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Constant Companion

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 1998

  Style Showcase


    Garrison Keillor Garrison Keillor rehearses at the last minute. (Janet Jarman/For The Washington Post)
AUSTIN, Tex.—Russ Ringsak, trucker, lapsed architect, wise man, backs the 48-foot Ryder rig into the loading dock and checks off another thousand-mile trek on a never-ending journey through the American imagination. Last week, St. Paul; this week, Austin; next week, Durango, Colo.

The truck arrives Thursday night, with only Ringsak aboard. A weathered fellow with long, stringy gray hair, mischievous squinting eyes and an impressive tattoo of a wolf spread across his shoulder, the trucker is advance man and scout for this weekly vestige of live radio, Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion."

It's been nearly a quarter-century now since Keillor began to report the news from Lake Wobegon, play music you can't hear on the radio, and recall for listeners the stories of the home town they remember fondly, yet have never set foot in.

Every summer Keillor takes his public radio variety show to college auditoriums and faceless civic centers and grand old theaters in small towns and big cities, to audiences of graying hippies and proper, silver couples, graduate students and young professionals.

The tall, reluctant man whose tales have changed the way many parents tell their kids stories doesn't join his cast and crew until less than 24 hours before show time. Keillor stays home, deep in composition, the ingredients of each week's monologue shifting in his mind as the hours slip toward Saturday at 5, the moment the satellite sends "Prairie Home" to 433 stations and 2.5 million listeners.

But from early Friday morning, when the stage crew unloads the truck, sets up the broadcast equipment and builds the Victorian house facade and front porch that form the backdrop for the show, the "Prairie Home" staff is scrambling.

And Ringsak is mainly out and about, soaking up local color. He writes up his observations for Keillor, who rarely witnesses any more local color than reaches the confines of his hotel room.

dingbat

"'Prairie Home Companion'? Does anyone still listen to that?"
– a skeptical, weary Washington Post editor

It's Friday at 4, the scheduled read-through of this week's sketches is postponed for lack of cast or script, and no one seems remotely perturbed.

Somewhere in the sky over Middle America, Keillor writes furiously on a laptop. "I like to write on planes," he says. He's been thinking about his monologue since midweek, but nothing's jelled yet. "I have two or three disparate strands bouncing around and I don't know if they're going to fit together."

In a way unique to radio, "Prairie Home" is the reflection of a single imagination. The show is Keillor, a single, hesitant voice that ranges from a thin upper register to a baritone rumble. But in another way, it is a theatrical extravaganza. It takes 17 people, a semi full of crates, five Oriental rugs, a cardboard box full of gravel and coconut shells, and assorted bands, writers, producers and stagehands to put "Prairie Home Companion" on the air each week. And it is another member of the Keillor clan who is in charge here.

While the elder Keillor, now 55, struggles somewhere over the Midwest to summon stories from his increasingly thin memories of a Minnesota youth, his son Jason, the "Prairie Home" stage manager, declares the set ready.

"I was born and bred to be on the show," says the younger Keillor, who discusses his father with a mix of pride and resentment. "When my parents divorced in '76, I only saw my dad on weekends, so I'd get picked up on Friday and spend the weekend with the show." At 9, Jason was making popcorn and selling concessions; at 16, he was typing scripts. Now, at 29, he directs traffic onstage, records some sound effects and on his own writes some prose – but not for publication.

The son is slightly testy about his father. "My dad's books – I read about halfway and put them down," he says. "I'm different. Garrison works too much. I aspire to be a man of leisure." But they share the show. They live for Saturdays at 5.

"I love the medium of radio," he says. "It's something from my childhood, and I love the idea that 3,000 people will get on their feet shouting for something that 3 million people are listening to on the radio."

The father, so dour, so doubting about himself and his creation, seems far more ambivalent about the show and its following. Keillor silenced "Prairie Home" in 1987, closed up shop and moved to Copenhagen to live with wife number two, a Dane he'd first met when she was a high school exchange student in his home town of Anoka, Minn. Two years later, Keillor was back on the air. Now, happy with wife number three and an infant daughter, he talks about continuing well into the new century, but there is more than a little reluctance in his voice.

