MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — “A Prairie Home Companion” has been a staple in millions of homes across the country for four decades. Garrison Keillor enters his last season as host of the long-running live radio show.
The 73-year-old entertains an audience at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul — and listeners on American Public Media — with stories of Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
WCCO’s Jennifer Mayerle sat down with Keillor to talk about his career, and saying so long to the mythical Minnesota town.
“You want to work to a dark house,” Keillor explained. “I don’t want people to feel that they’re visible. I want them to feel anonymous out there.”
Every Saturday, people pack the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul to be entertained by the creative brilliance of Keillor. The host of the long-running “A Prairie Home Companion” warms up the audience before the live radio show begins.
As if it’s scripted, each week a hush moves across the crowd, and then cheers from the audience as Keillor says, “Coming to you live from the Fitzgerald Theater.”
He has delivered the news from Lake Wobegon for 41 years.
“It’s about half my life,” Keillor said.
The mythical central Minnesota town became a gateway to memorable characters.
“It’s a place where people have a sardonic sense of humor,” Keillor said. “We believe that nobody is better than anybody else.”
And it’s how many across the country came to know the star of the North.
“Some people know Minnesota as the place Bob Dylan comes from, Prince,” Keillor said.
“You would be the other name that would go right along with those of how people know Minnesota,” Mayerle responded.
“I don’t know, I don’t know. You wish that people would see the state and could see the beauty of a flat place. People have such a limited idea of what is beautiful. That’s the part of Minnesota I direct people toward,” Keillor said.
Keillor grew up in Anoka, and was an avid reader. He began writing at a young age. By 13, his sports stories were published in the local newspaper. He went on to attend the University of Minnesota, where Keillor began his radio career. It continued to blossom when he became host of a Minnesota Public Radio morning show. The first broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” came in 1974.
“Before I started doing the show, I was young and restless and spent Saturday nights by myself, reading books and writing, and so this became my social life,” Keillor explained.
The public sees Keillor in his signature red socks and his gregarious, sometimes quirky, personality on stage.
“The person off stage is quieter. I can go for long periods of time without saying anything. I could demonstrate that right now,” Keillor joked.
“We might be in trouble with the interview,” Mayerle said.
The married father finds mornings at home a favorite time to be alone with his thoughts.
“I’d be sitting at a laptop on a very big desk full of stuff and I would be working on a novel,” Keillor said.
He begins his process of writing “A Prairie Home Companion” on Thursday.
“I work at the last minute and I wish that I didn’t. Because I’m a writer and writers need to revise and there’s no time for that with this show,” Keillor said.
Keillor admits he rarely remembers the show.
“We do the show and by Sunday morning I’ve forgotten most of it,” Keillor said. Or if he followed the script in his head, “you get over the fear in time that you may forget. You invented this story so you can make up something to replace what you made up before.”
“‘The women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average.’ Can you talk about that?” Mayerle asked.
“It was a lucky line that came to me way back when I started doing the news from Lake Wobegon,” Keillor said. “Ending a story is something writers agonize over. What’s your ending? If you have a standing ending, it solves everything. The other problem is: What’s your first line? ‘It’s been a quiet week on Lake Wobegon.’ So you’ve got the beginning, you’ve got the end, and everything suddenly becomes a great deal simpler.”
And now it’s his farewell from “A Prairie Home Companion” that Keillor has begun to script. The variety show transitioned through the years, and with it, the audience grew to more than 4 million loyal listeners.
“What made now the right time to announce retirement?” Mayerle asked.
“You don’t want to wait until people are like dropping hints, you know, like concrete blocks. You want to do it on your own steam,” Keillor said.
Keillor confesses what has constantly kept him going. He strives for a standard that he can never achieve.
“Is there a moment when you realized this show was a success?” Mayerle asked.
“No, the show’s never been a success,” Keillor responded.
“What would you call it then?” Mayerle asked.
“Persistent,” Keillor said.
Even as he looks toward retirement, Keillor has no plans of slowing down. He’s writing a Lake Wobegon screenplay that he’d like to have shot in Minnesota.
He’ll stay on as executive producer of “A Prairie Home Companion” when Chris Thile takes over next year. And he’ll continue the Writer’s Almanac and his one-man show. The last “Prairie Home” show with Keillor as host will come in July 2016.
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