& Free Trip to Margaritaville
Wendi Lou Lee isn’t sure what she actually remembers about portraying Baby Grace Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. Some things are true memories, while others are recollections from watching the show on television and from hearing her mother reminisce. Wendi and her identical twin sister, Brenda Weatherby, were cast in the role when they were six months old and played BabyGrace for four years, appearing in seasons five through eight. Wendi, married to Josh Lee and the mother of a son(Tobey, 15) and a daughter (Reagan, 13) recently came to the area to visit her parents, Curt and Jackie Juchniewicz, who are Willis residents, and to promote Wendi’s book, A Prairie Devotional. Wendi, warm and unpretentious, took time from her whirlwind schedule to visit with the Postcards team.
How did you and Brenda land the role of Baby Grace?
My grandmother and Sue McCray, the casting director, were long-time friends. They were having lunch one day, and Sue said they were having the hardest time finding twin girls to play Baby Grace. They didn’t have a single set who were blond, blue-eyed, and the right age. My grandmother was like, “Are you joking me? Have you forgotten that Jackie has twin girls?” She sent a snapshot to Kent McCray, the executive producer. He sent it to Michael Landon, who said, “Bring them in.” My mom hauled us over to NBC and he said, “Those are my girls.” It fell into our laps.
Why did twins play Baby Grace?
We could only work four hours a day because of child labor laws. Two of those are dressing room and makeup hours, so it’s really only two hours a day. With twins, they can double that time. We switched out all the time. We had different personalities that were used for different things. I usually got the crying scenes, because I was the shy one. Maybe they trusted Brenda a little bit more if they had to have an exact thing happen. There’s a scene where Baby Grace kisses a little boy. I never would have done that.
What are some of your memories?
I remember waking up, it being dark outside, and getting in the car with our blankets and pillows, and walking into the studio. There were donut boxes everywhere. What kid wouldn’t remember that? We didn’t have lines. We just got to be kids. It was the best atmosphere. When it was time to work, they expected a lot, but when we would break, they would play practical jokes on each other. Michael Landon would put a frog in his mouth and he would open his mouth and a frog would jump out. A lot of those child actors went to other sets, and they said nothing was like Little House.
Did you leave acting after Little House?
When Little House was over, we got called for our first audition for a McDonald’s commercial. The producer showed us a picture of Ronald McDonald. We didn’t even know who he was. We had never eaten at McDonald’s, ever! We did a commercial for a bank on the east coast that was advertising telephone banking. It was the new thing. The commercial showed the mom trying to do her telephone banking, and the kids were being too loud. We were dressed as little cowgirls. A set of boy twins were dressed like Indians. We were chasing the Indians, and the mom was like, “I can’t do my telephone banking!” That was our first and last commercial. They didn’t know our names and didn’t care if we were tired or hungry. My mom said, “We are not doing this.”
Do you regret her decision?
In the moment, it was kind of fun, but my mom gave us such a gift to be normal kids. We did that commercial and we went to kindergarten. I see it as a total blessing.
Have people always remembered you as Baby Grace?
Nobody really knew until we were in the sixth grade. We got to see Michael Landon on the set of Highway to Heaven. He sent us home with crew jackets, and he signed them. We wore them to school, and then it came out. Then, 15 years ago, we met the cast of Little House. I was pregnant with my son, and I thought, “Now when I’m elephant-sized pregnant?” Alison Arngrim (Nellie) said, “Oh, my goodness, Baby Grace is having a baby.” They hadn’t seen us since we were five. Little House had been in hibernation, then suddenly became an amazing part of our lives. We went to Tombstone, Arizona for a western festival. It was in the middle of summer, and literally 500 people were waiting to meet us. Signing autographs is completely surreal. You are totally treated like royalty, but when it’s over, you are cleaning your toilets and doing the dishes.
Why do you think Little House remains popular?
I think it’s the wholesome, family values. The Ingalls family went through hardship after hardship but kept their faith in God. NowUPtv shows two or three episodes every weekday. It’s on the Hallmark Channel and Amazon Prime. You can stream it anytime. There’s this new generation of viewers who are loving Little House. It’s amazing.
Please tell us about your health struggles.
All of a sudden in 2015 I was feeling terrible, with excruciating headaches and dizziness. I was very forgetful and had mental confusion. I would walk on the sidewalk and fall off the curb. I went to my doctor, but it took her six weeks to finally order a brain scan. She said, “People come to my office with headaches, and they think they have a brain tumor, but 99 percent of the time that’s not the case.” Six weeks go by. It’s getting worse and worse. One day, I was at work sitting at my desk, and I fell out of my chair. I didn’t think it was possible. I went in the next day, and my doctor put in an order for the brain scan.
How did you react to the results?
My doctor said, “You have an abnormal growth in your brain, I’m so sorry.” I wasn’t really scared. I was just relieved because the pain was so bad, I couldn’t imagine living the rest of my life with that. When I found out there was a reason, it wasn’t really great news, but it was an answer. Eleven days later I had surgery in Santa Barbara.
After surgery, the tumor was sent to Mayo to determine if it was benign or malignant. I don’t think I would have fared so well if I hadn’t had my faith to hold on to. Praise God the tumor came back benign.
People think I am crazy because I say it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It totally changed the trajectory of my life. Anybody who goes through something really, really hard is going to give up, or they are going to hold onto faith. I have never been closer to Godin my life. Who doesn’t love that feeling? Tragedy is sometimes that refiner’s fire. It changes your perspective and allows you to do what you wish you had done all along. With God all things are possible. He gave me the confidence to use my experience for good.
When did you start writing?
Shortly after my diagnosis, somebody told me I should start a blog to update, my friends and family. Writing was therapeutic for me. I kept it raw and real. I was writing all the time, every day leading up to my surgery and in my recovery room after surgery. My husband would take my laptop away from me and say, “You have to sleep!” I kept it up for about six months and decided to stop, but then I felt like the life was draining out of me. That’s when I started thinking, “I wonder if I could write a book.” I was afraid to say it out loud because I didn’t want to fail. But I sensed that God was putting a book in my future. I went to a writer’s conference and everything changed.
The last night of the conference I met a woman. Somehow it came up that I was Baby Grace. She said, “I am a total Little House fan.” Her name was MacKenzie, and she worked for Harper Collins. I told her I was working on a memoir. She said, “I wish I could help you, but I am a devotional gift book publisher.” When you go to a writer’s conference, you have a back-pocket idea. I said, “I actually have this idea about a devotional for Little House fans based on quotes from the show.” She loved it. So, I left the conference with the job of writing three samples to send to her. She did her editing magic, and I wrote the rest of them based on her formula. There is a quote from the show and a story, from life or from the set, that gives the quote context. Then it ends with a Bible verse. There are 91 devotionals with wood grain sketches by Steven Noble.
I have a couple of ideas: girls’ devotionals and mothers’ devotionals. I also have another memoir-ish book about what God has taught me. We will see what happens!
What are your favorite Bible verses?
Romans 15:13 and Philippians 3:10.
What is your advice to people who are going through tough times?
When you are gripped by fear when you feel like it is more than you can take, hold on to your faith or go searching to find faith in Jesus because faith silences fear.
For more information, visit wendiloulee.com.