Reunion on the prairie

WALNUT GROVE – It’s a “Little House” reunion 40 years in the making in Walnut Grove next weekend. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum as well as the debut of the long-running television show “Little House on the Prairie.” Eleven stars of the television show will be in Walnut Grove Friday-Sunday to sign autographs, visit with fans and talk about their time on the program.

Trying to get the museum ready, make the arrangements for the stars’ visit and stocking up on reunion souvenirs has kept museum director Amy Ankrum, the museum staff and others busy for the last year. It’s working with the stars and their agents and seeing who was available, Ankrum said, and the task started in spring 2013.

“It was figuring out who we were interested in having here,” Ankrum said. Plus there’s the logistics of the reunion event, whether it’s held indoors or outdoors, in the park or at the pageant site, and “praying for good weather.”

When plans started for the reunion, Ankrum said that Alison Arngrim, who portrayed Nellie, jumped right on board. Arngrim has visited Walnut Grove a few times, with the last time in 2012.

“She was the first talking about it from the get-go,” Ankrum said.

Besides Arngrim, the other stars coming to the reunion are Dean Butler (Almanzo Wilder), Charlotte Stewart (Eva Beadle), Sidney Robyn Greenbush and Lindsay Rachel Greenbush (Carrie Ingalls), Hersha Parady (Alice Garvey), Lucy Lee Flippin (Eliza Jane Wilder), Wendi Turnbaugh Lee and Brenda Turnbaugh Weatherby (Grace Ingalls), Radames Pera (John Sanderson Edwards) and Dan McBride (Henry Riley). The “Little House” Cast Memories program is before the pageant Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the pageant grounds.

Ankrum said that Victor French’s children, Victor Jr. and Tracy, will talk about their father’s career from 1:30-2:30 p.m. Saturday on the stage in the city park. French portrayed Isaiah Edwards on “Little House,” and Victor Jr. was his father’s stunt double in the show.

Ankrum said Walnut Grove is used to just having one or two “Little House” stars coming to town during the pageant weekends. Some of the TV stars will be bringing family members, so it will include covering their needs, busing, scheduling, she said.

“They’re coming from five different directions,” Ankrum said. “(There’s) a lot of juggling and mapping.”

“It’s a totally new experience for us,” Ankrum added.

“At the museum, we all feel excited,” said museum employee Wendy Rogotzke. She said there’s so much talk about the reunion since the announcement was made last year. There’s a Facebook page that was created for the reunion where people talk about how much they like the show and how excited they are for the upcoming reunion, Rogotzke said.

A flurry of interest has descended on Walnut Grove these past few months. Ankrum said that there’s already 1,400 tickets pre-sold for the reunion on Friday and 1,700 for Saturday. Tickets are being limited to 2,400 for each night.

“I’m very pleased, very, very pleased with the number of pre-sales,” Ankrum said.

Fans from all over are especially excited for the cast reunion, Ankrum said.

“They’re very interested,” Ankrum said. “A lot are coming from overseas and Canada.” People are meeting up on Facebook about the cast reunion, Ankrum said, chatting about it.

‘”Little House’ is still very popular, even in France,” Ankrum said.

Rogotzke said she’s mostly involved with the pageant end of things, figuring out when the television stars go on stage in collaboration with the pageant, as well as spreading the work and helping people with their questions.

“We definitely have everything prepared to be ready,” Rogotzke said. She said just a few details have to be ironed out.

The museum has even stocked up on reunion items, such as T-shirts, coffee mugs, tumblers and magnets, Ankrum said.

“I’m at the reorder point,” she said. Since the beginning of the year, items have been selling well online, she said.

“We’ve been crazy stocking at the museum so people can come in and buy it all,” Rogotzke said. “I look forward to meeting them.”

“It’s already crazy, a good crazy,” Ankrum added. “It’s taken a village to get this to go.”

The museum, which was started in 1974 on U.S. Highway 14, moved to its current location in 1980. For the anniversary of the museum, Ankrum said that Nicole Elzenga, the museum’s collections manager, has put together a special display, which includes old photographs of the museum’s original location, information on the first museum board and some of the founding members.

Dah Wahl, who is directing the Wilder Pageant this year, along with assistant director Erin Richards, said they’re gearing up for a bigger-than-normal audience the last weekend of the show.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re two or 2,000 out there” for the pageant, Richards said they tell the pageant cast members, but they need to perform the show the same way.

“(It’s going) great,” Wahl said about the pageant performances. “We have an amazing crew, we have an amazing cast. I feel I basically sit in the booth and everybody else does the magic.” Richards noted that the Kennedy House set has been redone.

Wahl and Richards said the reunion will be another boost to Walnut Grove.

“It helps out the town in the summer when we get all the people there,” Richards said. “It’s going to be double the population of Walnut Grove this weekend.”

“People are really excited about seeing the stars of a show that they love,” Wahl said. “I think people are interested in seeing the connections between the TV show and the pageant.”