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It’s been 40 years, and 'Prairie Home Companion’ is still above average

Garrison Keillor sits outside a Grand Avenue shop in St. Paul in June 2014. A three-day celebration of the 40th anniversary of Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” is set for July 4-6 at Macalester College, where the first show was staged on July 6, 1974. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)1 / 3
Garrison Keillor in an undated black and white photo from the mid-1970s. A Prairie Home Companion will return to St. Paul's Macalester College for its 40th anniversary celebration on July 4-6, 2014. (Photo copyright Prairie Home Productions/American Public Media)2 / 3
Garrison Keillor (left), the creator and host of "A Prairie Home Companion," performs with country music legend Chet Atkins at the World Theater in St. Paul in April 1986. (Richard Marshall / Pioneer Press)3 / 3

ST. PAUL -- While it might be another quiet week in Lake Wobegon, the upcoming Fourth of July holiday brings a flurry of activity for “A Prairie Home Companion.”

A three-day 40th anniversary celebration for the beloved St. Paul-based public radio show starts Friday at Macalester College, the same place where “Prairie Home” creator Garrison Keillor led the first live broadcast of the show on July 6, 1974.

“It was amateurish, of course,” Keillor said about that first show in an email interview. “A writer trying to impersonate a performer. I tried to sound homespun and folksy, in a high-pitched twang. A tiny audience in the hall at Macalester. Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson were the band, with Cal Hand and Rudy Darling. Ninety minutes of music and painful whimsy. And afterward, awkward though it was, we all felt pretty good about it. I was 32 and unreasonably sure of myself. If I listened to a tape of that show today, I would writhe in agony.”

Forty years later the show can be heard on more than 600 public radio stations across the country and draws a weekly audience of 4 million. Thousands are expected to attend the festivities at Macalester that include a “40 Years, 40 Songs” concert Friday (lawn tickets still available) and a three-hour live broadcast of the show Saturday (sold-out). But don’t fret if you didn’t get tickets; there are more than 40 other free “Prairie Home”-related offerings throughout the event including a public sing-along, movies and slideshows, meet-and-greets with performers, live performances by “Prairie Home” favorites, a children’s area and a recipe exchange.

The early years

The first broadcast in 1974 drew about a dozen people to Macalester’s Janet Wallace Auditorium. They paid a dollar for admission (50 cents for kids). Prior to the show, VocalEssence chorus founder and artistic director Philip Brunelle got a call from Keillor, whom he had never talked to before.

“He said he was starting this radio show and he was looking for a musician who knew classical music and hymns,” Brunelle recalled. “He said, ‘Do you know those?’ I said, ‘Garrison, every hymn you know, I know. The question will be who knows more verses.’ ”

“We all thought, ‘This is charming, this is wonderful,’ ” Brunelle said of that first show. He’s continued to be a guest on “Prairie Home” since.

One of those 12 audience members was Lois Binder, who brought her 9-year-old daughter, Amy, and a couple of friends to the show.

“I don’t remember a lot about it, but I had been a Garrison Keillor fan and listened to his morning radio show,” said Binder, 87, of Golden Valley. “I liked him and heard that he was going to be doing this show, and we just turned up.

“It wasn’t very well publicized, as I remember,” added Binder, who will be at the 40th anniversary celebration. “I don’t think it was supposed to be any great thing. It was a Saturday afternoon and sounded liked a good thing to do.”

In 2005, the Library of Congress deemed that first show historic and added it to its audio archive.

Twin Cities musician Butch Thompson, who met Keillor when the two were attending the University of Minnesota in the ’60s, has fond memories of “Prairie Home’s” early days — even if everything didn’t always go smoothly.

“I would play with whoever was there,” said Thompson, who was the show’s pianist and bandleader. “It was very informal. We didn’t know how to do any of the things a person should know when you’re doing a show with music on the radio. No monitors, no way for us to hear each other properly on stage most of the time, but that was very early on. It’s changed a lot since then.”

Keillor said those early days were “very sociable” and one of the reasons he created the show was “a writer’s envy of the social life of musicians.”

