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Correction to This Article
A story on St. Paul, Minn., in the July 15 Travel section incorrectly reported the name of the Como Park Zoo.
A Companion On the Prairie
Garrison Keillor Shows Off His Home Town of St. Paul

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2001

It was a quiet week in St. Paul.

At Mickey's Diner, the talk was about Bush's tax cut for the wealthy, how the FBI can no longer hide behind Janet Reno's pantsuit, and how a waitress's father sneezed so hard that capillaries in his nose burst.

The regulars arrived at their regular times and grabbed stools at the counter. Mary the waitress automatically brought them what they wanted. Or at least it was what they'd always wanted in the past. If this one time they wanted something different, say the pork chops instead of the one-eyed jack with hash, they probably wouldn't mention it for fear of upsetting Mary.

When an elderly lady mentioned a second time that she'd like a cup of tea and a fudge sundae, Mary said, "You want two cups of tea and two fudge sundaes?" No, just one. "But you've asked for them twice. Do you want two?" Her point made, Mary then asked the woman who had been at church that Friday morning.

Every city with some authenticity left has a soul. And this railroad car diner dragged to St. Peter Street in 1939 is St. Paul's soul.

The city's spirit is a couple of blocks north, at a century-old, graciously renovated burlesque house, the Fitzgerald Theatre. On Saturday nights when Garrison Keillor and his "Prairie Home Companion" radio show are in town, people pack the theater to relive the way America used to be, and how it still is in some places. Places not far from here.

Keillor grew up in a small town 20 miles away, in what is now a St. Paul suburb, collecting material for his famed Lake Wobegon stories. Back then, St. Paul to him was just a school field trip destination.

"We'd go to the state capitol and shake hands with the governor," he said while giving me a tour of his adopted city. "Back then the governor came out and greeted every child. He didn't have much else to do.

"We'd look at some dusty old tepees at the history society, and then go to the Tacoma Park zoo and wait for monkeys to masturbate. That's what St. Paul meant to me: a jowly guy shaking hands and monkeys masturbating. It was all pretty much the same thing."

Romantic Yearning

But this is home now for Keillor, who lives with his wife, classical musician Jenny Lind Nilsson, in one of the city's splendidly preserved old homes on a bluff overlooking downtown

Keillor is notoriously wary of reporters, but I talked him into playing tour guide by leaving a message that I wanted a look at St. Paul through the eyes of someone who loved it, that I wasn't a bad sort, and that I, too, was once a strict-fundamentalist child from a small town and could harmonize. He messaged back that he "couldn't turn down a well-churched harmonizing woman."

But his real soft spot, I suspect, is St. Paul, a Midwestern city of 280,000 people with largely working-class roots, people who have struggled to invent a new economy ever since the old one died.

At Keillor's home, which is filled with books and unsullied by a decorator's hand, I arrive to find him in suit pants and white shirt, sautéing onions for chicken and risotto on a restaurant-strength stove.

Keillor, who is often compared to American humorists Mark Twain and Will Rogers, offers wine and mentions that St. Paul, and in fact Minnesota, has as much history of bootlegging as Kentucky. "We just never made a mythology of it."

He serves up what he calls his "peasant food" in his small backyard patio, clears the dishes, and we set out in his car to see the city.

Some say Keillor's Summit Hill neighborhood is the best-preserved example of 19th- and 20th-century residential architecture in America. On Summit Avenue alone, 373 grand homes survive. At least an equal number of Victorian, Queen Anne, Tudor and Georgian Revival homes grace surrounding streets.

Summit Hill is also the former home and haunt of native son F. Scott Fitzgerald. We pull up to his birthplace, a small brick apartment building. "Fitzgerald had horrible parents," says Keillor. We follow the great American novelist's chaotic childhood to one home after another -- three on Holly Street alone.

Fitzgerald's wealthy grandmother, with whom he sometimes lived, sent him away to school. He returned to St. Paul, Keillor says, "crushed, lost, failing. He'd flunked out of Princeton, which he didn't dare tell his parents. He'd had his book rejected, Zelda had left him. He came back and went on a two-week bender."

But after sobering up, Fitzgerald rewrote the rejected book, "This Side of Paradise," from the third floor of his parents' brownstone row house.