If in the mid-1980s "Prairie Home" was attracting an audience of nearly 5 million listeners and Keillor was on the cover of Time, hailed as some kind of new American bard, these days the show and its father are content to be what they are – a live oasis in the arid, canned soundscape of radio, a slow, gentle, acoustic show in an era of frenzied, electric entertainment spectaculars.

"There's no buzz about the show whatsoever," Keillor says, "and that's actually much better for the audience and, God knows, for me. It's not a steppingstone to anything."

"Prairie Home" is a constant, a standby, a dependable. It is one of public radio's biggest moneymakers, lagging behind only "Car Talk" and "Marketplace" in its ability to wrangle contributions from listeners. It is a ratings powerhouse, the flagship of an American subculture, far outdrawing Keith Olbermann's nightly scandal wrap-up on MSNBC, sometimes matching the audience of Fox's Saturday baseball Game of the Week.

"Prairie Home" has become a neighborhood of the air, an answer to an American desire to fence off a small portion of the cultural landscape as a refuge from the coarseness, cynicism and irony that are postmodern life. Keillor's America is one of jokes you can tell your kids, and camp songs and sing-alongs and "Talent From Towns Under 2,000," of fiddlers, polka dancers, rockabilly bands, jazz trios and classical cellists, poets and playwrights, accordionists and humorists, and radio men such as sturdy storyteller Studs Terkel and the dazzling and dependable sound effects guy Tom Keith.

dingbat

Producer Christine Tschida's instructions to freelance writers who hope to get their material on the show: "Garrison does almost everything himself. If he uses a couple of your ideas, you probably won't recognize them. Don't give us anything to do with pop culture because Garrison won't know who you're talking about. The man does not watch TV."

At 6:30 p.m. Friday, Keillor walks in directly from the airport, his lanky, slightly stooped body shrouded in a heavily wrinkled black suit, his long feet exposed by Birkenstock sandals. He is unshaven, harried from travel, heavy of brow, utterly without pleasantries.

He steps to stage front and addresses the show's house musicians, the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band: "I want to try to bash together something I put together this morning, kind of a rockabilly thing." Keillor snaps a disk out of his laptop, an aide prints out the lyrics, and less than five minutes after he set foot in the building, Keillor and the band are creating a song from three pages of verse.

I was a friend of Willie and Waylon
When they were into tennis and sailin'
And sang in the Kingston Trio with Pat Boone . . .

The band seems stumped at first. "Let's just do it," Keillor says. "All things will become clear when we put our fingers on the strings. It's the Doing System. Learning by doing."

Guy's band is, as Keillor says, "like the bomber crew in an old war movie: an Upper West Side New York violinist, a St. Paul Jewish pianist, a New York Irish-Italian drummer, a St. Paul Irish guitarist and a German bass player." Under the direction of piano man Rich Dworsky – who looks like a cross between Larry of the Three Stooges and a mad genius from a Terry Gilliam movie – the band does the impossible every week, turning Keillor's last-minute lyrics into song and filling the show with driving jazz, familiar standards and exquisite solos.

In a Sears plastic shopping bag nearly translucent with age, Dworsky carries the band's enormous repertoire. But right now, sheet music won't help. Instead, the band has had to meld minds with Keillor, concocting music from lyrics he sends by e-mail or fragments he sings to Dworsky over the phone.

Writer and band push through the song a couple of times and, suddenly, Keillor is distracted by the vision of a blue sky that has been projected on a screen behind the Victorian house set. "I think with that backdrop I should start the show by coming out and singing 'Oklahoma,' " he says. Just like that, musicians scramble for charts for the old show tune. In 22 hours, Keillor will indeed greet Austin with a medley of tunes from "Oklahoma" to "God Bless America."

Less than an hour after he arrives, Keillor and the band finish a run-through of another number and the host says, "So, I'll see you in a bit," and off he goes, to the Marriott.

The "Prairie Home" staff is fiercely protective of Keillor, eager to explain to outsiders why he seems distant, grumpy, even rude.

"You see, he's always writing in his head, so anytime you're talking to Garrison, you're interrupting his writing," says Katy Reckdahl, the show's marketing director.

