Garrison Keillor hosted his show, A Prairie Home Companion, for 42 years.
One of the most prolific American storytellers of all time, Garrison Keillor is a writer and humorist, and the founder and host of his popular live radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion, which attracts more than 4 million listeners on more than 600 public radio stations each week.
Keillor is also the host of the daily radio and online program, The Writers Almanac, and the editor of several anthologies of poetry, most recently, Good Poems: American Places. A best-selling author, he has published more than two dozen books, including Lake Wobegon Days, The Book of Guys, Pilgrims, Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny and Homegrown Democrat. In 2006, Keillor played himself alongside a cast that included Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and Kevin Kline, in the critically acclaimed film adaptation of A Prairie Home Companion, directed by Robert Altman.
With Grammy, ACE and George Foster Peabody awards, Keillor has also been honored with the National Humanities Medal, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
A Prairie Home Companion is now in it’s final season.
It somehow just seems right the last A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor will be heard tonight, on this weekend of flags, parades, and lemonade stands. The show was recorded last night at the Hollywood Bowl.
The first Prairie Home Companion was in 1974, and all of us who share this sliver on the radio spectrum know we wouldn’t be in business if Garrison Keillor hadn’t made a new thing called public radio truly sing.
The idea must have sounded a little dubious even back in the brash 1970s, a weekly radio show with folkies, fiddles and drawn-out stories with no apparent punch-line, set in a small town that comes into being for just a few minutes each week.
“Thank goodness Minnesota Public Radio was too poor to afford good advice,” Garrison Keillor once recollected. “We only did it because we knew it would be fun to do. It was a dumb idea. I wish I knew how to be that dumb again.”
I wish I did, too.
Prairie Home Companion, PowderMilk Biscuits, the Whippets, Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, Norwegian bachelor farmers, and the News from Lake Wobegon have always seemed to me to be pretty sharp and sophisticated comedy, cloaked in small-town manners.
The Lake Wobegon that Garrison Keillor has brought to life and built word by word, in millions of imaginations, is not a rustic refuge from the modern world. It has been gentle, but edgy, midwestern, but not middlebrow, calm but scarcely dull. People get sick, grow scared, pass through, and pass away in Lake Wobegon, to live on in stories.
“For me, the monologue was the favorite thing,” Garrison once said. “It was based on writing, but in the end it was radio, it was standing up and leaning forward into the dark and talking, letting words come out of you.”
Maybe because his monologues played with words, mind, and voice, they reminded us that life is a fleeting flicker of light in that darkness, and the only real legacy we’ll have is in memories.
For 42 years, Prairie Home Companion and Garrison Keillor’s monologues have turned radio from a medium some considered to be faintly old-fashioned into a new form—an art, I’ll even dare to say—of telling a story that a new generation downloads today.
In a line of work that always looks for what’s flashy and new, Garrison Keillor created a rare thing out of the radio waves that skip through the air and disappear into the night: something that endures.
ST. PAUL, MINN. — Garrison Keillor was riding shotgun in a rented Chevy, motoring east through the steamy Midwestern heat.
His linen suit was appropriately rumpled — everything about this public radio legend suggests disregard for crisp lines — and his gangly legs were jacked up against the glove box, as he resisted suggestions to slide his seat back. Hitching a ride with a reporter from Minneapolis to his home here, he filled the yawning silences with a weird little singsong, “bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp.”
He had just spent hours rehearsing for the following night, May 21, when he hosted “A Prairie Home Companion,” at the State Theater in Minneapolis, before a packed, adoring crowd for the last time.
After more than four decades of hosting this homespun Americana musical variety program, which he created and which, in turn, created him, Mr. Keillor is retiring. He has done this before, in 1987, though that retirement ended up being a sabbatical. In 2011, there were rumors — baseless, Mr. Keillor’s people said — that he was thinking of abandoning ship then, too.
But this time, Mr. Keillor, 73, said he means it. He has named a successor and lined up meaty post-“Prairie” projects, among them columns for The Washington Post, a screenplay and a book. While he has a solo tour planned through the year, along with a “Prairie”-esque Labor Day weekend show at the Minnesota State Fair, he will host his final official “Prairie Home Companion” on July 1 at, of all places, the Hollywood Bowl.
