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Inside Garrison Keillor’s fabled world of ‘A Prairie Home Companion’

July 26, 2014 at 10:47 AM EDT
As "A Prairie Home Companion" marks 40 years on the air, Jeffrey Brown sits down with iconic public radio personality Garrison Keillor for an in-depth interview about his long career as one of the nation's great storytellers.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: From the beginning, it’s been an old-fashioned variety show, loved for its music, skits.

GARRISON KEILLOR: Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota.

And, most of all, the storytelling of Garrison Keillor.

GARRISON KEILLOR: The 4th of July Best Pie in Town Contest was won by Marlene, the church secretary at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church.

JEFFREY BROWN: Keillor’s famous tales of line in Lake Wobegon – this fictional Minnesota town — have captivated listeners by the millions.

And his work, including writings and recordings, have earned him a National Humanities Medal, a Grammy and a Peabody.

GARRISON KEILLOR: That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.

GARRISON KEILLOR: This is where we want to do ‘A Prairie Home Companion.’

JEFFREY BROWN: At St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater, home base to “A Prairie Home Companion” since the late 70’s, we talked of fact, fiction, and the enduring power of his creation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have you ever stopped to think about why it worked so long and why, especially, the medium of radio?

GARRISON KEILLOR: I think there’s- there’s a lot of power in listening to one person talking to you. And- and- and this should never be underestimated.

There are movies made, enormous amounts of money invested in them, and- and they’re very diffuse and they’re very artistic and edited and post-produced and jumping from here to there and- and complicated narratives and so on.

But one person sitting and talking to you and, you’re pulled in, in ways that technology and art and all cannot.

GARRISON KEILLOR: We want to be talked to.

JEFFREY BROWN: We want to be talked to.

GARRISON KEILLOR: We do.

JEFFREY BROWN: That was evident at the show’s 40th anniversary, held at Macalester College, where Keillor had recorded the very first one.

COURTNEY FOSTER: He’s so creative, he’s really a treasure.

MIKE HALL: It’s live, it’s variety, it’s different, it’s not like everything else you’d see.

ARNIE HEITHOFF: It’s a constant moment of peace in the week.

JEFFREY BROWN: Arnie and Katie Heithoff of Omaha listened to the show on their second date more than three decades ago. And they still get emotional talking about it.

ARNIE HEITHOFF: I will tell her, thank you for 36 years of Saturday night by the radio because that’s what it is, that’s what it is. It’s Saturday night by the radio.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now 71, he was born Gary Edward Keillor. He grew up in the small Minnesota town of Anoka, his mother a nurse, his father a mail clerk and carpenter.

Keillor wrote about sports for the local paper at age 13, attended the University of Minnesota – then going by the name, “Garrison,” and spent time in New York as a young writer.

In 1969 he took a job at Minnesota Public Radio.

GARRISON KEILLOR: 37 degrees in the Twin cities, high today should be 48.

JEFFREY BROWN: And launched “A Prairie Home Companion” five years later.

He’d gone home in more ways than one.

(Powdermilk Biscuit song)

JEFFREY BROWN: How much did you know about this place, Lake Wobegon, before you made it up?

GARRISON KEILLOR: It was a mystery because I had, I had run away from it when I went off to the University of Minnesota when I was 18.

But to do that radio show, I had to go back to my aunts and uncles. And that’s what Lake Wobegon is. It’s a lost world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Maybe, but Keillor gave it life, in many of his more than two dozen books…and in the show that’s been performed all over the country and around the world.

Director Robert Altman made “A Prairie Home Companion” into a feature film in 2006.

GARRISON KEILLOR: Do some stops on this …

JEFFREY BROWN: Keillor’s real-life team includes a full-time staff of around 15, a house band, actors, technicians, and guest musicians who appear regularly.

The production is financed through corporate sponsorships, radio station fees, and ticket sales. It’s all rehearsed late in the week.

GARRISON KEILLOR: It’s OK. I think I need something else from you as well. Something with more killer potential.