At the hotel, in Room 1402, at 7:35, actor Tim Russell, sound effects man Keith, Dworsky, Tschida and assorted others gather for their first look at the sketches, ad parodies and other bits Keillor has written on the plane. The host orders a few bottles of wine and some hummus appetizers. "I met Anita Hill on the plane," he says. "She said she listens to our show. Made my day."

Quickly, the actors try out the bits, including a "Lives of the Cowboys" sketch in which a renegade is lynched by being locked in the outhouse with the works of Thomas Pynchon, an ad for ketchup in which a husband and wife rediscover love and the simple life by forsaking seven kinds of salsa and coming home to "ketchup on a piece of white bread," and an ad for Bebopareebop Rhubarb Pie in which Keith will bark like a dog, screech like a grackle, squeak like a bat, yell like a mob of teenagers and rumble like a pack of Harley-Davidsons.

The rehearsal is over in 35 minutes. Keillor – who neither laughs nor smiles at his own scripts – offers water and appetizers, then adds, "Care for a social moment?"

The cast stands about awkwardly for a few minutes, but before long, Keith is leading them in an effort to recite the word "spam" in the voices of as many animals as possible. Horse, bird, dog, whale, walrus . . . Now, Keillor chuckles heartily.

Before 9, they break up. "I might write something new," Keillor says as his guests file out.

dingbat

"I've been all over America, but I haven't seen that much. What I know are hotels, club sandwiches and deadlines."
– Garrison Keillor

Saturday begins with bad news. One of the three musical guests, Texas singer Don Walser, has canceled because of laryngitis. At the morning production meeting, Tschida is unfazed. The show always has too much material anyway.

Producers and stage crew are taken aback, however, by another bit of news: Keillor has let it be known he wants to use the stage curtain. Everything the crew set up on Friday – mike stands, monitors, cables – must be moved back.

Back at the Marriott, Keillor writes his monologue. "The News From Lake Wobegon," a staple of the show's second hour, runs 15 to 25 minutes and is delivered without script, just Keillor on a stool, facing the audience, occasionally closing his eyes to summon the story.

He looks as if he is spinning the tale as he speaks, but in fact he has written the story out at least twice, sometimes more. It is the hardest part of the show, and the most important.

"With this show," Keillor says, "you're writing in these several different veins – a song lyric, some commercials, each with its own distinct form, and then you get this little odd, off-balance prelude, and then there's the News From Lake Wobegon. It's all you can do to get the stuff to come out decent, just to try not to be fatuous and dorky. And try to make the News From Lake Wobegon as faithful as possible to a town even though you're sitting in a Marriott in Austin, Texas."

At midday, the band rehearses again, followed by the musical guests, Tejano singer Tish Hinojosa and Austin rockabilly band the Derailers. Hinojosa has been on the show several times; the Derailers, in their debut appearance, are nervous and eager to meet "Mr. Keillor," as band leader Tony Villanueva says. His guitar case is covered with radio station logos from around the nation. Cynical and clueless as radio is in its advanced state of corporate rot, it is still the soundtrack of American striving, and even a band that has trouble finding a place on commercial radio worships the possibilities of the medium.

Keillor, too, remains in love with radio. Though he dismisses commercial radio as having "almost completely abdicated any responsibility for the public interest," he still cherishes memories of great radio humorists including Bob and Ray, who created sketches and soap operas and ad parodies five days a week for more than 40 years. The most direct inspiration for "Prairie Home Companion" came from his March 1974 visit to the Grand Ole Opry, which he was writing about for the New Yorker. "It struck me as noble and thrilling that people would do this, and do it live. It seemed like something that a person could do." The first broadcast of "Prairie Home" on Minnesota Public Radio came just four months later.

Now, three hours before the broadcast, there's a lull. Keillor is still at the hotel. The stage crew sits around trading inside jokes. "How do you know if a Local 1 guy is working a show?" "The doughnut falls out of his hand and his son picks it up."

Suddenly, Keillor, who looks as though he's slept in his clothes, rushes onstage, straight to the microphone front and center. He sees Hinojosa and asks if she'll read a part in the ketchup ad.

"I'll try my best," the singer says.

Keillor whips out a disk containing new versions of several scripts. While copies are made, he hurries through a rewritten song with the band. The ditty is still wobbly after four rehearsals, but time is short, so Keillor says, "Well, nothing can go wrong with that, right? It's like a guided missile," and moves on.