“It’s very much real, and it’s simply a matter of wanting to rearrange one’s life,” Mr. Keillor said after we had arrived at his large, handsome Georgian house, and he had eased his stooping 6-foot-4 frame into a porch chair. “In order to do these things, I’ve got to clear out the big buffalo in the room, which is the show.”
At his home, Mr. Keillor looms, a melancholy presence, and doesn’t make much eye contact, keeping his bespectacled eyes averted under scraggly eyebrows. Rather than savor the conversation, he seems to cordially endure it. His mellifluous voice, likened to a down comforter or “a slow drip of Midwestern molasses,” feels warmly familiar to any public radio listener who has heard him sing “Tishomingo Blues,” which opens his show each Saturday evening.
Yet as familiar and cherished as “Prairie” has become to millions, it was always about Mr. Keillor’s fascinations, rather than the inner tickings of its host.
“It was never about self expression, never,” Mr. Keillor said.
Everything about “Prairie Home” — the Guy Noir and Lives of the Cowboys sketches, the spots for Powdermilk Biscuits and the Ketchup Advisory Board, the monologues about the fictional Lake Wobegon — sprang from Mr. Keillor’s imagination. But the man spinning the plates at the center of it all managed to stay a mystery, even to people who know him well.
“Garrison in person is quite different,” said his longtime friend, the writer Mark Singer. “Garrison does not express emotion in interpersonal conversations the way the rest of us do.”
Performers often cultivate alternate personas, but with Mr. Keillor the difference is startling. That night, onstage in Minneapolis, he was garrulous and affable, and afterward ventured out onto the sidewalk to meet his hundreds-strong admirers, many of whom feel they know him intimately.
Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” signed off the air for good on Saturday evening, after 42 seasons, as millions of listeners, many in their cars on a holiday weekend, tuned in via public radio.
With the exception of a telephone call from President Obama, the show, which was recorded Friday at the Hollywood Bowl in front of 18,000 people, ambled along the way it always has. There were pretty country-folk songs; an ad for Powdermilk Biscuits; a clippety-clop “Lives of the Cowboys” skit; a heartfelt version of “Every Time We Say Goodbye.”
The phone call was telling. The self-effacing Mr. Keillor refused to allow the conversation to be about himself. He praised Mr. Obama’s “dignity and wit and humor” and the fact he’d “never had an awkward moment in all these years.” When the president was finally allowed to speak about Mr. Keillor, he said, “One of the reasons I miss driving is that you kept me company.” “A Prairie Home Companion,” he said, “made me feel better and more human.” Mr. Keillor responded with awkward silence.
The segment of the show that promised a bit of stronger emotional drama was Mr. Keillor’s final monologue, his concluding “News from Lake Wobegon.” And it delivered, in its way, by not trying too hard to deliver. It was, to borrow words the former New York Times critic Anatole Broyard once used to describe a middling Philip Roth novel, “reasonably funny, reasonably sad, reasonably interesting.”
If that sounds dismissive, it’s not meant to be. Mr. Keillor has always worn his storytelling gifts casually. Here, he seemed to take a page from “Pontoon” (2007), one of his Lake Wobegon novels, in which he wrote, “You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories.”
Mr. Keillor liked to say that his fictional town’s name, Wobegon, comes from an also fictional Indian word that means “the place where we waited all day in the rain [for you].” His final monologue was 17 minutes long and opened with a hymn to rain. About sunny days, he asked, “How many do we deserve?” As a boy, he said, sunny days meant ruined days. He’d have to go dig potatoes or play softball, for which he had no talent. How much more blissful to be indoors with an adventure novel.
Mr. Keillor described a sun-filled day, even as the talk moved into the shadows. This monologue was a ghost tour, a rumination on impermanence. The narrator walked through his hometown and commented: “When you’ve lived in one place for so long, you go back and you are in a museum. Everywhere you go, there are the dead.”