Eric's Section

THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE REUNION – TOMBSTONE, ARIZONA, 2005

by Eric Caron
edited by Barnaby Marriott


Eric with: Melissa Gilbert, Alison Arngrim, Dean Butler, Charlotte Stewart & Hersha Parady.

"Hi to all Little House fans!”

I was extremely lucky to be at the Tombstone reunion at the beginning of July 2005, and here is my story about what happened there. The whole weekend is already in my memories, and you may guess those are unforgettable…

I had always dreamed to have the chance to meet some of the cast members one day… now that dream has become a reality. You certainly will find similarities with Barnaby Marriott’s story (of the July 2004 reunion) because I’m pretty much sure that we have had the same feeling about the people present, and about how these events turned out for us both…

The Western Film Festival and Symposiumwas taking place in Tombstone, Arizona, a historical western town, where many buildings from the 1880’s have been preserved. It started on July 1st, and ended on the 4th of July. Tombstone is well known for the famous gunfight at OK Corral, which happened in October 1882, between Wyatt Earp and the Clanton gang.

During the whole weekend, citizens were dressed up in 1800s costumes, and most of the clothes were really accurate and elaborate… not a mere mardi-gras masquerade! Stagecoaches and wagons were wandering in the streets, and many attractions were scheduled.

I arrived there on Friday July 1st, late afternoon, directly from Montreal, Canada where I live. I was supposed to meet my French pal Gerald, who was finishing a vacation tour in the western states (Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, California…). Tombstone was his final stop before coming back to France.

Gerald and I met each other in the middle of the street, between a stagecoach and a gang of gun-men! A moment later we met the third part of our little “French trio”, Patrick Loubatičre (well known by many Little House on the Prairie fans, thanks to his book and contributions to the DVDs), who was there with screenwriter Larry Jensen, one of his friends, and a Tombstone resident (Larry wrote the script of the “Empire Builders” episode, in Season 9). We then attended the first event of the weekend, the welcome reception at Six Gun City restaurant. A moment later, all of the cast members (plus some other guests) were there before our eyes.

The guests were Melissa Gilbert and her husband Bruce Boxleitner, Alison Arngrim, Dean Butler, Wendi and Brenda Turnbaugh, Charlotte Stewart, Hersha Parady, Allison Balson, Pamela Roylance and Stan Ivar. Some other western TV actors were invited too, such as Stella Stevens, Mariette Hartley, Jon Provost, Lee Aaker and many others.

What an emotion to see, and listen, in reality, the cast of our favourite show! They were all very relaxed and funny. (During the whole weekend, it was clear that they were all happy to be with each other again). After everyone has said a few words for the audience, a local renowned artist offered a painting of young Michael Landon.

Then, Allison Balson (who is now a singer) sang a song of her own, a tribute to Michael Landon called “My Friend”. You could felt the emotion with Melissa holding the portrait, and all the cast apparently very moved by what Allison was singing. Coincidentally, the day was the 1st of July – the anniversary date of Michael Landon’s untimely death back in 1991.

That same evening, Gerald and I had the opportunity to get introduced to Wendi and Brenda Turnbaugh, both such cheerful and nice young women (and very pretty too!), and later to Pamela Roylance, a very adorable lady, with incomparable sweetness and kindness.

Saturday morning was a thrilling event, as it was the first panel of the weekend, with the whole cast, in Schiellelin Hall. It was there that I was introduced to Alison Arngrim and her husband Bob – such a nice couple! Alison remembered me because she put my miniatures pictures on her personal website! [see these at Alison’s homepage on http://www.hgd.com/alison]

There were unexpected guests that morning – Rachel (Lindsay) Greenbush, and Brian Part (Carl Sanderson Edwards, in Seasons 2 and 3). Two episodes, “A Harvest of Friends” and “Country Girls” were projected for the audience. It was funny and moving to watch these with the audience reactions, laughter and shouts… especially when Nellie Oleson first appeared! This was made even funnier when it was learned that the loudest person in the audience was… Alison Arngrim, Nellie Oleson herself!

And then, the panel began, with many anecdotes, memories, questions and answers… two extraordinarily interesting for a Little House on the Prairie fan… Melissa Gilbert was moderating the show, and she was very relaxed and happy to be there… She, on behalf of the whole cast, dedicated this weekend to Kevin Hagen, who was very ill at this time (Sadly, he passed away a week later).

Then every member of the cast told us how they got their parts, and after that they answered questions, with much humour and frankness. They talked a lot about Michael Landon, how funny, loving and loveable he was. They remembered about how they worked on the set, and the filming of the last episode and what it meant to them.

Stan Ivar told us that the real little house was on his ranch, dismantled, and waiting to be erected again. The city of Walnut Grove (Minnesota) is willing to display it on the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum site, but it is not yet possible because Ed Friendly still owns the rights of everything about the series, and his permission is needed.

