March 31, 2024

Photo Essay: Little House on the Prairie 50th Anniversary Cast Reunion and Festival Weekend (Simi Valley, CA)

I first caught wind of the 50th anniversary of Little House in the Prairie, which debuted on television in March 1974, via an announcement from one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder accounts I follow—about an event in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. 

Great, I thought. I've got to head back. (I'd already visited once in 2007, and I still had other LHOTP sites to check off my list.)

But then the best-case scenario came about: A cast reunion was being planned where the series began, in Simi Valley, California. And although traffic could make that an hour-and-a-half trip from my home, the TV version of Walnut Grove is a lot closer than the real Walnut Grove.

So, that is how I spent last weekend—taking every cheesy photo that opportunities would provide, wearing my bonnet the whole time. 

Honestly, I don't know what I expected. I'd never been to a fan event like this before—I guess I'm aging into it right about now—but it surpassed all my expectations. 

The festival organizers converted a local community center basketball court into a kind of soundstage, with full-scale recreations of several key interior sets, including the Ingalls homestead (before it got the kitchen annex)...

...and the schoolhouse, with a chalkboard greeting written by Miss Beadle herself, Charlotte Stewart (now 83 years old).

They were built following blueprints created by miniature model-maker (and LHOTP superfan) Eric Caron, who spent 100 hours studying freeze-frames from the TV show and approximating measurements based on the heights of Michael Landon (5'10") and Merlin Oleson (6'5"). 

It was just surreal to walk into the classroom and sit amidst the desks and the slates. Yet, I felt right at home.

I almost grabbed a peppermint stick or a piece of licorice from the mercantile counter. 

But the illusion of immersion was shattered when I spotted a 1970s-era Panavision camera, like one that would've been used on set for Little House

Some other mind-blowing gems on display included Michael Landon's own golf cart, recently refurbished to its original splendor as "The Surry." Landon reportedly loved it so much that he brought it home from the soundstages where it was used to his Beverly Hills family residence.

Original screen-used props included a seat from a covered wagon... well as the stand-in for Carrie's ragdoll (which may have never actually gotten any screen time). 

Cases displayed autographed scripts and shooting schedules...

...personal ephemera, like belt buckles given to cast members (even the twins that played Carrie)...
...and pop culture artifacts, from board games and lunch boxes to play sets. 
A wall memorialized the cast members who are no longer with us—not only Michael Landon (Charles/Pa), but also Victor French (Mr. Edwards) and the actors who played Nels and Harriet Oleson (Richard Bull and Katherine MacGregor), Doc Baker (Kevin Hagen), Reverend Alden (Dabbs Greer), Jonathan and Alice Garvey (Merlin Olsen and Hersha Parady), Percival (Steve Tracy), and many others.

Outside on the festival grounds, we were treated to painted backdrops of the main Walnut Grove landmarks, from the Ingalls and Garvey homesteads... the hotel and post office (where Doc Baker's office also was)...

...and the lumber mill and schoolhouse/church, all created by the festival director Olan Paz (also responsible for the fa├žades at Big Sky Ranch).
The Saturday of the festival had been rainy enough to cancel all the buses that were planned to tour the original filming location at Big Sky Ranch, so much of Sunday was spent in a standby line—which Dean Butler (Almanzo Wilder) graciously visited early in the morning. 

In addition to being a sought-after star of the show, Dean was also a main producer of the festival. He still took time to take an impromptu selfie with me when I dashed out of line to chase him down. 

Later that day, I got his autograph and then posed for a professional photo with him. "I like your bonnet," he said, and I swooned.

This was the only reunion/anniversary event that Melissa Gilbert will be able to attend this year. I felt such a strong connection to the Laura Ingalls character growing up—feisty, love-struck, tomboyish, misunderstood—that I just had to meet her and get her to autograph my photo of her and Alison Arngrim (a.k.a. Nellie Oleson, who'd previously signed it as well).

Despite long lines, I managed to attend some panel discussions—including "The Wilders" (the actors who portrayed Almanzo and Eliza Jane, Dean Butler and Lucy Lee Flippin), "Nellie & Willie" (Alison Arngrim and Jonathan Gilbert), and Karen Grassle, who portrayed the mother everybody wanted instead of their own, Caroline/Ma. 

I'll admit, I teared up a little. 

It's complicated because it's not just a TV show. It's also a book series—based on real-life events and people. And although the television version strayed way far away from the books, many of the characters were the same as historical figures. 

So it's easy to become fascinated with one aspect of the Little House universe—and then get sucked into the rest of it. 

Of course, I thought I was a big fan—but many of the "bonnetheads" that I met in Simi Valley and I've encountered online have me beat, and how. 

But I find great comfort in Little House on the Prairie—as harrowing as its storylines were, there was always a love and support and resilience that I just never felt growing up. 

I never wanted to live in pioneer times—what a nightmare!—but I did ache to go fishing with my daddy and bake pies in the kitchen and snuggle up with a fluffy dog and carve my initials into tree bark and go to a spring dance.

I still do.

@avoidingregret Little House on the Prairie 50th Anniversary Festival Simi Valley vibes #lauraingalls #classictv #tvseries #tvshow #cottagecore #prairiecore #bonnetheads #festival #lhotp #littlehouseontheprairie @Little House On The Prairie @simi valley chamber #tintype #tintypephotography #simivalley ♬ Old Dan Tucker Instrumental Fiddle (with The Wolf Rock Band) - Buffalo Dave

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