Monday, August 7, 2017

Birthday: "Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose."

“I don’t think you should go out onstage after the age of 76,” Keillor told The Associated Press during a recent interview. “You don’t want to fall down out there and then all of these people, you know, there’s a sudden intake of breath. And men in white jackets come in from the wings and put an oxygen mask on you.”

“You don’t want that to happen. It’s too much entertainment for the dollar,” he adds. “An entertainer is supposed to go away and have a quiet dotage, and you know, lose your marbles in private and not do this out where people can see you.”

Garrison Keillor was a remarkable figure in my early adulthood and into our shared, increasingly cranky, old age. In his heyday, Keillor did for radio shows what John Williams did for the symphonic movie score: he brought it back to life.

Keillor, who turns 75 today, is a Minnesotan through and through, born in Anoka and raised in the Plymouth Brethren, a strict evangelical, 19C Anglican low church spinoff with a taste for shunning and schism (Keillor has since traded up and around, through Lutheranism and back to the high church Episcopalianism of the Brethren’s roots). Graduating with a U Minn degree in 1966, he landed a drivetime radio show on Minnesota Public Radio in 1969. He called it A Prairie Home Entertainment and played everything but the classical fare that was educational radio’s bread and butter.

The show gathered an audience, so much so that in February 1971 he quit over management interference with his playlists (on one of his last programs he played nothing but The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” the entire show).

Keillor got the last word and was back with  A Prairie Home Companion in October 1971. In the summer of 1973 MPR (now American Public Media) announced plans for a two-hour Saturday variety-and-music show; A Prairie Home Companion debuted in August 1974.

Some say Keillor got the idea from the Grand Ole Opry. He’d been moonlighting for The New Yorker and did a big piece on the Nashville institution that got him fame as a writer and his longtime friendship with guitarist Chet Atkins. Keillor has given various accounts of the show's origins. But it was, and is, a pastiche of the 1930s and ‘40s clear channel shows out of the midwest, with skits and serials and sponsors and guest musical groups.

NPR picked up the show, and by September 1980, when I first heard it, it was well-established in much of America except the South, where even public radio was regarded as some weird hothouse plant that would probably turn out to be marijuana.

I was hooked from the start, having grown up on radio shows- few though they were left- in the 1960s. Every Saturday afternoon I stopped swotting my first-year law school texts, and sat next to my radio for two hours. Lake Wobegon, the mythical town about which Keillor told stories, was all the small North Carolina towns I’d known as a boy, only with Lutherans and Catholics instead of Southern Baptists and more Southern Baptists and the odd Presbyterian or Methodist outcrop.

Keiller never mentioned his name and wasn’t introduced. He didn’t even list himself in the credits, opting the nom de plume, Sara Bellum. You only knew who Garrison Keillor was if someone else called him by name.

But it was his show, no question. He was a marvel of long, shaggy dog stories of families and neighbors and eccentrics passing through town, of ladies who belonged to the same book club for decades, and the old men at the lunch counter in the diner, complaining of bad knees and reminiscing about service in The Big One.

Anyone could be part of the show, it seemed, too. I used to tell my parents bits of the show’s business in calls home, and when I was listening on December 16, 1981, as Keillor read messages from the audience over the air, I was stunned to hear,

And I wanna wish a happy birthday to Lindsay Thompson...he’s in law school....out in Portland...Oregon….this is from his Shelby….North...Carolina….he’s 26 today...I gotta tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that young man….has gone about as far away from he can get.

The cast was like family, and the show was appointment radio for me for almost twenty years before the demands of middle age began to creep in. In the ‘80s I was in the first flush of love for a region a show like the Prairie Home Show would actually come to on tour- more than once- and where big name authors did readings you could just walk into and hear, and even ask questions. If Mr Keillor was in town, I was there: sometimes in theaters, sometimes in outdoor venues. There was even a period when Oregon Public Radio sponsored open air broadcasts in a public park and we groupies all gathered in our Powdermilk Biscuits tee shirts.

New features worked their way in: Guy Noir; The Lives of the Cowboys; the haplessly trendy couple at The Ketchup Research Board, always in need of more natural mellowing agents. But as the decades lengthened, Keillor, frankly, got crankier.

In 1987, after a Twin Cities paper ran a story about a mansion Keillor bought, he cocked a snook at the city, shut down the show despite having just launched it on TV for Disney, and moved to Scandinavia with his new wife.

After two years, he came home, but to New York, where he ran the show as The American Radio Company of the Air until 1992.

After twenty years, Keiller was a brand. His books were bestsellers. There was a whole catalog of PHC swag. He was an Institution. He won an Emmy, a Peabody, a National Medal for the Humanities. He’s written 27 books and does a radio anthology, The Writer’s Almanac.

The show came back to St Paul in 1995. Keillor divorced and married a third time, and got into new scrapes with his home city. A notorious suit he filed against a homeowner whose house addition, he claimed, would deny him the light, air, and vistas he needed as an artist (even though with the add-on, Keillor’s latest manse would remain vastly bigger) was quietly settled after acres of bad press. Many observers found his stories darker-edged, his paeans to prairie values more prescriptive, and his digs at conservatives less gentle and more cutting.

Keillor thought that all of a piece with life, as Robert Lloyd wrote in the LA Times:

"The challenge of humor," Keillor has said, is that "somehow it must comprehend darkness and death." Fatality as well as fatalism is built into the series; people die, or almost die, and so remember to live. In Robert Altman's 2006 lovely, last film, "A Prairie Home Companion," Death (played by Virginia Madsen) is a character, roaming the corridors and the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater as the series itself is about to expire. It is not meant tragically.

The show got old, as many NPR standbys have. When Keillor turned seventy, he flirted with retirement but didn’t actually leave until 2016, leaving his 59-year-old average listener to a 35-year-old mandolin virtuoso, Chris Thile.

He says he hasn’t listened to the show since leaving; he was allowed to find his way in his time, and Thile gets to find his. Keillor has launched a syndicated column and is well into a memoir, as well as the screenplay for a Lake Wobegon movie. And this summer, he’s taking the Prairie Home Show on the road one last time: a 28-city tour ending in, of all places, North Carolina.

Well, Cary, to be precise. They make Chapel Hill look reactionary.

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