26 – Karen Grassle: Little House’s Ma on Bright Lights, Prairie Dust

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0:00 Karen:
I thought, “What could I do to give them a little break?” And so my thought was, “Well, I'll just read a story.” So I thought, you know, people relate to mine. The idea that Ma’s voice is reading the story would be nice. So I just started doing that. I just started—I learned, you know, I got a little tripod, and I set things up and fixed the desk so it was presentable, and started looking for what stories I wanted to do. And I started with my favorite book from childhood.

0:37 Tony:
Hello, it's Tony Howell, and welcome to Conversations with Changemakers, where we examine the question, how can you use your work to change the world?

On this episode, we speak with Karen Grassle, perhaps most known as Ma from Little House on the Prairie. She also co-created the TV movie Battered about domestic violence and advocates for women's issues. Before and after Little House, Karen has continued to work in major roles on Broadway, regional theater, and film. And her most recent movie, Not to Forget, is now available. But the real reason we're having this conversation is because Karen's memoir, Bright Lights, Prairie Dust, is now available. Enjoy!

Karen Grassle, thank you so much for being on the podcast. I'm excited to chat with you.

1:39 Karen:
Tony, I've so looked forward to this.

1:41 Tony:
Well, I want to open with the Good Morning America question. I know that you've just published your memoir, Bright Lights, Prairie Dust. So my question for you is, why this book and why now?

1:54 Karen:
Well, for me, the reason is it just took this long, Tony. But I think what they would want from that question is, why should anybody be interested in this book now, some old TV show from long ago, some old woman, you know, writing her memories? But I think that once people dive into it, they'll find it very relevant to their lives today. And that is because I have shared in a very open way about my upbringing, about my family, about my own struggles with alcoholism and mental illness, and my recovery as well.

So I think the book brings a lot of humanity to the reader, whether they have these issues or not. It can help them to understand other people who have these issues. And let's face it, there's hardly any family that isn't touched in some way by these kinds of disorders.

3:03 Tony:
Well, I know you, obviously from your career, but recently, we've been working together, and you're tearing it up on social media. And that also kind of like, connecting it to the book, we are in an age where people are projecting these picture-perfect lives, and they don't necessarily expose everything that's going on behind the scenes. So I actually bought the book for all the female members of my family, and they were quite surprised to learn some stories about Ma. So how does it feel for you to have all of these true stories out there?

3:35 Karen:
Well, right before it came out, I thought, “Oh, this is all . . . this is all going to be there. It's going to be out there.” And, you know, I'm kind of a private person. And I think that maybe one reason it took so long to get the book finished was because I had to choose to reveal different layers, you know. Some things were so clearly necessary to reveal because they're intrinsic to my experience, and having survived them makes me who I am. But I must say other things. I thought, “Oh, I don't know about this.” But now it's very freeing. It's there. It's out there. So if anybody wants to pick out, let them pick.

4:23 Tony:
Well, I'm curious because I got to put all of the celebrity endorsements on your website, all of your friends, like, singing your praises. And then now that your story is out there, whether it came with those endorsements or after, what has been the greatest thing about the response to the book for you?

4:43 Karen:
I've learned something important, and that is that Ma is so beloved, in addition to the show, which I mean, we've all known the show has been unbelievably popular for now three generations. But I did not know the impact that this character has had on young girls, in particular, but also boys.

And so the love that has come back to me since this book came out has been extraordinary. And you know, you know, because you've read the book that every day wasn't always easy to go to work. So I did try to do my best under sometimes difficult circumstances.

And yet, there was a kind of a wound connected with that. But that wound has been treated now. It's just amazing what I've experienced from the people who read it and want to talk about it or the people who are anxious to visit with me because of the portrayal that’s extraordinary.

6:00 Tony:
What do you mean by anxious to visit you because of the portrayal?

6:04 Karen:
Well, some of these people are women who want to discuss issues with me, women's issues. Some are people who were inspired to lead a certain kind of life because of the character of Ma and also perhaps because of my advocacy for women's rights and families. Yeah, I don't know.