"When Fitzgerald got a letter from Matthew Perkins accepting his book, he stopped people on this street saying, 'I sold my novel,' " says Keillor. "Of course, they didn't know what he was talking about. He went on from there to his miserable life."

Keillor often sees young people wandering around the neighborhood. "You can tell they're in search of Fitzgerald," he says. "His great romantic yearning speaks to young people."

'Down to Earth and Graceful'

We drive down Western past the old Commodore Hotel, now an apartment building, where Al Capone came to rest up. John J. O'Connor, a corrupt St. Paul police chief in the early decades of the 1900s, promised safe haven to gangsters so long as they checked in, paid for the privilege and didn't commit crimes within city limits.

The story goes that St. Paul was so notorious as a gangster retreat that if a bad guy hadn't been seen in a while, people would say, "He's either in jail or St. Paul."

But our next stop, at the foot of Summit Avenue, is of a more genteel nature: the majestic Cathedral of St. Paul. Known as one of Minnesota's most outstanding buildings, the cathedral, completed in 1915, seats 3,000; its massive, 300-foot-high copper dome can be seen from most of the city.

Keillor says he can't say what he likes best about St. Paul. "I've lived here so long and accumulated so much history that it's impossible to say. But it's a particular kind of city; very down to earth and graceful."

The kind of history he's accumulated becomes clearer as we approach Union Depot, built in 1917, restored in 1983.

"My father worked the railroad mail service and rode the train out of Union Depot to Jamestown, South Dakota," Keillor says. "I took him to work sometimes. It was very exciting to pull up behind the depot and walk your father to the train. He'd carry his grip and a khaki bag on his shoulder. It was like escorting a U.S. marshal. It seemed quite an exciting life, going out on the fast train, sorting mail as you went."

We stop briefly at a statue of Fitzgerald outside downtown's Rice Park. Keillor, who seems to know as much about the writer as any university scholar, spearheaded the drive a few years ago to commemorate this native son. He insisted that the statue not be hoisted on a pedestal. It makes Fitzgerald seem accessible. He stands behind Stan the Hotdog Man's pushcart, his dress coat slung over one arm, looking as if he's ready to take on life, but is expecting disappointment.

We pass more grand old buildings: churches, the landmark St. Paul Hotel, the historic federal building. The state capitol is considered the masterpiece of architect Cass Gilbert, who also designed the U.S. Supreme Court building and, in Chicago, the famous Woolworth Building.

"We went through a horrible urban renewal in the 1960s, when a lot of magnificent things were torn down and replaced by very ugly things," says Keillor. Yet an amazing amount has survived, and differentiates St. Paul from nearby Minneapolis.

Keillor, among others, insists that Minneapolis and St. Paul really are Twin Cities. But they have so little in common, besides sharing a river and a climate, that astute observers will realize instantly that it's a Midwestern joke for the benefit of Easterners -- like saying they moved from South Dakota to St. Paul for better weather. It's similar to their having two Kansas Cities in different states, just far enough apart that if you fly into the wrong one, you have one heck of a cab fare.

The biggest difference between these supposed twins is that St. Paul, while smaller and lacking nightlife, is more beautiful, with a leisurely atmosphere that makes it feel almost Southern.

At an overlook along the Mississippi River, the city lights shimmer in the distance. But this quiet, nearly deserted spot feels otherwise rural and remote.

Tough and Tender

The next day, I strike out alone for a closer look at the city, choosing the Science Museum of Minnesota because of nearby parking. Most of the city's highlights are accessible by foot, which is fortunate because mass transit is scarce, and cabs don't cruise.

I've toured my share of science museums, and this is the best. Opened about a year ago downtown on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, the museum is part of what has resulted from the half-billion dollars invested in recent years to revitalize the city.

Perhaps my glowing review is influenced by the Grossology exhibit (go soon; it closes Sept. 4). After entering through a giant mouth, you quickly encounter a big nose dripping some of the quart of mucus that each person produces, and largely swallows, each day.

You can pump gas into a model of the human stomach with all its surrounding plumbing. Release the esophageal sphincter, and a huge human head emits a loud burp. Or climb a model of the human skin, using pimples, warts and tumors as handholds.