“Bill and Judy had dozens of friends: Pop Wagner, Dakota Dave Hull, Sean Blackburn, Peter Ostroushko, Butch Thompson, Bob Douglas, Stevie Beck, and they all mixed easily, jammed together, learned from each other, whereas a writer’s life is a lonely one,” Keillor said. “I loved being around them. In the early days, the show was sort of perpetually on the verge of folding. It was discouraging, lots of hard work, constant worry — what you lack in talent, you have to make up for in anxiety — but the friendship of those musicians really saw us through the hard spots. The show was important to them, and I didn’t want to let them down.”

It was clear to Brunelle from the start that Keillor was onto something.

“Knowing Garrison’s creativity, we all felt this was going to continue,” Brunelle said. “We all could sense that was going to happen.”

The show was broadcast from various venues until finding a home at St. Paul’s World Theater, which was renovated in the 1980s and renamed the Fitzgerald Theater. It reached a national radio audience in the early ’80s and Keillor continued to do the show until 1987.

At that time, according to Pioneer Press archives, he was angry at the press for what he considered an invasion of his privacy and announced he was moving to Denmark, thus ending “A Prairie Home Companion.” Eventually, Keillor moved back to the States and did a show in New York for a while before returning to Minnesota in 1992 and soon after reviving the “Prairie Home” name, much to the delight of his fans. Even though he regularly takes the show on the road, the Fitzgerald is the show’s official home base.

The appeal

Over the years, Keillor has gone from local celebrity to cultural icon. The success of the Anoka-born writer’s book “Lake Wobegon Days” landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1985. Over the years, television shows from “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live” to “Portlandia” have referenced Keillor. In 2006, “A Prairie Home Companion” movie was released starring Meryl Streep, Maya Rudolph, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan and actors from the real radio show. The script was penned by Keillor and the movie was director Robert Altman’s last film before he died.

From its most famous “sponsor” Powdermilk Biscuits to Keillor’s popular News From Lake Wobegon monologue, “A Prairie Home Companion” has perfected its format: a series of skits, musical guests, fake sponsors and news from his made-up hometown of Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.” The stories about the Lake Wobegon Whippets sports teams, Norwegian bachelor farmers, Pastor Liz and various other members of the community have become a favorite part of the Saturday broadcasts.

“Garrison is a brilliant host, a brilliant producer,” said Tim Russell, one of the show’s longtime actors. “He puts it all together in his mind, he knows exactly what he wants, and he gets it all in order a half-hour before the show. That’s when all the pieces are put into place. The star attraction is the ‘News from Lake Wobegon,’ which really captured the country’s imagination because of that universal factor of human behavior — especially in small towns — is something everyone relates to, even if they’re in a big town like New York.”

Brunelle says one of the keys to the show’s success is Keillor isn’t afraid to mix things up.

“If Garrison has an idea, he might use it for a while, but then after a while he moves on to something else,” Brunelle said. “Not that it wasn’t the right group or person, he just feels it’s time to freshen it up, just like with his monologues from Lake Wobegon. Some of the people from the town have passed from view; we don’t hear about them anymore. They’ve changed ministers at Lake Wobegon church, a number of things have happened. Garrison’s got that wonderful creative spirit that can keep things fresh, and that’s one of the ways to do it.

Singer Jearlyn Steele, who first appeared on “Prairie Home” nearly two decades ago, believes the show has lasted so long because it speaks to its listeners.

“We want the world to be OK, we want our neighborhoods to be OK, we want our lives to be OK and if there’s a glitch, it’s a glitch that we can handle,” Steele said. “To me that’s what ‘Prairie Home’ is.

“It’s from a Scandinavian Lutheran perspective, the stories and everything, but at their core they touch all of us,” Steele continued. “I grew up in a Pentecostal church in Gary, Ind., which was all black, but those stories still resonate with me. There are moments I can relate to, songs that he sings that we sang in my church. It speaks to us in different ways, but it still speaks to us.”