6:31 Tony:
One of the things I loved reading the book that really shows what a leading lady you are is how you sort of honored everyone that worked on the production. And one of the people that stood out to me that, you know, I knew nothing about was Kent McCray, who was your production manager. And I particularly resonated with what you said that he never had a that's-not-my-job mentality. And so are there any other leadership lessons that you picked up from him or Michael Landon?

6:59 Karen:
Kent was an extraordinary leader who was never blowing his own horn but always seeing to the job. I describe in the book how he got out in the mud in the rain, trying to dig these trucks out of this mud on the ranch when we were doing the pilot and how the driver of the car I was in said, “Boy, you don't see a production manager doing that.” But he was all about getting the job done.

Well, I come from that kind of family. My parents were very unassuming people, very straightforward people. They were very frank and honest. So that was a work ethic I was raised with and respect. That is one thing my folks taught me and my sister was how to work hard.

7:51 Tony:
You've definitely worked hard. And you touched on it a little bit. But it wasn't always easy at Little House, which we'll get into, but one of the ways that maybe it wasn't easy was that you felt you were “a liberal in a sea of conservatism.” So I know and I appreciate that you are an activist for women's rights and transgender rights. So for anyone listening that is a young changemaker, that they are both an artist and an activist, what can you share from your experience about bridging both worlds?

8:23 Karen:
Well, to me, there was nothing to bridge to me—that the artist has always been an advocate for social change because the artist is helping to reveal our frailties, helping to reveal the cracks in our culture. And so when I was a young artist, I was reading about, you know, other artists that I admired. And many of them were very active in social movements or revolutions. And I found that very inspiring.

And as far as leadership, I should also say that Mike was exceptional in that he had his eyes and ears on everything all the time. And he made it his job to try to create a fun atmosphere and keep things light. And he knew more jokes than anybody I've ever met. I mean, they just came out of him repeatedly, constantly over the years. And it was part of what he did to try to keep the crew happy.

9:33 Tony:
Keep work fun.

9:34 Karen:
He did things for the children too to entertain them.

9:38 Tony:
Well, I love that positive side. But for anyone who hasn't read the book, there is a journey with your salary negotiations for what I believe is year two, season two, season three, and then it got resolved. But you mentioned in the book that women were making 59 cents to the dollar, and not much has changed about that. So in 2022, what are your thoughts on how wages and salaries should be determined?

10:05 Karen:
I think it was yesterday's New York Times that had an editorial about the bureaucratic hang-up that's going on right now regarding the Equal Rights Amendment. So the Equal Rights Amendment finally did get enough states to ratify it that it should become law. But there was some glitch where Congress didn't update the exact terminology or something like that. And so the man whose job it is to record the law and put it into the Constitution of the United States says, “No, he can't put it in there,” because it wasn't ratified back in the seventies when the original law said that it was supposed to be ratified.

So there we are again. I think our salary equality has gotten up now to somewhere in the seventies, you know, maybe 79 cents on the dollar. But we still need that Equal Rights Amendment to get into the Constitution. And then every time the Constitution is passed out, people will read that, and they will see that it's part of the structure of our country.

11:26 Tony:
All humans are created equal. Wow, well, I adore you. And another thing that really stood out to me is that you practice meditation and that you've also shared that you've done years of therapy. So as someone who personally practices both of those mental health practices, how can we destigmatize conversations around mental health?

11:50 Karen:
Oh, that's such a good question, and I suppose this is how we do it by saying, “Yes, I talked to my therapist last week. And here's the insight I got.” You know what I mean, to make this part of the fabric of our lives rather than being in the closet and saying, “Well, you know, I don't want people to know that I need help or that I have problems or that I seek advice from other people.” You know, I mean, these are such old ideas that people should be, you know, stoic and independent and not need anybody.

But the church used to fulfill that role. And even though we've learned a lot about the frailties of the church, still, that there was a role in society. There was somebody for people to go talk to, and as membership in the churches has gone down, we need some resources.

So I'm one of those people who needed all the help she could get, you know, and fortunately, I'm able to seek that help and pay for it. But that's another issue, you know, is making mental health services available to people.

13:13 Tony:
Yes, absolutely. Well, shifting gears a little bit in the closet. Let's talk about Roy London for a moment. But you share quite a bit of your technique, setting the Grotowski method, Linklater voice, even teaching that technique, but you really, really pay homage to one of your greatest teachers, the late Roy London. So can you share a bit about who he was and what he taught you?