JEARLYN STEELE: More killer potential? Oh my goodness, did he say ‘killer potential?’

JEVETTA STEELE: ‘Hold On, I’m Coming.’

JEARLYN STEELE: ‘Hold On, I’m Coming.’

RICH DWORSKY: ‘Hold On, I’m Coming,’ A-Flat.

(Song – “Hold on I’m Coming”)

JEFFREY BROWN: In the live performance, there are regular characters, like the mom who calls to nag her son.

MOM: You give up on things so fast. That’s why you never married, honey.

DWAYNE: Mom, please, let’s not get into this.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And ads for fake sponsors. All brought to you by Keillor’s fanciful imagination.

GARRISON KEILLOR: Now, the Deep Valley Bed is the bed that replicates the uterus, which, as you may remember, was not hard, it was very warm, and kind of surrounded you.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Keillor gets help writing parts of the show. But “The News from Lake Wobegon,” his weekly monologue, is all his.

GARRISON KEILLOR: It was the 40th anniversary of the World’s Largest Pile of Burlap Bags in Lake Wobegon.

So many people come from all over to see this thing. So many people who write into the web site, World’s Largest Pile dot org.

GARRISON KEILLOR: You pick up real stories in the course of a week and you find ways to work them in.

You hear a story about a man who built himself a house around the corner from his mother’s house, so that he could stand in his kitchen window and he could see her in her kitchen window. That’s a real story.

Now the rest is up to- is up to me. And I need to bring in some other people here.

I’m going to make his the only house in town that welcomes Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness missionaries.

In fact, Keillor often writes “The News from Lake Wobegon” on the morning of the show, and then gets up on stage without notes.

GARRISON KEILLOR: I try to make my way from the beginning to the end.

Oftentimes forgetting big swatches of it. Which, you know, makes you panic a little bit.

JEFFREY BROWN: So does the story sometimes just change completely mid-course?

GARRISON KEILLOR: Yes, yeah. And- and sometimes it ends abruptly. But you have- you’ve got your ending line, you know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah.

GARRISON KEILLOR: So, you just pause. You know you’re not done, but they don’t know you’re not done.

And you just pause, and you say, ‘And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon. Where all the women are strong and all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.’

JEFFREY BROWN: Keillor’s just released a new collection of his writings over the years, “The Keillor Reader.” And in a biographical essay is candid about how unlikely his success has been.

JEFFREY BROWN: You describe a young man who was very shy and, I want to quote it, “absurdly self-conscious and timid and eager to please and arrogant, all at the same time.”

It doesn’t sound like a likely formula for success.

GARRISON KEILLOR: No, it’s not. I was the least likely person to wind up doing this, because growing up in the Midwest you’re told, ‘Don’t think too much of yourself because you are no better than anybody else.’ This is baked into you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you have to develop this character, “Garrison Keillor”?

GARRISON KEILLOR: I think more or less. But- but- but every adult does this, we redo ourselves. We re-arrange ourselves. I’m also trying to put aside lifelong habits that only get in the way.

Shyness being one of them. You don’t talk about or give any hint as to your worries and your anxieties.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those doubts and anxieties have never gone away.

GARRISON KEILLOR: No. No.

Keillor says he has no plans to retire, despite suffering a minor stroke in 2009.

In addition to “A Prairie Home Companion,” he continues to record a daily radio program about poetry and literature.

GARRISON KEILLOR: And here is ‘The Writer’s Almanac’ for Friday.

JEFFREY BROWN: Runs a bookstore in St. Paul. And is working on his first full-length play, set to open this fall.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a lesson that you’ve taken from the 40 years of Prairie Home Companion about- about life?

GARRISON KEILLOR: Hurry up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hurry up and…

GARRISON KEILLOR: Hurry up and do it. Get it done. You’ve got work to do. Don’t put this off. And don’t take the long view, here. You know? Life is today and tomorrow and- and if you’re lucky, next week.

(Song – “Just a Little While to Stay Here”)

JEFFREY BROWN: The next season of “A Prairie Home Companion” begins in September.