Like many girls who grew up on the television shows of the 70s and 80s, I adored Melissa Gilbert, who rose to stardom by playing Laura Ingalls Wilder (“Half Pint”) on the hit show “Little House on the Prairie.” I wanted to be her, and since we had the same name (something that thrilled me to no end), I knew we would have been best buds.
(Admittedly, this wannabe friends attitude of mine continues to this day as I follow her on Twitter and delight anytime I see a tweet from her – as if she’s personally passing me a secret note in class.)
I thought she had the most perfect life. Didn’t we all? I mean, hello, the girl got to kiss Rob Lowe! For four years! When you’re 14 years old watching their romance (as I was, from my bedroom as I read the teen magazines and whatnot), life doesn’t get better than that.
As Melissa writes in her memoir Prairie Tale, the illusion of perfection was the byproduct of the veneer of overprotectiveness and sheltered existence that were constant companions as she grew up before our eyes as Laura Ingalls, then Helen Keller and Anne Frank, and then in numerous Lifetime and TV Movies of the Week. That quest to be perfect formed the basis of so much of her life, and was at the heart of many decisions that turned out to be detrimental and heartbreaking.
In Prairie Tale, Melissa writes candidly and openly (with a few curse words and f-bombs thrown in). She writes of her adoption, her parents, and her grandfather – a creator of The Honeymooners, among other productions – who knew everyone in Hollywood. (Her stories about him, and of being “Hesch’s granddaughter” are hilarious.) She writes lovingly of her half-sister Sara Gilbert, who would later also grow up before our eyes as ascerbic, sassy Darlene on Roseanne.
Melissa takes us to the “Little House” set and we see how instrumental Michael Landon was to the show, how much of a father figure and mentor he was, and later, how much his death affected her. We’re reminded of just how young Melissa Gilbert was when portraying Laura (particularly in her love scenes with Dean Butler, who played her husband Almanzo). How her rivalry with Nellie Olsen was on-screen only and that they were close friends, a friendship that continues today.
At times, she’s self-deprecating with a sense of humor, often referring to herself as a geek or a dorky kid.
“[my stepfather] Harold and I both got new cars at the same time. He got a LeBaron convertible and I got a cream-colored LeBaron station wagon, which was delivered to the driveway with a big red ribbon on it. It couldn’t have been dorkier.
All my friends drove sporty cars like Mazda RX-7s. I pulled into school in a friggin’ station wagon, singing Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” which was cranked on my eight-track. Any chance I had to be remotely cool was again instantly squelched.” (pg. 92)
Having been the geeky kid who drove a 1980 Honda Civic (with an eight-track!) to a high school parking lot filled with Ferraris, Camaros, and Porsches (no lie) I can certainly relate to that. (‘Course, now 25 years later, I’m well-aware of how damn lucky I was to have any wheels at all as a teenager.)
Prairie Tale returns the reader to a Brat Packed time when, as Melissa writes, “life was terribly fun. It was still basically pre-AIDS … and things were still fairly wild and permissive. We were in the midst of the Reagan era, and those of us earning good paychecks … had oodles of money to toss around. There was this sense that all of us were at one of the greatest parties in human history.” (pg. 168)
Like her grandfather, Melissa Gilbert has a few stories to tell about some Hollywood notables – and in Prairie Tale she does so with candor and wit, leaving the reader laughing. Among the most amusing were her drinking escapades with the legendary George C. Scott, and her recollection of Bette Davis’ (yes, the Bette Davis!) dry comment at Night of 100 Stars, an event in 1982. But not before she tells the story of her elevator ride that night with Princess Grace.
“After a moment, Princess Grace turned to me and said, “Hi, Melissa. Remember me? I’m Stephanie’s mother.” My mother nearly passed out. She’d forgotten that on one of our Hawaiian vacations a few years earlier, I had spotted Princess Stephanie sitting on the beach amid her security and looking bored. I approached her as if I would have any kid. (“Hi, I’m Melissa”) and asked if she wanted to play ding-dong ditch with us …. Princess Stephanie would come to play a role in my life later on.” (pg. 119)
Back to Night of 100 Stars, the event to which the Gilberts rode in the elevator with Princess Grace.
“In addition to star-studded elevator rides, there were dressing rooms overflowing with celebrities, including Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Sidney Poitier, Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Whoopi Goldberg, Dinah Shore, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Donnie Osmond, Raquel Welch, Barbara Walters, Rosa Parks, Dr. Christiaan Bernard, Rock Hudson, Jim Henson, Orson Welles, Cher, and Dr. Seuss.
“At one point during rehearsals, all hundred stars were directed to particular spots on bleachers for the big finale, and in a rare moment of silence, Bette Davis cracked, “If a bomb goes off in this building, Charlene Tilton is going to be the biggest star in Hollywood.” (pg. 119)
Stories like this are on many a page of Prairie Tale. Reading this, I felt like Melissa and I were sitting cross-legged on my bed, gossiping about people we knew, and sharing secrets and girl-talk and “ohmygawds, he did not!”s.
But then, as chats with close friends go, the talk turns to grown up matters – of love lost and gone bad, of husbands and motherhood, of the fragile process of discovering who you really are when you’ve spent your whole life being someone else. It’s a story that even those of us who didn’t grow up on TV or in the shadow of celluloid heroes can relate to. Because haven’t we all strived to be perfect, wanted to be loved, dealt with our addictions and demons, loved someone who has, made decisions we would cause to regret and learn from?
“Thanks to a lifetime spent on TV, I had been popular, admired, and loved my whole life by everyone except myself. Inside, I couldn’t get past the first twenty-four hours of my life, when my mother and father had given me away. I was made to see and accept that the motivating factor behind many of my decisions was feeling that I had to prove I was worthy and loveable.” (pg. 351)
In Prairie Tale, Melissa Gilbert doesn’t have to prove to us that she is worthy and loveable. She did that many years ago. Instead, she shows us that, despite the different trajectories our lives may have taken, she’s more like us than we ever knew.
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copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo’s Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.