13:37 Karen:
Roy and I made our Broadway debut together when we were in our twenties, and we were so excited to be doing that, and we bonded. Both of us were having the, you know, first time out, and both of us were born under the sign of Pisces. So we knew that must mean something. And we just had a natural rapport from the get-go.

And later, when he came out to Hollywood and he was appearing in a play with Lynn Redgrave, he said, “You know, I think I'd like to give Los Angeles a try.” And I said, “Well, come and stay with me while you figure it out.” So he did.

And it wasn't too long after that that he got his own place, and somebody asked him for acting lessons. He had studied with O'Hagan in New York at HB Studios, and he began to teach, and then he began to grow as a teacher and have his own ideas and his own techniques. And pretty soon, his classes were like standing room only. And the master class was given in a studio with—what do you have at sports events?

14:57 Tony:

14:58 Karen:
Yes, people on risers. And obviously, not everybody could work every week. But everybody wanted to be there because the insights were so profound, and what he did was he gave actors courage to reveal themselves. And . . . and to not be in control in a way to not know what they're going to do exactly with that character but just to pursue the goal of that character.

And let's say the goal of that character was to get your wallet. Then they had to pursue that with everything they could think of. And every time they tried to get it and didn't, then that would cause them to have another kind of reaction and make another adjustment, but it would be in real-time. And I think that's what he was really great at bringing out in people was being really in the moment. And the camera loves that. Camera just loves that reality, that spontaneity.

16:08 Tony:
Yeah, though, my takeaway was that he really encouraged you to explore the unexpected, that you would head into scenes, not knowing what was going to happen. And just, yeah, absolutely.

Well, that's a perfect transition, Karen, because most of the listeners on this podcast are Broadway and theater people. So that's where you started. And then you move over to TV, film. So any insights that you can share, whether it's craft related, a little bit like what you just shared? Or business? How can someone make that transition just like you and Roy?

16:39 Karen:
Well, you know, I didn't make the transition by choice. And I think the idea that we can arrange our careers to be the way that we want might be unrealistic because there are so many of us and not as many jobs. It can be challenging to pick and choose.

Of course, everyone wants to have a career, like Meryl Streep play[s] all different kinds of roles and be a movie star and be able to work in the theater if she wanted to and all that long run of a career. But there aren't that many who get to do that.

And in my case, I was at the end of my rope when I went up on the audition for Little House. I'm not sure if I had a Broadway show in my hip pocket if I would have taken the job because I loved the theater. I loved loved it. And being on a TV series had not been my goal, so I had to be kind of down and out before I could get a big break like that because I, you know, I had all these ideas about the kind of work I wanted to do.

And I think it was very, very good for me to have to go to the same job in the same place day after day with the same people because it made me face myself in a way that I didn't have to if I was now in Atlanta, now in Massachusetts, and now in Cincinnati, or in a short run on Broadway. You know, a lot of things get kind of pushed under the rug when you're doing that they did for me anyway.

So as far as making the transition, if somebody wants to, of course, there is a lot of work now because of all these different streaming companies. So this is a good thing for actors. But I think what I'm telling people is if you want to climb a mountain, go to find a mountain. So if you want to be working in film and television, you've got to go to Los Angeles.

Now, you'll give me an example immediately of someone who's had a very successful series like the Sopranos in New York. And of course, there are these great exceptions, but they are exceptions. So I say, you know, go where the action is and find good teachers and put yourself on the line and expose yourself to criticism and learning. I don't think there's any other way to do it, you know. The audition process is so excruciating, but they've never found a better way to do it.

19:37 Tony:
Interesting. I was at a hiring class here in Bali the other day, and they're talking about video recruitment. And I shared with the room . . . I said, “You know, actors are doing this right now all the time.” But the only flipside is that I think that this applies to all hiring, that people need to also approach those that did not get the job, and just have some compassion and empathy and just say like, “Thank you for your submission.”

Let's keep the focus on Karen Grassle. Well, I want to highlight something else from the book that it made me smile and chuckle because I think this would have been me if I was working with you on the set of Little House. But it seems like Melissa Gilbert was a very precocious young actor. So would you share one of the stories in the book about working with her as a child actor?