Less than two hours from air time, Keillor tests an ad for Duct Tape, with a woman from the local public radio station drafted into service as narrator. Her first reading is overly broad, and Keillor looks grim. "Pull that back from seductive to just announcing," he tells her. "Less is more, okay?"

Tschida, stopwatch in hand, times each rehearsal. On her laptop, she adds up the songs and bits and, less than 90 minutes before performance, she shapes the order of the show – which, if he is true to form, Keillor will juggle dramatically even as the show progresses.

A little more than an hour to go, and Keillor has an idea. "Just gonna make a few cuts," he says, and now he is slashing paragraphs and lines out of scripts, leaving actors to peer over his shoulder for some notion of what they will soon perform for millions.

With 56 minutes left, and the host rumpled, unshaven and mid-rehearsal, Jason Keillor tells Tschida he needs the stage cleared – "right now." The theater manager is about to open the auditorium.

The host reluctantly moves offstage, looks at the rundown Tschida has prepared, and starts crossing out some items and moving others. "I want to put the cowboys here, get the other Derailers song in."

The first members of the audience file in, and those with seats onstage walk right past the bedraggled host. "My goodness, the choir's arrived," Keillor deadpans.

One audience member introduces himself to Keillor as Smokey Joe Milian.

"The world jalapeno eating champion?" Keillor asks.

"Yes."

"How many is that?"

"Ate 138 in an hour."

"What's that like?"

"Difficult."

"I think I'm going to have you stand up and take a bow," Keillor says, and finally he steps away to shave, dress and go over his monologue.

dingbat

"For me, 'Prairie Home Companion' has always meant cooking dinner on a Saturday night. It kind of makes me feel at home."
– Joe Dobrow, a Whole Foods executive who recently moved from Falls Church to Austin

The Bass Performing Arts Center on the University of Texas campus sold out its 3,000 seats almost instantly – typical for a Keillor show. Seats go for as much as $50, with Minnesota Public Radio claiming 60 percent of the take and the local station getting the rest. ("Prairie Home" takes its show to about 10 cities a year; the last Washington appearance was in 1992 at Wolf Trap.)

The station releases about 100 last-minute tickets midday Saturday and the queue for them is more than 200 people long, folks waiting three, four, five hours, doing their bills, listening to books on tape, reading Fitzgerald and Michener and Cormac McCarthy and Sara Paretsky. An astonishing number of the hopefuls wear Birkenstocks.

The first in line, Paulette Gravois, tunes in with her husband, just as they did when their son, now in college in St. Paul, was at home. She nods as Alex Rogers, a graduate student in American studies, says, "The real genius of 'Prairie Home' is that sense of place. You can relate to the place even if you've never been there."

Farther down the line is Steven Beebe, a professor of speech communication at Southwest Texas State University, where he uses Keillor's monologues in public speaking classes. "He can provide just enough detail to make us believe in Lake Wobegon, but not too much to make it seem just his," Beebe says. "He knows some of the same people I know, the potluck dinners, like when I was growing up on a farm in Missouri. He puts up the scaffolding; we have to put up the siding ourselves."

Keillor has heard this before. He knows about the academics who write of "Prairie Home" as a postmodern church, a weekly opportunity for Americans – urban, suburban and rural alike – to imagine themselves inheritors of the Norwegian frontier mentality, to become one with the great American myths of thrift, civility and selflessness (and stifling provincialism and dark anti-intellectualism and a sapping incestuousness, too, but Keillor brilliantly swathes those in an ameliorating humor).

"People certainly crave communion and community," Keillor concedes. "But it's not my intention to provide that." With a typical bit of Lake Wobegon self-deprecation, he often says, "The whole show is just a hobby that got out of hand."

On four occasions, Keillor has stepped away from the show, intent on devoting himself entirely to writing. "The time I really quit big time, '87, I had what just about every writer would claim that he wanted. When I walked away, I had money to support myself, all the time in the world, I was living in Copenhagen, utter privacy. And yet you find yourself in that ideal situation and after a few months you start to panic. Where's the great stuff you were going to write under those conditions? You learn things about yourself you were hoping not to find out. You overestimate your own capabilities, and I certainly did, like just about every other person ever ignited by an ambition to be a writer and write the Great American Novel.