We got news of cast members who were not present – Katherine MacGregor, who is now 80 years old, lives in Hollywood, retired from show-business, and is still the funny, high-tempered lady she was on the set! Jonathan Gilbert we discovered runs a new theatre company in Newport Beach, California… Matthew Laborteaux lives in New York City and has a successful career as a voice-over performer, and Melissa Sue Anderson has some parts in TV movies or mini-series from time to time, but mostly takes care of her family, with whom she lives in Montreal, Canada.

Karen Grassle was rehearsing a new play in California at this time and unfortunately couldn’t be there. Melissa Gilbert remembered how Karen was a great actress figure for the little girl she was, and that she still inspires her today.

Many anecdotes were shared – the recording of music by David Rose, the many jokes and fun that always occurred on the set, and Hersha Parady told us (with great humour!) how her final scene was shot, in the tragic episode “May We Make Them Proud”. The panel ended with nice words about Victor French, and the whole cast appropriately singing “Old Dan Tucker” in his honour!

In the afternoon the whole cast had the first autograph session at the Tombstone Courthouse. Then another episode was screening (“Sins of the Fathers”, from Little House : A New Beginning). Pamela Roylance and Stan Ivar introduced the episode with a few words. Later, Patrick had a short meeting with Pam Roylance, and Gerald and I were present. What a kind lady! She was amazed that we have made such a long trip to be there. She offered to each one of us a photo with a very special autograph. In return I gave her an album I have prepared with some photos of my models, and some drawings. In fact I had one for each one of the cast members, but she was the first one to receive it! She felt very touched by this and I was much rewarded.

After that Gerald and I had a walk in the streets of the town, and we accidentally met Allison Balson and her musician friend. Gerald asked her for an autograph (Gerald had the good idea to take with him Patrick’s book, and he asked every cast member to sign it). Allison is really a nice young woman, and very talented.

Then at 7pm, came the Casino night at the Bella Union Opera House. There you could have the opportunity to socialize and even gamble with your favourite celebrities! I had with me my albums, and also two special gifts. The previous two weeks, I used all my free time to make small models for the cast… But I underestimated the work, and had only enough time to achieve two! So, I had one for Melissa Gilbert (Plum Creek), and one for Charlotte Stewart (the Walnut Grove schoolhouse).


Patrick was kind enough to introduce me to many of the cast, and Charlotte was the first one I met. Then I was introduced to Hersha Parady, Dean Butler and his wife Katherine Cannon, Melissa Gilbert… and I had moments with Alison Arngrim, Rachel Greenbush, Wendi and Brenda Turnbaugh and Allison Balson. All seemed very interested and touched by my work and I felt so proud to show them what I did… years ago, when I was a lot younger.

Speaking with Melissa Gilbert and giving her my miniature of Plum Creek was a great moment for me. She said, “I must show this to my husband!” She then came back and embraced me. She told me that Michael Landon would have loved to have one too… I took that as a huge compliment … but let’s stop talking about me!

The rest of the evening was spent with chatting with the celebrities, especially Dean, Rachel and Brian Part, and watching the auction, which turned out to be a Little House cast show! All the actors and actresses were on stage and presented the items for sale, with many jokes and fun. Somebody in the audience asked for Dean Butler’s hat to be put on sale… and the price went sky-high! A moment later, Dean was asked for his boots too! Then again, he played the game with much humour! Undoubtedly, Almanzo Wilder is still in the heart of many (wealthy!) fans! It was a really relaxed and funny evening!

SUNDAY:

We could not have had a better start on the Sunday morning, because we had breakfast with Charlotte Stewart in a quiet restaurant – just Gerald, Patrick and yours truly. An exquisite moment with an exquisite lady… She told us about her work in Little House, the cult David Lynch film Eraserhead, and about her present job in Los Angeles.

Then we all get to the Tombstone Mercantile, hold by Jim Clark, president of the Festival. There was scheduled a small informal ceremony… Hollywood style! All the stars invited were asked to print their handprints in wet cement. For a technical reason, this was not possible that morning, so all the actors and actresses wrote some words and signed on a big white board. Photo sessions, chats and laughter aplenty!

While Patrick and Gerald were taking pictures, I left to join the two “Oleson girls”. Alison and Allison were already in Schieffelin Hall to answer questions from the audience, and two episodes were screened (“Bunny” and “The Reincarnation of Nellie”). Once again, Alison Arngrim made all the audience burst into hysterical laughter with her funny stories and answers. The girls talked about Michael Landon, about how they portrayed their roles (Nellie as “Queen Bee” … Nancy much more psychotic!), about the elaborate kind of directing episodes throughout all seasons of the show, about jokes (again!), about their careers, about Simi Valley (it was quite far from everywhere, and the trailers had no electricity… no air conditionning… Alison Arngrim told that she fainted several times on the set due to the extreme hot temperature…).