20:23 Karen:
Yeah, so the very first time that I was going to have dialogue, on the pilot, I had the task of sorting some laundry, and I had read about the great method actors and their relationship with their props and how they did this on film as well. And I had worked that way in the theater. I loved my props. I imbued them with all kinds of meaning. And so I heard they gave me this big basket of laundry, and I started figuring out now, “That's Charles's, and that's the girls’, and that needs mending.”

And while I was working this whole out, this rehearsal was going forward. And the next thing was total silence, and it was my line, and little Melissa Gilbert piped up with the line. That was so embarrassing because, you know, she know[s] my line. I was doing the laundry.

So that was not infrequent with her because she has told me that she has a photographic memory, so she knew what was next. And it just pops out of her, you know. She was completely innocent in it. And I think both Melissas were extremely bright. They did extremely well in school, even though they were working, basically full-time for a child on a movie set, doing big parts with long hours. So they were pretty incredible kids.

22:02 Tony:
Well, your latest screen work is the leading role of Melody in the film Not to Forget, and this is a movie that revolves around dementia and family. And, Karen, wow, the scene of you in the river. I was—it was amazing. So can you tell us just a little bit about the film and how people can watch it?

22:23 Karen:
Yes, on my website, KarenGrassle.net, which Tony helped to design and make work and fed me so many great ideas for what to do with it going forward, on my website, there's a link for how to watch it on Amazon. So that's the easiest way. There are many streaming services that have it. But I think that's the easiest way because then you just link directly to it.

22:55 Tony:
Perfect. Well, speaking of your website, another wonderful area is Storytime with Karen. And I've shared that with my nieces and nephews. Can you let us know what it is? Who is it for?

23:07 Karen:
Oh, well, I was glad that you thought it was valuable to put that on the website. During the early shutdown of the pandemic, I really felt for all these kids stuck at home and the parents trying to be both worker and parent and help them with schoolwork. I just thought it's got to be so challenging. And I thought what could I do to give them a little break.

And so my thought was, “Well, I'll just read a story.” So I thought, you know, people relate to mine. The idea that Ma’s voice is reading the story would be nice. So I just started doing that. I just started—I learned. I got a little tripod, and I set things up and fixed the desk so it was presentable and started looking for what stories I wanted to do. And I started with my favorite book from childhood, which was called Stories That Never Grow Old. And that's a beautiful book.

But you know what, I was through it pretty fast. And then it was time for the library and finding more, and I relied on librarians and my assistant Jamie to help me because you couldn't go in the library. You couldn't browse because everything was locked down. And the only way you could pick up a book from the library was to go and stand at a place where they had a plastic thing, and then they would take your library card, wash it, pass it back to you like that.

Yeah, so we did a lot of those, and Jamie would do a little editing to clean them up, and sometimes we added special music. Like, there was one book called Black Is a Rainbow Color, and I found a song by Nina Simone. And it just fit just great. So . . . and YouTube was nice. They let me have it because I only used, you know, a couple of lines. If you really use a lot of the song, they won't let you do it because you're trampling on somebody else's rights.

25:28 Tony:
Well, it's beautiful. And KarenGrassle.net is the way to check that out. And I like to say it's Netflix for kids, like, they can watch episode after episode.

I want to put a spotlight on Jamie, who is the editor there. But I know she's also been helping you keep the website up-to-date with your press and in-person appearances. And also, you have been sending out what I like to call love letters. Your emails are so incredible, Karen.

So how has that been for you now that the product is ready? You've been stepping it up on email and social media. Any insights from that sort of digital marketing? Any takeaways?

26:07 Karen:
Well, first of all, I've recognized that it's super important to get involved in that, and I'm such a twentieth-century person, you know. I was like, “Oh, I don't know.” But we've dived in here.

And it's been very rewarding because people really want to hear from me, and you gave us a really good idea for the website KarenGrassle.net, which was to have, like, a kind of special group of people who want to hear from me. And then I can send out little notices about maybe a new interview that we have that they can see first, or I had a drawing, you know, for free books and things like that to make it fun.

And it's been marvelous for the book, I'm sure, now that the initial excitement of the launch is over. I'm not quite sure what direction that will go. It's going to be interesting to see what we do with it.

