Public radio’s iconic ‘Prairie Home Companion’ celebrates 40 years

BY Megan Thompson  July 5, 2014 at 1:07 PM EDT
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Garrison Keillor performs at the “A Prairie Home Companion” anniversary celebration on Friday, July 4. Credit: Megan Thompson/NewsHour Weekend

Later this month, NewsHour will air an exclusive interview with Garrison Keillor, creator and star of “A Prairie Home Companion,” the iconic public-radio show celebrating 40 years this weekend.

A three-day anniversary event kicked off Friday at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, where Keillor first broadcast “A Prairie Home Companion” on July 6, 1974. Back then, there were about 12 people in the audience. Today the show is broadcast on more than 600 public-radio stations to four million listeners.

This weekend’s events include dozens of musical performances, appearances by alumni of the show, and a special three-hour broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” on Saturday night.

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Garrison Keillor performs in Minneapolis in the mid-70s. Credit: Prairie Home Productions/American Public Media

The old-fashioned variety show features music, comedy sketches and storytelling, broadcast live every Saturday night. Keillor plays many of the show’s quirky characters like Guy Noir, a private eye “trying to find the answers to life’s persistent questions.”

There are also advertisements for the show’s fictional sponsors like Powdermilk Biscuits, Bertha’s Kitty Boutique and the Catchup Advisory Board.

But a mainstay of the show is Keillor’s monologue, The News From Lake Wobegon.

Keillor’s stories about life in a fictional town in central Minnesota (where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”) have become the stuff of legend, especially in his home state.

Keillor also runs a bookstore in St. Paul, Common Good Books.  He wrote a limerick on the bookstore wall to commemorate this weekend, which might hint at the future:

Forty years is a long time to thrive
And not take that long painful (dive)
Stay low to the ground,
Let the earth go round,
And you’ll soon arrive at 45!

Keillor got his start writing for The New Yorker and then began hosting a morning show on Minnesota Public Radio in 1969. Five years later, after writing an article on the Grand Ole Opry, he invented “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Keillor has written or compiled at least 28 books, the latest of which, A Keillor Reader, came out this spring.  He also continues his daily public-radio broadcasts of A Writer’s Almanac.  And his first full-length play “Radio Man” will debut this fall at the History Theatre in St. Paul.