After an exhibit like that, who could resist lunch? I track down Mickey's Diner, in the shadow of a skyscraper. No one has bothered to renovate the place or the menu, which is its source of charm. That and the New York-style tough-and-tender waitresses.

Ask for matches -- half the customers smoke at Mickey's -- and Mary the waitress shouts down the counter, "Hey, somebody give this lady a light." The order makes you part of the scene and the conversation, which is what Mary seems to have intended.

A few blocks away, kids are pressing paper at the Children's Museum, operating cranes to load a conveyor belt, and playing around an elaborate water tank with locks and pipes and a waterwheel.

"This teaches how water runs through the Mississippi; it teaches gravity, energy, cause and effect," says a museum curator. Then, being a Midwesterner, she smiles at herself and adds, "Whether they're really getting any of that, we have no idea. But they like playing in the water."

The streets feel oddly empty for a workday. Yet it's not scary, as are empty streets in places like Detroit, because of the skywalks overhead. People apparently get used to using the skywalks during winter, and forget to alter their routines on warm summer days. But like guardian angels, they hover overhead.

It's something of a walk to the state capitol, which features a domed rotunda, much like the U.S. Capitol. It even faces a grassy mall with a pool of water partway down the stretch. It's as if the people of St. Paul had aspirations to become a federal city, then changed their minds or lost hope and elected Jesse Ventura as governor.

Just off the mall stands a memorial to the Minnesotans who served in Vietnam. As in Washington, the St. Paul memorial is made of polished black stone, engraved with the names of those who died -- average age 19. But facing the memorial is a statue of a simple frame house whose shadow reflects off the wall -- a reminder that each death of a local boy ended not in the fields and marshes of Vietnam, but with a knock on the door of a Minnesota home.

One Last Gasp of Joy

It's a good idea to wear yourself out walking all day in St. Paul, because if the concert hall and theaters are dark and the new NHL expansion team isn't playing, you might just as well have dessert along Grand Avenue and go to bed.

For that reason, it's best to plan ahead for a St. Paul visit for a time when something is going on at night. This summer, that time would be the 12 days before Labor Day, when the Minnesota State Fair enlivens the city.

Fans of "A Prairie Home Companion" should visit St. Paul when the show is in town. I caught the last home show of the season during my June visit. But it will return Oct. 6, along with its traditional first-show block party, with beer and meatloaf dinners and bands and dancing in the street -- one last gasp of joy before winter sets in, if it hasn't already by then.

My second day in town, I drive 15 minutes to Fort Snelling. An outpost of the Northwest Frontier in the days when St. Paul was still called Pig's Eye Landing, the fort sits high on a bluff over the Mississippi.

Most days, 25 paid re-enactors imitate a typical day in 1827, when soldiers protected the fur trade and kept the Dakota and Ojibwa tribes from fighting or joining the British.

But today, hundreds of Civil War re-enactors are remembering how Minnesota, despite being a new state, offered up the Union's first regiment. On this day, a second regiment is being recruited so that the first can rush off to be slaughtered at Bull Run.

The stubborn bravery of Minnesota troops -- plus the bright red shirts they wore into battle -- resulted in high casualty rates. Minnesotans are understandingly proud of a rare moment of triumph, when a Minnesota private captured the flag of Virginia Confederates at Gettysburg. Virginia wants it back, but the history museum in St. Paul intends to keep it.

History is a big thing in St. Paul, and I take advantage of it through another outing, at the Wabasha Street Caves.

Miners seeking sand for making glass dug out the massive network of caves into the side of a mountain. In 1933, an entrepreneur built a thriving nightclub inside the caves. Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway and other famous musicians and their big bands performed for the likes of John Dillinger in the club, which was the first in the United States to gets its liquor license after Prohibition. Today, the caves are for tours and private receptions except on Thursday nights and one Saturday a month, when adults and kids come to swing dance. Bus tours of gangster sites and haunted houses leave from the caves daily.