27:11 Tony:
I think they're just gonna want to hear from you personally, let them know what you're working on, what you're doing.

27:16 Karen:
Oh, thank you.

27:18 Tony:
So Bright Lights, Prairie Dust is not your first piece of writing, and I would love for you to talk a little bit about Battered, what that was and what's the why behind that.

27:29 Karen:
Well, you know, because Mike was the star producer, director, and writer, he couldn't go out and do publicity for Little House, so that role fell to me. And I would go out and go from city to city, visiting affiliate stations, and tell them this is what's coming up and here are some cuts from the new show and chat with people.

And then everybody would say, “What's Mike really like?” And I'd tell them he always keeps his boots on. And they would say, “What's it like to kiss him?” And I'd say, “Just a little peck because he's very much in love with his wife.” So they didn't get very exciting stuff out of me.

But anyway, when I got to Fort Worth—I think it was second year or maybe the third year—I met a journalist named Katie Sherrod, who had just done original research on wife beating, and I knew nothing about it. It was a very hidden issue at that time.

We thought only people who were drunk or maybe people who were lacking all education, you know, sort of cavemen would beat their wives. But she said, “No, no, no. This crosses all class lines, all religions, all races.” And I said, “Oh, I have got to read your articles.” And my writing partner and I had been looking for a subject to do a movie of the week. And we said that is it, so we started working on it, and we did our own original research there in LA.

And the result is this film Battered, which I'm very proud of. The actors, the director, the set designer, the cinematographer—everybody just really did a wonderful job. And it really had an impact.

People really woke up, and they were working in Washington on how to support the shelters for battered women and their children. And I was able to go to DC and talk to the committee, and Chip Fields, the other actress, and I were able to show the film there and lobby for this money for the shelters, and you know, it made a difference.

29:56 Tony:
Art and activism combined. Thank you so much. And I know that you've been creating plays, films, TV movies, writing articles since 1976. So for the artists out there, self included, that has the itch to write, that they are making their way into the literary world or into screenwriting, what advice would you give them to get their written work out in the world?

30:24 Karen:
Well, the first thing is to become really good. The first thing is to write not to become really good. The first thing is just to write and write and write, I think, because everybody has an idea for a movie. Everybody has an idea for a book. And everybody's life is interesting. But the actual practice of writing and creating something requires a lot of perseverance. So perseverance, and then being willing to ask everybody. You know, if you go to Thanksgiving dinner, and someone there has a cousin who works in Hollywood, maybe I could write to them and ask if they need an assistant, or I could write to them and see if they would be willing to read my proposal. You know, you have to advocate for yourself. And that was something very difficult for me. Oh, very difficult.

And so I was given a break with Little House because now I had an in. You know, I had my own network. And I had a name that people would return my phone calls, you know, things like that. So you just have to keep at it, I think. And I always go to books about how to do things. A friend of mine made fun of me because she was looking at my bookshelf, and she saw a book How to Pack for a Trip. She said, “Karen, really?” But you know, I've learned a lot of tricks from people who know how to do stuff, and it helps.

32:02 Tony:
You are a very voracious learner, and I believe that we connected through SAG-AFTRA, but I wanted to have this interview to just connect with you, celebrate your book, your movie, your writing work. But yeah, I know that I think we connected through SAG-AFTRA and that you've been a student in my classes, but how do you feel about our relationship, Karen?

32:27 Karen:
I think of it as a friendship, Tony. I rely on it. And I am so glad that I do know you. And it's all been so extremely pleasant and interesting and useful. I was just thinking the other day, you know, how one's email gets out of control. And mine is about out of control again. And I thought, “Oh, I've got to go back and look at those notes from Tony's email class,” you called email excellence?

33:04 Tony:
That's right.

33:05 Karen:
Yeah. So that I can lighten this load up again because it's such a relief when you don't feel overwhelmed by emails.

33:11 Tony:
Agreed. Well, I love what I see you doing on your website on email and social media, so bravo to you. And just bonus questions since we have the time. It really surprised me one moment in the book that you almost consider changing your name. So would you let us know what you were thinking about, and why you ultimately decided to stay as Karen Grassle?

