YOU SEE HIM as soon as you come in the gate. He’s the one loitering near the stage in the wire-rimmed glasses and the floppy, wide-brimmed hat. As the Dixieland band plays just yards away, he peruses a handful of papers on which are scrawled messages like “Hello to mom from Steve in Iowa – I got the job and the cat is fine.”
Garrison Keillor is pretty much as you had imagined, except taller. He stands at least 6 feet, four inches, with legs too long for the white jeans he is wearing. Their flared bottoms ride up around the top of his hiking boots. The blue blazer and tie look perfunctory, like an adolescent’s Sunday best. Under the hat, the face is impassive, as tightly drawn and purposeful as a deacon’s. To the faithful who have journeyed here to see him in person, he is the picture of charm and grace: a spiritual leader and emcee nonpareil.
On this sunny Saturday afternoon, the sculpture garden of the Minnesota Museum of Art is at the opposite end of the world from what we have come to know as show business. This is more like a church picnic with microphones. This is Minnesota Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion, the fireside radio show that is broadcast live from downtown St. Paul every Saturday from 5-7 p.m. and for the last year carried coast to coast via National Public Radio’s satellite.
Usually this uncommon variety show is staged across the street inside an old vaudeville house called the World Theater. But on those Saturdays in the Twin Cities when it is warm and not raining, the broadcast is done from the sculpture garden, which holds no more than a few hundred people. On such days, Keillor’s flock is spread out under the trees, on blankets and in lawn chairs, sipping wine and Schmidt’s beer, digging the jazz and folk music and the host’s meandering narratives of Lake Wobegone, the little town (“that time forgot and that decades cannot improve”) that is the show’s mythical point of origin.
A visit to A Prairie Home Companion confirms the pleasantly rough-hewn quality that is borne over the airwaves. The stage is small and improvised; there are folding tables at one side piled with T-shirts and Prairie Home Companion record albums. Between numbers, the musicians mingle with members of the audience, which looks in general like what’s left of the Peace Movement.
The technical staff numbers four: two engineers seated at a mixing board in front of the stage (right under a geometric sculpture) and two stagehands to help move instruments and microphones. And there is Margaret Moos, the producer, who assists Keillor in keeping the show on schedule and who can be seen restraining overeager children from climbing onto the stage. Behind the stage looms a large banner advertising Powdermilk Biscuits (“Heavens they’re tasty!”), the imaginary product that Keillor promotes as a cure for shyness.
Keillor, 39, an admitted spokesmen for the shy and the meek among us, runs the show with deceptive ease, introducing and interviewing hammered dulcimer players, yodelers and troubadours – musicians who, with some exceptions, are not recording stars. He does so with a minimum of hokum, then takes center stage to read wry greetings and succinct personal news from listeners stretched from Boston to Berkeley. In addition, he spins his beguiling tales of Wobegonians like Barbara Ann, the restless young thing who is seeking her fortune in the big city; Margaret Haskins Durber, the florid poet laureate; and Father Emil of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Church.
On this afternoon, Keillor regales his audience with two long monologues – the first about a “cat owners support group,” organized by emotionally needy townsfolk who have abused their cats. The second is an elaborate childhood memory of walking down the streets of his hometown on summer evenings and listening to domestic dramas coming through the open windows and screen doors. It was free entertainment, he explains. Seasonal observations like this often inform the monologues. Indeed, to listen to the program is to be reminded of the annual calendar and the larger importance it once played in everyday lives.
Unlike most variety show hosts, Keillor clings to understatement, blending humor with compassion in his offbeat oral short stories. He is not a gagman. Once you have listened to his accounts of Lake Wobegone, you feel that he knows these people and cares for them as surely as Thornton Wilder knew the townsfolk in Grover’s Corners, as surely as Garry Trudeau knows the young communards at Michael Doonesbury’s Walden.
After the Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band has finished its brassy segment, Beth Adler Worley sings a Scottish chantey, which she notes is native to the Isle of Sky. A husband and wife dulcimer duo uncorks a spell-binding version of “The Ash Grove” and a medley of Christmas carols which they explain are sure-fire antidotes for the summer doldrums. There is also, as always, the Butch Thompson Trio, the show’s house band that specializes in ragtime jazz and is outfitted today in matching yellow bowling shirts. It is Thompson’s piano that is heard every week tinkling the introduction to the show’s humble theme song, “Hello, Love,” an old Hank Snow country tune that Keillor sings, approximately on key.
If you come to see the show in person you will hear an extra hour not heard on the radio. It is a preparatory hour featuring that day’s performers warming up their material, with Keillor narrating as always. Once 5 o’clock arrives, the show climbs up onto the satellite without too much ceremony, and with only a short break at the halfway point for the stations around the country to identify themselves, drifts lazily through its two hours of talk and music. As 7 o’clock approaches, Keillor sends the jazz band into a finale and stands waiting for the signal to sign off. He says simply. “Goodnight, everybody,” walks off the stage, shakes a few hands and hitches up his short pants.
Dallas Times Herald 1981