Working with Keillor is “pretty amazing,” said musician Prudence Johnson, a guest on the show over the years.

“I’m in awe of his abilities on a number of levels,” she said. “We were doing a show once and we were in the middle of a song he had to read the lyrics for, so he had the lyrics on his music stand. While we’re doing the song — it was a duet — he’s watching the clock, figuring out how much time we have left in the segment and what needs to be cut. He’s also writing a note to the stage manager and handing it to him all the while he’s singing the tune. His mind is able to do multiple things at once.”

“A Prairie Home Companion” music director and leader of the Guy’s All Star Shoe Band, Richard Dworsky, said Keillor doesn’t do the typical stand-up comedy routine to get laughs. Instead he weaves the punchline through a 20-minute monologue that will stick with an audience after the show is over.

“The stranger the world gets, the more popular ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ gets,” Dworsky said. “It reflects some values we all share and that we maybe want to preserve. The world is changing so fast and we’re becoming isolated and digitized and everybody in their own world with their ear buds, and ‘Prairie Home’ tends to bring people together rather than to isolate them.”

The fans

Recently, Keillor finished a five-week book tour for his new book, “The Keillor Reader,” where he met many of his fans.

“Lots of old people my age but also a good number of 12-year-old boys who like ‘Guy Noir, Private Eye’ and the rhubarb sketches where we throw men in suits into shark-infested waters,” Keillor said. “And a great many 30-ish folks who as kids were forced to listen by their parents and who now enjoy the show. It’s the Stockholm Syndrome — hostages who come to identify with their captors. I met a 106-year-old woman in Des Moines who was walking upright, all six cylinders working, who said, ‘I hope you aren’t going to retire anytime soon. I would miss your show if it went away.’ ”

Along with Guy Noir, the show’s youngest fans are also drawn to sound effects from Fred Newman (and Tom Keith before he died in 2011). “Prairie Home” regular Sue Scott is delighted the show reaches such a wide array of ages.

“We have cute 8- and 10-year-olds who ask for our autographs,” Scott said. “God bless those parents or grandparents for introducing the radio to these children when there’s so much competition for stimulation. They get to use their imaginations by listening to the radio and they’re not watching something.”

While there was buzz about retirement a few years ago, these days Keillor’s work schedule has been busier than ever. There was the book tour, the “Prairie Home” shows around the country, preparing for the 40th anniversary celebration and getting ready to host a “Prairie Home” Baltic cruise in early August — a couple of days after he turns 72. After that it’s a show at the Minnesota State Fair and then one in Paris.

Time has proven to be a powerful motivator for Keillor, who has a grown son, Jason, and a 16-year-old daughter, Maia, with his wife, Jenny Lind Nilsson.

“Time is running out,” said Keillor, who suffered a minor stroke five years ago but returned to work a few days later. “At 71, you see bad junk happen to your classmates and cousins and you think, ‘This could happen to me. Better get a move on.’ ”

As far as the show’s future is concerned, things will continue as usual, at least for the time being. A new season of “Prairie Home” kicks off in September.

“We’re all set to do the 2014-15 season, and I’m hoping to do a big 30-city bus tour next summer, and that’s as far ahead as anybody plans,” Keillor said. “I like the show a lot, and if somebody showed up who could take over my job, I’d walk away in a minute. Well, six months anyway. I’d like to see it continue. I got off the Empire Builder Sunday night and walked into Union Depot and felt so proud of St. Paul for hanging onto that old palace for 40 years and finally making it beautiful. A lot of people had faith in the majesty of that irreplaceable historic building and they persisted. In the same way, I’m a custodian of a fine old relic of a radio show and I’m waiting for my replacement to show up.”

What: “A Prairie Home Companion” 40th Anniversary Celebration

When: Friday, July 4-Sunday, July 6

Where: Macalester College campus, 1600 Grand Ave., St. Paul

Info: A couple of events are ticketed but most are free; for a full schedule, go to

Listen: A live broadcast of the special three-hour anniversary show will air on Minnesota Public Radio at 5 p.m. Saturday, July 5.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.