Humorist Garrison Keillor, bestselling bard of the respectable Midwest, made a buoyant official homecoming over the weekend to this northern city where he rose to fame but which he recently seemed ready to spurn.
The occasion was the reopening of the World Theatre, a once-decrepit burlesque house in downtown St. Paul, where Keillor hosted his weekly radio variety show, "A Prairie Home Companion," from 1980 until 1984, when falling ceiling plaster drove the show into floating exile to points as distant as Hawaii.
But the return also marked an end to a restless period in which the life of the intensely shy Keillor, 43, has been rocked by the immense success of his book "Lake Wobegon Days" and by the unexpected reappearance of a Danish woman he had not seen in 25 years.
In a moving passage during his "News From Lake Wobegon" monologue, the show's celebrated weekly centerpiece on which his novel is based, Keillor paid joyful tribute to this woman, Ulla Skaerved, whom he recently married in Copenhagen.
At the same time, he gracefully yielded to his growing and ever-curious national audience strangers a few details of the changes in his very private life.
To accomplish this dual feat, he read a letter of thanks to some of the denizens of the imaginary Minnesota hamlet of Lake Wobegon ("where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average"), who Keillor claimed sent him a toaster as a wedding present.
While a handsomely attired audience of first-nighters tittered in restrained delight, Keillor spun a typically tall tale of how the penurious Lake Wobegonians mailed the toaster to Denmark (despite dire warnings of postman Bob Bowser that "it's never gonna make it") only to have it crowded out of the suitcases with which the couple returned.
But this was just a warmup for the torrid matter of the heart that shook his life and rearranged its essentials. The details are veiled, but the outlines of the romance could have been spun from a Keillor fantasy.
Skaerved was an exchange student who spent a year as a member of Keillor's 1960 graduating class at Anoka High School, in a small town near Minneapolis. The two corresponded for several years after that, then lost contact until last August, when she showed up at a 25-year class reunion.
Smitten at second sight, Keillor and Skaerved, each once divorced, fell deeply in love, shattering Keillor's relationship with Margaret Moos, executive producer of "A Prairie Home Companion," who had lived with him for many years.
So deep had this bond been that Keillor acknowledged it in "Lake Wobegon Days," one of the most popular works of fiction in recent publishing history.
There are 1,167,500 copies of the book in print and every one of them is dedicated "To Margaret, my love." But Keillor made clear Saturday night -- or as clear as anything ever is during his monologue -- that Ulla Skaerved is now his love, banishing any further thoughts of Margaret Moos, who has moved out of his household and taken an indefinite leave of absence from the show.
The humorist, who usually performs in a white suit a la Mark Twain, was attired Saturday night in a black tuxedo with red suspenders, a red bow tie, red socks and a red rose in his lapel. He wore black tennis shoes but no cummerbund.
Keillor normally ad-libs his monologue without notes after outlining the general themes to himself before the show. But seemingly underscoring the importance of his "thank-you note," he hauled from his tuxedo a sheet of paper and carefully read the script line by line into the microphone.
"I am too much in love to notice much," Keillor said in his throaty, almost breathless baritone. "I am aware of nobody and nothing except her, my wife."
While rhapsodizing about Skaerved and the marriage, he couldn't resist telling his audience and the estimated 2 million listeners nationwide who hear the show via the American Public Radio network, that the Danish language sometimes "sounds like a person trying to get a hair out of his mouth." But "when I heard her voice singing, tears came to my eyes," he reported, ambiguously.
Noting that the word "love" translates as something sounding like "bil-UP" in Danish, Keillor declared, "Love, sacred as it is, is as mysterious in English as in Danish."
In a harmonious closing note, he related how as he and his new bride danced a "bil-UP waltz," friends and family attending the wedding reception circled closer and closer until the newlyweds could no longer move. "I only felt elated, joyful and inspired by it . . . They were holding us in a symbolic embrace . . .
"So we all surround each other, and so I thought of you."
The enthusiastic audience at the partially restored theater read this as a clear commitment by Keillor to his roots here. They gave him peals of applause in return.
The exchange seems to bring an end to speculation in the local press that the author might move his production company elsewhere. Further cementing local hopes was the couple's purchase of a spacious $300,000 house on the posh heights of Crocus Hill overlooking St. Paul. The 85-year-old 2 1/2-story brick home has four bedrooms and a generous walled backyard. Keillor has one son by his previous marriage and Skaerved three.
Keillor had reacted with such asperity when the media first reported his alliance with Skaerved that some here feared he would depart for good. Such a move would have left the intended $3.5 million renovation of the World Theatre up in the air. Originally opened in 1910, the place went through hard times in the two decades before Keillor chose it as a seemingly permanent home for the national broadcasts of his show. "A Prairie Home Companion," featuring bluegrass music, folk singers, Dixieland and zany commercials for nonexistent products, is the only live variety show to be found on the national radio airwaves.
St. Paul already has several important theaters, but Keillor preferred the intimate qualities of the old burlesque house, where the distance from stage to the farthest seat atop the second balcony is just 85 feet.
When the plaster started plummeting from the ceiling, the show moved out and the ambitious renovation began. Much of the money has come from corporate sources, but Keillor's appeals for funds will be part of the World Theatre shows from now on.
The audience here Saturday night was mostly made up of devoted companions of "A Prairie Home Companion." Well dressed and affluent, they delighted in the eight stage boxes that have been rediscovered and restored, the ornate plastering that graces the once-unfriendly ceiling, and the plush, Victorian-style seats.
Bill Hohman, a biologist from nearby White Bear Lake and a longtime listener, expressed amazement at the World's transformation. "It's all changed around," he enthused as he and Janet Ahlstrom of the Twin Cities toured the theater before the show. He had gotten tickets in a lottery and said he felt "very, very fortunate" to be on hand.
In the old days, before Lake Wobegon materialized on the national map, he recalled, "they always used to hold tickets for the second and third balconies." Now the show is sold out for months ahead and tickets can cost up to $12.
Success has all sorts of prices, as Keillor can attest.