33:33 Karen:
I was very discouraged. And I thought, maybe if I changed my name, it would change my luck. I was reading these spiritual books by Carlos Castaneda about Don Juan, who took peyote and flew through the air, and it was pretty far out.

And one of the things that he talked about was not being identified with your name. So I thought, “Ah, I'll get myself a new name.” And that'll give me some free zone, you know, so I was going to be called.

At first, I wanted to be called K. Dellinger. And that was because there was a gangster named Dillinger, and I wanted that edgy name. And then I came up with the name Gabrielle Tree. Gabrielle was to be kind of a little more exotic, a little more to the European side. And Tree was because there was a famous actor in the nineteenth century with the last name Tree. And then, in our time, there was this beautiful model, another with that last name.

So I thought, “Well, that will give, you know, the right amount of kind of British theatrical roots and glamour.” So that was going to be the name, and I actually had résumés made up with the name Gabrielle Tree.

When I got the job on Little House, Ed Friendly took me to lunch. And he said, “Now about this name. Why? Why were you changing your name?” So I went through that whole routine. And he said, “You know, I really don't think it works. And, you know, your name is Karen Grassle, and people go by their names now, you know. It's not the studio days.” And so I said, “Well, you're right,” and I kept my name, and oh, my god, I'm so grateful that I did. Can you imagine my father? He would have been so let down.

35:36 Tony:
Well, it comes up when I teach at colleges. So I hope that that is insightful information for the listener. And to bring us to a close, Karen, kind of on that note, would you look back at the age you are now and speak to yourself, when you were at that breaking point, thinking of changing your name just to, like, cause change? What advice would you give to Karen, right at that moment, when she was feeling like, “I can't get a break”?

36:01 Karen:
Well, my mother helped me then to have mental images of times when I had been successful, not necessarily in the way of, you know, a great review but in the way of feeling that my work had been good. Seeing myself and imagining myself when I was feeling good about myself. And I think having these images in our back pocket is very useful because we're all going to have ups and downs. And to be able to call up images of ourselves that we can love and that we can feel good about is really important.

36:45 Tony:
Thank you so much for being on the show, Karen, and for sharing your story and all of these amazing tips. Thank you for listening. I want to highlight just a few things that spoke to me.

We all know the impact of our specific stories and characters, but examine the impact of telling your own story, really sharing the true human experience. As Karen said, artists are advocates for social change. We help reveal the frailties and cracks in culture. And stay open to your artistry. With Karen, that was expanding from acting into activism and writing. With Roy London, that was expanding into teaching, and with myself, that was expanding into entrepreneurship, helping other artists tell their stories.

What resonated with you? I want to hear from you. Take a screenshot and share your favorite takeaway. Be sure to tag @TonyHowell and @Karen_Grassle so that we both get to see it.

You can get your copy of Bright Lights, Prairie Dust by visiting KarenGrassle.net, including details there on getting your book signed. If you have young ones, be sure to check out Storytime with Karen and, for the grown-ups, the film Not to Forget.

If you want to make this easy, click on the link right below this episode because I've gathered all of my favorite Karen Grassle media, including direct links to all the people, places, and things mentioned. If you enjoyed our conversation, leave a review on Apple podcasts. And while you're there, check out our other conversations and be sure to subscribe for next month's episode.

Thank you so much for listening. Now, go out there and use your work to change the world. Maybe you and I can have a conversation about it very soon.

On this episode of Conversations with Changemakers, we speak with Karen Grassle. Known around the world for her iconic portrayal of “Ma” on Little House on the Prairie, her new memoir, Bright Lights, Prairie Dust is now available.

During her 8 seasons on Little House, she co-created the TV movie Battered and advocated for women’s issues. Karen continues to work in major roles, including standing by on Broadway for Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave. Her most recent film, Not to Forget, is now streaming — a lighthearted family movie surrounding the issue of dementia.

Listen to this conversation to discover:

  • Why the artist has always been an advocate for social change.
  • Craft and business advice for the art of writing and on-camera acting.
  • The impact of telling your own story; truly sharing the human experience.

Click here to access bonus resources from this episode.

Connect with Karen Grassle:

Connect with Tony Howell:

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If you enjoyed this episode, leave a review on Apple Podcasts. Be sure to check out our past conversations and subscribe for next month’s special guest!

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