"I'm not going to."

And so he came back. And he will stay, at least for the foreseeable future. He has spent the bulk of his adult life on the radio, and while he continues to publish books – the latest, "Wobegon Boy," is the first in 13 years to return to the characters made famous by his radio monologues – Garrison Keillor now seems comfortable being what he is, a distinctive American voice, a humorist and storyteller in the tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, and a writer whose best medium is radio.

dingbat

The curtain rises and he steps off the front porch, resplendent in trademark red tie, red socks and black suit. He is closely shaven now, though the stubborn black forelock already droops to his brow. He looks onto a sea of smiles, and all it takes is the slightest wave of his hand and the crowd jumps in on "Deep in the Heart of Texas" and "God Bless America."

He compliments the audience for its home town's "handsome" trees and parks. Austin, he says, "is a designated refuge for liberals," a line that wins cheers of pride. He pokes fun at the backwardness of the Texas Legislature, Smokey Joe the jalapeno eater gets his moment of fame, and the bands play their tunes.

Keillor is a distant, if polite, host. He neither lingers onstage with his guests nor speaks to anyone offstage. He introduces humorist Roy Blount Jr., a friend and frequent guest, to read from his new memoir. "People are going to read that book and think they know you," Keillor says in mock, but quite real, shock. Keillor would no sooner write a memoir than share the stage with Howard Stern.

Blount, scheduled for eight minutes, goes on for 11, requiring Keillor to cut the next few songs and bits by as much as half. He does it without missing a beat, working out lineup changes with Tschida offstage.

At the start of the second hour, Keillor reads the greetings – scraps of paper on which the live audience has scribbled birthday wishes and parental admonitions – including this, to Ross in Chicago: "Please do not write any more letters to editors of alternative newspapers. The Lord and I are not amused. Love, Mom."

And then, while Hinojosa and her band play, Keillor retreats to an empty vestibule, faces a blank concrete wall, pulls his monologue script from his jacket pocket and leans over, as if in prayer.

A few seconds before he must step back onstage, he walks past Tschida and says, "Out at 0:45," meaning he will finish in exactly 23 minutes 49 seconds. He tucks the script back in his pocket, strolls on, lifts the red stool to the proscenium lip and says in that soft, airy voice, "It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my home town."

A wave of applause is rewarded with a story that weaves together the tale of a young girl desperate to move on, a pastor who just won recognition for "best sermon by a pastor from a town of under 2,000 people," a prom date, a ne'er-do-well slo-pitch softball team, a beauty salon where the ladies sat under beehive dryers, and, always, "hope, hope."

Along the way, Keillor slips in a crack about the Unitarian Church, "which is sort of like [cable's] Fishing Channel, or like the Fishing Channel would be if they didn't actually put hooks in the fish, but just talked about it." And he lists the four chief pleasures in life – walking through a field of fresh sweet corn; the love of learning; "the one you thought of first"; and the "joy of following in the Lord's will." To place the story in time, he notes that "George Bush was president, and nobody was investigating him for anything. He just was president. He just walked out and announced stuff."

He brings his listeners to love the story's protagonist, a girl named Kate who is determined to live near an ocean, where "everything will be different." "She felt good in her short, short hair, walking" along when suddenly she heard a great roar from the ballpark and a white baseball somehow landed at her feet, a pointless home run that would be an omen of hope.

Keillor's monologues are not perfect, not classics, but they are the product of a single voice, one mind – a unity that has become rare in a culture dominated by the collaborative storytelling of film and TV. "A simple narrative has power," Keillor says. "That's when radio comes into its close-up."

The show ends, as ever, with a shower of applause. Keillor disappears backstage to change clothes while his fans linger at the foot of the stage, hoping for an autograph. In an hour, the stage will be struck, and driver Russ Ringsak's semi will be packed, ready to roll on into the Rockies. In the morning, Keillor will fly home, to his place in rural Wisconsin, where he will mull next Saturday's story.

Many years ago, when he chose a 1974 country tune called "Hello Love" as "Prairie Home's" original theme, Keillor added a verse of his own to the song:

I've heard it said for oh so long
Live radio is dead and gone . . .
I've heard it so often I guess it's true,
But here we are, and there are you."

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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