeps changing, so it's very hard to find a vaccine."

Speaking frankly about choosing a sexual partner and the necessity of demanding-not just requesting-"safer" sex, the former child star demonstrated the how-tos of using condoms and dental dams (using vegetables as models), invited audience members to engage in role-playing skits about deciding to have sex and talked about the importance of not judging anyone's sexual history by appearance.

"You don't know, and you can't tell by looking." she insisted with the fervor of a modern day-evangelist "I met a married, grandpa-looking guy, who was wearing a lab coat and working at the blood bank (in L.A.) who said he didn't give blood himself because he sometimes 'hung with the boys.'

"He was a bisexual. and I would never have guessed it. It got me to thinking -- what about the guy with three earrings, playing in a rocking band? Maybe he's not what he appears to be either."

People most at risk. said Arngrim, are those "who don't see themselves at risk."

In the basement of the Lancaster Unitarian Church. 538 W. Chestnut St., Saturday. Arngrim wore a rose-colored, long-sleeved turtleneck blouse, black slacks, black high heeled boots and a silver cross on a long chain around her neck. She topped the outfit with a button hearing the legend: "For my next trick, I need a volunteer and a condom."

The daughter of Canadian stage actors (her mother was also the cartoon voice of Casper the Friendly Ghost and Gumby), Arngrim, 30, started playing Nellie Oleson in 1974 at the Age of 12. She finished seven years later when Nellie, herself, had become a wife and mother.

"Michael Landon wasn't like a father to me. He wasn't like Pa Ingalls at all. He was more like a deranged older brother," said Alison after tile workshop, with her characteristic dimpled grin.

"He was kind of crazy. He loved (as producer, director and sometime writer of the show) to pour things over my head or dump me in a lake. On one show, when Nellie was pregnant, I was supposed to eat dill pickles and vanilla ice cream. He offered me a bucket to spit the stuff into, but I preferred to eat it. And then I made the mistake of taunting him, saying m-m-m good."

"So, the next morning, he'd added a whole new scene where I had to eat pickles dipped in maple syrup. I swallowed the stuff-it's not as bad as it sounds-and he was rolling on the floor, laughing. I called him the mad scientist of television."

Nellie's "Little House" husband, Percival was played by actor Steve Tracy, who died in 1996 of AIDS.

"We stayed very close friends after the series," says the slender blond comedienne, who sometimes does stand-up around Los Angeles in places like the Laugh Factory, the Comedy Store and the Improvisation. "That's what got me started (as an AIDS activist)."

She now works full-time as program manager for an L.A. based charity called "Tuesday's Chill" that provides services to the families of children with AIDS. "this year, she hosted the Los Angeles AIDS Project's star studded benefit at Universal Studios. She speaks two to 15 times a month, all around the country, about AIDS and the problems of safe sex.

Saturday, she spoke in two sessions (the second about grief) at the Unitarian Church. Today, she's scheduled to participate in the evening worship service of Vision of Hope Metropolitan Community Church (sponsors of her visit) at Friends Meeting House, 110 Tulane Terrace. Monday, she's set to appear on WGAL-TV's "Live" at 10 a.m. (Call 392-2792 for information )

Since "Little House" left TV's prime-time prairie, Arngrim has kept active in show business with numerous dinner theater gigs, an occasional movie of the week and special projects with her husband of three years, Donald Mark Spencer. This year, the couple co-starred in a play Spencer wrote, performing it at a Los Angeles "off-off-Broadway-type" theater.

Next month, she'll make a pilot as host of a possible daytime talk show about the goings-on in Hollywood, with an emphasis on social consciousness raising.

But what she's doing now requires special courage and frankness. Looking at a map of Lancaster County, she laughed out loud and joked that no one around here should shy away frost, delicate topics: "After all, you have a whole city named after Intercourse."