They stated that no child actors on the show had to suffer any “growing” tragedies – Allison Balson explained that this was because there was really a family mood on the set (crew or cast members came on the set with their own kids some days)… They agreed that they were both lucky to star in such a cool show, a hit for its time, and for generations, and to have known and worked with Michael Landon. At one moment, Alison Arngrim suddenly took out a wig just like Nellie’s one, and put it on her own head… Nellie Oleson was there before us! She then immediately gave another one to Allison Balson! Both told their favourite line of dialogue, while everyone in the audience was laughing and taking pictures of that “historical” moment!

After a short lunch we headed on to the beautiful Courthouse of Tombstone, where the cast was signing autographs… Many fans were already standing in line, outside in the heat, to go in… For many, it would be the only contact they were to have with the stars, so everyone was thrilled! Inside there were at this time, Brian Part, Charlotte Stewart, Stan Ivar, Wendi and Brenda, Lindsay Greenbush, and a moment later Dean Butler (with his wife) an Alison Arngrim (with her husband). Wendi and Brenda’s mother, who was there too, had made a wonderful huge scrapbook about “Baby Grace’s Little House Years” with many pictures, articles, quotes, etc… It was on display there. We then had a little talk with them all (slowing down the line-up outside, I’m afraid!) and I had the chance to give my last album to Stan Ivar, who signed me several autographs. From there we went back to the typical main street, at the Crystal Palace Saloon, where Allison Balson and Erik, her musical partner, were giving a show. Allison is really a great artist and a very talented singer.

Then we went to the next screening – Melissa Gilbert’s favourite episode, “The Lord is my Shepherd, Part II”. She introduced it as THE episode where the personal relationship between her and Michael Landon is really played out on screen… A relationship close to father & daughter… This episode has Michael’s signature all over it, and you can feel deeply the trust level, the emotional connection between Landon and his young co-star. She said that episode is still hitting (herself and) the audience on many different emotional levels, and that she has a particular hard time watching it since Michael passed away. After the screening, she was on stage with her two sons, Dakota, 16 years old, and Michael, 10 years old. Both are very nice and funny kids and the trio made the audience laugh several times!

Melissa talked about many things: Michael Landon of course, her nickname “half-pint”, her kids, the Landon children, the ABC remake of Little House on the Prairie (she admitted watching the first episode, had found it lovely and courageous, but bound to fail because the original 1970s show is still so popular, and still on air everyday somewhere in the USA), the feeling to be a role-model and some kind of obligation one could have to it, Ernest Borgnine, the scriptwriting, and the direction Michael Landon and Kent McCray would always follow for the show.

The day ended with the Tombstone Hee Haw variety show at the Bella Union Opera House… An evening of western music and comedy featuring Pioneer Pepper and his band, and many other guests. Alison Arngrim did a stand-up act, and she even mentioned that “some French people are here tonight!” – she jokes with the fact that Nellie Oleson is very popular in France. Alison has famously said French people don’t think that Nellie is mean, they just think she is French!

The whole cast and all the other guests were on stage for the finale (“Happy trail” song), and it was a nice conclusion for this year festival. I was already living my last moments in Tombstone… It was late in the evening, and I had to leave by car to reach Phoenix, where I would catch a plane the following day to be in Montreal on Monday evening. I had personal goodbyes with Hersha Parady, Dean Butler and his wife Katherine, and Alison and her husband Bob. Then I left my pals Patrick and Gerald, and drove back to Phoenix.

But the festival was not over yet… Despite some of the guest stars having to leave, a last Little House panel was scheduled at 10am, right after the screening of the episode “The Empire Builders” (Season 9). Larry Jensen, a Tombstone resident, wrote the script for this episode. So he was there on stage, with Brian Part, Alison Arngrim, Hersha Parady, Melissa Gilbert, Lindsay Greenbush, Charlotte Stewart and the Turnbaugh sisters. I have since seen a videotape of this panel (thanks Gerald!) so I can sum up for you what have been said. Several persons in the audience just wanted to thank the whole cast for their great job. Melissa recalled that the entire cast and crew was a “rare bunch of people”, and that working with them for 10 years “spoiled her rotten”! She added she was ready to work again with them all anytime… And then she said to the audience, “Feel free to start the writing campaign for the Little House reunion TV movie – we got the script, ready to go!” – and you can surely imagine how those words received a lot of applause!

