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She may be Nellie, but she's tough as nails

XTRA WEST! no.32 - November 3, 1994
by Cindy Flipenko

For those of us who grew up hissing at Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie, self styled AIDS activist Alison Arngrim is a delightful surprise.

As the spoiled daughter of an impatient Walnut Grove shopkeeper and his slightly hysterical wife, Nellie was the perpetual foil for the good - as - gold Laura Ingalls.

Arngrim played Nellie for seven years, opting out at the end of her contract to pursue her other interests, which included theatre and stand-up comedy.

Today, she uses her acting background to help educate about AIDS and healing through humour.

Humour is an essential component to Arngrim's personality and talking to her from her home in Los Angeles, it is impossible to keep from cracking up.

At 15, she would spend her evenings at The Comedy Store, honing her standup material. Her choice of material, written by herself and others, was as far from her Nellie Oleson persona as possible. She confesses that doing stand-up helped her to blow off some frustration she had about being a child actor, and she devoted much of her set to dishing the Little House concept.

"It was really weird," she admits. "What do you do at 15? You either do stupid teen jokes or be totally outrageous."

Arngrim opted for outrageous, opening her set with: "I just got back from the Roman Polanksi daycare center and boy, are my legs tired."

"I made an impression, and it just got worse from there," laughs the self proclaimed child mascot of the Village Idiots. The Village Idiots were an improv group that were essentially the "house band" at The Comedy Club. Arngrim describes her affiliation with them as being "like the fifth Beatle."

While the Village Idiot wore the first improv group Arngrim was associated with, they were certainly not the only one.

"In New York there's a gay and lesbian comedy group that used to be called Planet Q," explains Arngrim. "They now wear ringlet wigs and call themselves the Nellie Olesons. It's a cult thing."

The fun in Arngrim's life helps set off the grim reality of being a woman with a lot of gay male friends -today she estimates that she has lost 30 friends to AIDS related complications. It was her friend and Little House co-star Steve Tracy's diagnosis of HIV in 1985 that began Arngrim's commitment to AIDS education. Tracy, who played Nellie Oleson's husband Percival, went public with his HIV status in 1986 by giving the story to The National Enquirer.

"People went bananas," related Arngrim. "The press wanted to know how he got it, whether or not I had it and if I had sex with him.

"The really strange thing is that they asked me complex medical questions instead of calling a hospital or a doctor."

Seeing an opportunity to educate people, Arngrim realized that she first had to educate herself, and went to work as a hotline worker for AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

Did she do this to cash in on the disease? To increase her celebrity?

"In 1986 nobody wanted to cash in on AIDS," says Arngrim. "You couldn't get a celebrity near the disease. I remember when people would donate to a fundraiser as long as it wasn't publicized."

While her celebrity was incidental, the fact that she was a straight woman who wanted to do this work was a little confusing for the predominantly gay male-staffed APLA. She was interviewed to be a hotline volunteer in a broom closet by (her now close friend) Bob Mosley, who at the time was a "crabby man at the end of a very long day."

He expressed his concerns that she wouldn't he able to speak frankly about issues of gay male sexuality.

"Finally I said, 'Look, I know what a glory hole is,'" she laughs.

Today she uses this same gutsy sense of humour in her Healing With Humour workshop, which was born out of necessity at an AlDS-care conference in Florida. One of the workshops fell through and Arngrim and MCC Rev Steve Peters filled in.

"Steve's great, he's had AIDS for 10 years and says that it was I Love Lucy that helped him survive," she says. "We did the workshop, it was a hit and then we started to really research it."

Today the workshop has been a hit across the US, from Texas to Tacoma -Vancouverites will be the first Canadians to participate In the 90 minute workshop.

"Be prepared to tell your story and be interactive," Arngrim enthuses. "Also, wear some comfortable clothes."

But don't expect a heavy, gloomy seminar-humor is definitely at the centre of the experience.

"There's a real connection between humour and therapy. Once humour was thought to be nothing more than a defense mechanism," says Arngrim. Once this atmosphere of political correctness, there's been a lot of denial around humour... when people laugh at AIDS, it's just gallows humour. If people laugh back, it's kindred."

Her proof that humour heals comes from her acquaintance with long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS.

"The ones with the truly twisted sense of humour are still alive," she says.

A Loving Spoonful and Friends for Life will be bringing Alison Arngrim to the Coast Plaza Stanley Park on Thursday, November 10 at 7:30 pm. Advance tickets are available for $10 at Top Drawers Apparel, Deserving Thyme and Little Sister's.