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Keillor’s ‘Prairie’ visits the mountains

Joel Stonington
Garrison Keillor brings his "A Prairie Home Companion" to the Wheeler Opera House today and Thursday. (Courtesy U.S. Comedy Arts Festival)
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Garrison Keillor’s voice on public radio during his weekly show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” is low and rich, slow and reassuring, with a hint of melancholy.His sepia-toned stories give the feeling of another era, when things were better, in a place where honesty and truth reigned. It’s “Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”Keillor and his cast will perform two live shows at the Wheeler Opera House today and Thursday, part of the HBO/U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. The shows will be recorded to air on public radio.”I don’t do comedy, so there’s a problem right there,” Keillor deadpanned in his low, melodious voice. “This is a showcase for ambitious young people. I’m a lazy person in the dim twilight of his career. Obviously I don’t belong.”Part of the reason he’s here is a special screening of a new film for which he wrote the screenplay. It is a fictional account of the final broadcast of his show. Directed by Robert Altman, “A Prairie Home Companion” features Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan, Woody Harrelson, Kevin Kline and others. The movie will show at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 4:15 p.m. Sunday at the Isis Theater.

“I just feel really threatened by mountains,” Keillor said. “I love the prairie. I’m [at the Comedy Fest] for reasons I just don’t understand.”Really he’s a laugh a minute. It’s just a bit more subtle than some of the more straightforward stuff these days. If he didn’t stop for a breath it would be difficult to get a question in. He’s on cruise control – joke after joke after story.Storytelling is perhaps what he’s best known for. His weekly show features comedy sketches, music and, of course, Keillor’s signature monologue, “The News from Lake Wobegon.”If you hear it on the radio and haven’t ever seen the show live, you might think Keillor reads from notes or even reads the monologue from one of his many books. Not so. He walks to the edge of the stage, grabs hold of a microphone and starts telling a story. He doesn’t use prompts of any kind, and he never has. “I sit down on Saturday and I write it in a froth, in a white heat,” he said. “By writing it down, that’s all the memorization you need to do. You remember the good parts. You remember the funny parts. The interstitial parts drop out. You write. Write, write, write, and then it all just kind of comes together. You pick up a microphone and walk down the stage apron in an enormous auditorium, look out into the dark and start talking. It’s no big deal.”No big deal for someone who has been doing it for 30 years. “People who write speeches and have them in front of them are running a race with a knapsack of rocks,” he said. “It’s a terrible mistake. I’m too proud to stand in front of an audience with a piece of paper in front of me. A teleprompter, that would be an admission of weakness.”

He’s a representative of a bygone era, and doggone if it ain’t truly refreshing. Maybe that’s why the show has become so popular during the last 30 years. It was in 1974 when Keillor hosted the first live broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion.” It was at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., the state where Keillor lives and grew up. The live audience consisted of 12 people. During the 10 years following that broadcast, he produced 477 live shows.From 1987 to 1989 the show went on hiatus and began again in New York as “The American Radio Company.” After three years, Keillor moved the show back to Minnesota and changed the name back to “A Prairie Home Companion.” Today, more than 4 million people each week hear the show on 558 public radio stations. About three years ago, Keillor broke away from Minnesota Public Radio, where the show was produced, and formed his own company, Prairie Home Productions. “The organization that I left, I wish them well, but they have 10 vice presidents,” Keillor said of the decision to leave and form the for-profit company. “Where you have vice presidents, you have meetings; that’s what vice presidents do. I don’t work that way.”We have offices with doors and windows, no cubicles. When you want a meeting, you walk down the hall and you stand in the door of someone’s office. You say something and the meeting’s over. There are other differences, as well.”The change hasn’t affected the show much, just the way that Keillor works with it. He and his employees make more money off the show, and of course, there are fewer meetings.

The Wheeler performance of “A Prairie Home Companion” will likely have the usual crowd favorites, with some extra jokes tossed in.”We’ll do mostly comedy sketches,” he said. “We’ll do a guy noir sketch and a cowboy sketch ’cause we’re in Colorado. We’ll do Ruth Harris, reference librarian. I might sneak in a little news from Lake Wobegon involving the frontal nudity of a character, just to throw them off. Throw in nudity and have one of the Norwegian bachelor farmers get drunk and sing a ribald song. I have a reputation as sort of a stick, a dry somber performer, so I want to work against that.”Evidently it won’t necessarily be his usual audience. “It’s an industry crowd, toughest crowd there is, because they’ve all seen way too much,” Keillor said. “Younger people with very deep tans, sitting there, drinking their mineral water, saying ‘Hmm, yes, interesting.'”Finally, he chuckled, breaking that constant deadpan. “It’s gonna be a bomb, kid,” he said, chuckling again. “But I get to leave town right away.” Garrison Keillor will perform “A Prairie Home Companion” at the Wheeler Opera House at 7:30 p.m. today and 4:30 p.m. Thursday.Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com


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