They talked about Old Tucson (just a few miles from Tombstone, where many scenes were shot), about kissing on screen (Melissa told how weird it was for her to play a married woman since she was only 15 in real life, and didn’t even have a boyfriend! Charlotte recalled the scene in “Four Eyes” where Mary finds her kissing a handsome young man…), about actress Patty Duke (a very close friend of Melissa’s, who starred with her in The Miracle Worker) and, like Melissa herself, was once president of the Screen Actors’ Guild… Melissa told that Patty Duke had encouraged her to run for presidency… Now, after a four years term, Melissa jokes she will kill her!), about screenwriting (Larry Jensen recalled he had the idea for his script on the set of “The Runaway Caboose” - he wrote it then to focus on Charles and Caroline Ingalls… much later he met Kent McCray and his script was finally shot for the Carters instead, in Season 9!), about jokes and humor on the set (Alison said she was sometimes embarrassed when some of her friends came to visit her on the set, and asked to meet the cast members… Melissa told that Michael was telling the world’s dirtiest jokes, and right before shooting the sad scenes!)…

They recalled many fond memories of Victor French (who died 16 years ago). Melissa said he was unique and phenomenally talented, Charlotte talked about his funeral, which he organized himself as a huge party, with rock band, drinks, and a special message in the sky, courtesy of an airplane! They talked about their other parts in other productions, and about their actual jobs. You certainly know what are Melissa’s and Alison’s occupations… but Charlotte said she have been working for the last 16 years in production facilities, and implicates herself very much in supporting breast cancer research (being herself a 14 year survivor of breast cancer)… Lindsay has a real estate license, and like her sister, trains horses for rodeo and jumping (she lives in Simi Valley, very close to where the show was filmed)… Brenda (who is a history teacher) and Wendi are happily married with kids… Brian and his wife Melody are in production, and music (their CD, “One Two One” is terrific!)… Hersha lives in Florida and is often working on stage, and she hopes to go back to California…

Want to know what the guests’ favourite episodes are?! Melissa Gilbert – “The Lord Is My Shepherd”, Lindsay Greenbush – either the pilot episode or “The Lord Is My Shepherd”, Brenda Turnbaugh – “A Christmas They Never Forgot”, Charlotte Stewart – “Troublemaker” (but she said she could have pick several, including the ones Michael used to nickname “Miss-Beadle-kills-the-kids-again”!), Alison Arngrim – “Bunny” or Nellie’s wedding to Percival, Hersha Parady – “May We Make Them Proud”, Brian – either “The Runaway Caboose” or “Fred”, Larry Jensen – “The Legacy”…

Melissa tried to define one of the powerful messages from the show : “Your life doesn’t need a label, you just need a place to live, and this place is in here, whatever you call it”… Michael Landon believed that, and tried to make others aware of it too. Everyone then tried to recall their best memory of Michael Landon. Many talked about his sense of humour and his special laugh… about how he created on the set the feeling of a real family… Once again, I will quote Melissa Gilbert, and that was what ended this panel: “It’s impossible to pin down one specific memory… I have so many, on and off the set … He was an incredibly special person and influenced all of our lives tremendously… He gave us such a gift by inviting us to be part of the show, by encouraging us as actors, and giving us stories that gave us opportunities to grow and stretch as actors and human beings… There is not much that I can say except for… Thanks!” She said that with her eyes toward the sky, and she was very moved.

That is all I can say about the end of the 2005 Tombstone festival… I only know that, before going separate ways, the cast members had a little private party at their hotel on Monday evening, with Brian and Melody playing music and singing. I tried to tell you the most I could recall, I think you may guess now that this weekend was a wonderful, memorable experience for me. I wasn’t disappointed a second by all the people I have met… they were all extremely kind and easy to talk to, much more than I could have expected. You immediately feel you would like to be more intimate, and have quiet, personal time just to speak to them and know more about them. They give you the feeling you could be part of their life, somehow, and even just for a few minutes. I was charmed by Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim’s complicity. I can imagine what it was on the Little House set in their teens! They were obviously happy to be there together… and share with others all those (mostly funny) memories.

It is a shame about the people who were not, or could not attend – I would have liked Karen Grassle especially to be there… What is strange is that sometimes you could really feel that Michael Landon was there too… I mean, he was at the centre of every story… Every bit of memories was related to him… All this reunion was such a nice tribute to him … I would add thanks to the people of Tombstone who had worked for this event to be possible. During these 3 days, I met many very nice people, from the staff of the festival, or visitors like me. I hope there will be other meetings like this one, and I encourage you to attend, if you are a real Little House fan, because you won’t regret it a single minute!

Pictures of Tombstone:

1. The famous OK Corral, where the famous gunfight in 1881 took place.
2. The Tombstone Epitaph, local newspaper, still active today.
3. Allen Street.
4. During the weekend coaches and wagons could be seen in Tombstone.
5. The Tombstone Courthouse (1882), where the Little House cast signed autographs.
View Eric's photos from the reunion!

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