'Home' at Last

That afternoon, people snake in a long line around the Fitzgerald Theatre, hoping to snag the $10 "rush tickets" that sell last-minute for "A Prairie Home Companion." One older couple has come from Wisconsin to celebrate their anniversary. A college-age girl said her family used to listen to the show every Sunday after church when she was small; now she waits in line every week the show's in town.

Three million people tune in to the show each week. But seeing it live is different. Keillor, it turns out, is a showman, not just a voice. He has an expressive, almost elastic, face. He moves around the stage with a physical grace, giving an occassional twist or dance step that you wouldn't expect from such a tall man.

Tonight's Lake Wobegon tale -- inspired in part by a scene that intern Hillary Rhodes witnessed on a recent road trip to nearby towns -- is a story of graduation. It leads with the valedictorian's proud father up front trying to get his new camera working, and with an audience that becomes so fascinated by his trouble that they ignore his daughter in her moment of glory.

As you listen to the story that captures life in America as it used to be, it's nice to know that the inspiration for the tale happened just miles from here, just the other day.

Details: St. Paul

GETTING THERE: Minneapolis/St. Paul is a hub for Northwest Airlines, which has nonstop flights from all three Washington area airports. Sun Country has nonstops from Dulles, and most major airlines offer connecting service. Discounted fares start at about $220.

WHERE TO STAY: The St. Paul Hotel (350 Market St., 800-292-9292) is a National Historic Trust property that has hosted gangsters and J. Edgar Hoover alike, given Lawrence Welk his start, and is generally considered the city's premier hotel. Rates begin at $109 weekends, $189 weekdays. Prices at the Chatworth Bed & Breakfast (984 Ashland, 651-227-4288) in the Summit Hill neighborhood range from $90 to $155.

WHERE TO EAT: W.A. Frost & Co. (374 Selby Ave.; entrees $17 to $38) was once a drugstore where F. Scott Fitzgerald sipped Cokes. It's now an upscale continental restaurant with a lovely outdoor dining area.Garrison Keillor calls the Zander Cafe (525 Selby Ave.) "just a storefront, but one of the best restaurants in St. Paul." Every entree is $15, and the menu depends on available fresh ingredients. For steak and chops, consider the St. Paul Grill (350 Market St.; entrees $20-$30). For fresh and enticing cafeteria-style dining, including incredible desserts, try Cafe Latte (850 Grand Ave.). Soups, salads and sandwiches start at about $4. Don't miss Mickey's Diner (Ninth and St. Peter, dinner entrees $5-$10, sandwiches $2 and up).

ATTRACTIONS: Walking tours of Summit Avenue, 651-297-2555; Science Museum of Minnesota, 120 W. Kellogg Blvd., 651-221-9444; Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., 800-657-3773; Wabasha Street Caves, 215 Wabasha St., 651-292-1220; Padelford Packet Boat Co. for Mississippi River tours, Harriet Island, 651-227-1100; Minnesota Children's Museum, Seventh and St. Peter, 651-225-6000; Farmer's Market, 290 E. Fifth St., 651-227-8101.

THEATERS: Fitzgerald Theatre, 10 E. Exchange St., 651-290-1221; Ordway Music Theatre, 345 Washington St., 651-282-3000; Great American History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., 651-292-4323; Park Square Theater Co., with a six-play season, 408 St. Peter St., 651-291-7005.

"PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION": For tickets and show times, sign on at www.prairiehome.org or call 651-290-1221. The show airs on Washington's WETA-FM(90.9), Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m. About 500 other stations are listed on the Web site.

INFORMATION: St. Paul Convention and Visitors Bureau, 175 W. Kellogg, 651-265-4900.

Fitzgerald Sites Around St. Paul

Fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald who wish to be beaten ceaselessly into the past can stroll the bluffs of Summit Hill and walk in his steps. Following are some of his haunts, most still occupied and without plaques.

• Birthplace: 481 Laurel.

• Other childhood residences: 499 Holly, 509 Holly and 514 Holly, and at homes of his grandmother, Louisa McQuillan, at 623 Summit and 294 Laurel.

• Home where he wrote "This Side of Paradise": 599 Summit Ave.

• Homes shared with his wife, Zelda: 626 Goodrich, and the former Commodore Hotel, 79 Western.

• Favorite drinking haunt: University Club, 420 Summit.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company