Garrison Keillor, far from his prairie home, draws crowds in D.C.
By Neal Justin,
ST. PAUL, MINN. — When Garrison Keillor comes to Washington, he usually carves out time to stroll through McPherson Square and visit the National Gallery. But there’s one site he has yet to visit.
“I may be one of the few people who has been to Washington 30, 40, a hundred times and I’ve never been inside the Lincoln Memorial,” said Keillor, gazing out the window of his new Twin Cities bookstore, just blocks from where he made his 1974 debut as host of “Prairie Home Companion.”
Keillor will get another chance to pay his respects to the 16th president when his radio show makes its annual pilgrimage to the Filene Center at Wolf Trap next weekend, a booking so popular it’s the only one on his multi-city tour that always merits two performances.
He fondly remembers a Wolf Trap concert from 2004, the year chirping cicadas invaded the country’s parks.
“I discovered my tinnitus, that ringing in my ear that I’ve had for 15 or 20 years, disappears when the cicadas are out,” he said in that soft-pillow voice that hangs in the air. “One man’s plague is another man’s cure.”
Keillor is puzzled by his popularity in the nation’s capital. He stopped commenting publicly on politics years ago. None of the two dozen books by his bedside broach the subject, and when asked about his favorite presidential memoir, he draws a blank.
Ann McKee, Wolf Trap’s senior vice president of programming, thinks his local success has to do with the fact that Keillor doesn’t do a highly charged political show, and that justifies opening up her season with his mix of acoustic tunes, corny jokes and good-natured storytelling.
“The stresses and pressures of being around Washington are extraordinary,” said McKee, who has been with Wolf Trap for 37 years. “I personally can’t think of any other way to better shed that tension than sitting under the stars and listening to some extraordinary wordplay and music.”
McKee said the two shows differ slightly. Friday’s performance, which will not be broadcast, tends to be looser, longer and slightly edgier than Saturday’s show, which airs across the country, because it’s not constrained by the time limits and standards of public radio.
Keillor has no plans to cut back on touring, even if it takes him away from the comforts of his home base, St. Paul’s intimate Fitzgerald Theater. Sue Scott, a regular member of the “Prairie Home Companion” family, thinks the road shows invigorate the host and the cast.
“During our six-week run in St. Paul, people will come all six weeks with their neighbors, their grandkids, their pool boy,” she said. “They’re probably our biggest fans. But they are so used to us. We don’t get that roar we get when we’re on the road.”
In fact, Keillor, who turns 70 in August, has never been busier, churning out books on a yearly basis, increasing his speaking dates and struggling to write his first play.
“I’ve never been this old in my life,” he said. “When you get to a certain age, you realize you’re not going to get anymore time than anybody else. There’s lots of things you want to do. You’ve got to step it up.”
He hummed as he strolled beneath the tin ceiling of his bookstore this month, sporting pink sneakers, thick red socks, bluejeans and a wrinkled jacket he might have just retrieved from a pile on his bedroom floor.
When a comely photographer from a local magazine showed up, Keillor suddenly transformed into a 16-year-old kid trying to get a date for the prom. When she asked him to lean forward for a portrait, he raised his bushy eyebrows.
“You want me to lean into you, young woman?” he said.
When the decision was made to clear some space for a reading later that evening, Keillor was the first to start snapping up chairs, two at a time. During sound check, he and Scott performed a hilarious sketch about the futility of a communications major. Astonishingly, the piece was completely ad-libbed.
Despite this boundless energy, don’t expect to see Keillor out and about in Washington. He’ll be holed up in his hotel room, working on the show.
“I don’t start writing until Thursday morning. Sometimes it doesn’t hit until Friday,” Keillor said. “There has to be a certain element of fear involved. The fear of shame. It’s a habit I wish I could change. If I could start on Monday, I would. Maybe I would be better.”
The reaction from diehard fans is predictable: Don’t change a thing.
Justin is a Minneapolis-based writer.
A Prairie Home Companion
Guests: Heather Masse, Sara Watkins, Michael B. Nelson, Kenni Holmen, Steve Strand Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 5:45 p.m.
Filene Center at Wolf Trap