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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008

 

Gary and Me

Garrison Keillor brings "A Prairie Home Companion" to Las Cruces on May 31. But is that the real reason he's coming?

By David A. Fryxell



I just can't seem to get away from Garrison Keillor. When we lived in Minnesota, site of the "Prairie Home Companion" radio show host's fictional Lake Wobegon, this was perhaps understandable. Heck, his "News from Lake Wobegon" segments and his first novel, Lake Wobegon Days, often seemed lifted straight from the lives of the Lutheran churchgoers my wife and I both grew up with; she says Keillor's characters sound like her relatives.

Garrison Keilor
Garrison Keillor comes to Las Cruces on May 31.
(Photo by Brian Velenchenko)

But you'd think we would have left all that behind, dontcha know (as they say in that other icon of Minnesota-ness, the movie Fargo), when we moved all the way to the desert Southwest. You can't get much farther, geographically and culturally, from the land of 10,000 lakes, "hot dish" and Powdermilk Biscuits (Keillor's fictional sponsor) than the land of cacti, enchiladas and New Age vortices.

Yet here Garrison Keillor comes, to the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, of all places, to tape a live broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion" on May 31. However much I'm a fan of his show and his books and his authentically American voice (in every sense of that word), I'm starting to think he's stalking me.



Let me explain. I first met "Gary" (as Keillor was called growing up in a small Minnesota town, Anoka, very like Lake Wobegon) back in the 1980s when I was a newspaper columnist and he was making a name for his radio show and about to publish his first novel. I interviewed him — not in Minnesota, as you might expect, but just over the border in Decorah, Iowa, where Keillor was delivering the commencement address at a small Lutheran (of course) college.

It was a sultry summer Sunday, the sweating graduates and their families in the closely packed, un-air conditioned auditorium fanning their programs like a flock of tethered seagulls. In deference to the heat, Keillor cut his address short and boiled what he swore was a really swell speech down to three pithy points of advice that still seem apt, decades later, in this graduation season:

"One, everyone ought to be able to work very hard, but if you work hard all the time you're doing something wrong.

"Two, tell the truth, because if you tell lies you'll have a hard time remembering what you said. If you do tell lies, tell them as well as I do.

"Three, there is something for you to do in the world that you can do almost better than anybody else and I hope you find it. When you do, don't tell anyone else and they'll be amazed at delighted."

Happily for amazed and delighted radio listeners and readers, Garrison Keillor found the one thing he does better than anyone else when he was just 21 years old, as a student at the University of Minnesota. In the fall of 1963, he spotted a help-wanted ad for an announcer at the campus radio station. The job paid 50 cents an hour more than working at a parking lot, which had been how Keillor was earning his tuition, and it was indoors. A radio career was born.

After graduation, Keillor joined Minnesota Public Radio and started writing — his boyhood ambition — on the side. Researching a story on the "Grand Ole Opry" in Nashville gave him the idea to start his own live radio program, with music, jokes and greetings to the folks at home. "A Prairie Home Companion" hit the airwaves in 1974 and went national on public radio stations six years later.

"We didn't worry about success and fame when the show started," Keillor told me after his abbreviated talk. He was sweaty, too, and not much more eager to talk to me than to the crowd of graduates. He's since slimmed down some and adopted his trademark red socks, but otherwise he still fits the description I scribbled way back then, as looking "like a friendly bear who's wandered away from the circus: big, black-haired, 5:00 shadow a couple of hours early, hairy hands batting the air like paws as he talks in his familiar melodic growl."

Keillor growled on, "We had other things to worry about, like whether we'd be able to continue the show for another three months. One of the beauties of a weekly deadline is it helps keep your mind off a lot of things you're probably better off not thinking about anyway."

By the time I first met him, Keillor was already famous — despite his renowned shyness ("Shy rights! Why not pretty soon?") and the fact that his name is never mentioned on his own radio program. But he insisted, "I'm not a celebrity. I'm a writer. I've spent all these years on a radio show and people know me because of the stories I've told, the town I talk about, Powdermilk Biscuits, the things I've told about shyness. They remember that stuff better than I do, they really do. That's what a great involvement radio is."



In the years after my interview, in fact, Keillor grew increasingly uncomfortable with his own celebrity. After Nick Coleman, a columnist at the St. Paul Pioneer Press — the newspaper I would later work for (see how scary this is?) — published how much Keillor had paid for his house in Minnesota, the reluctant radio celebrity moved to New York City. He married a Danish woman who'd once been an exchange student at his high school in Anoka, Minn., then divorced after five years spent partly in Denmark. Keillor even abandoned "A Prairie Home Companion" for a time, in 1987, only to return to the airwaves with a virtually identical show, "The American Radio Company of the Air."

In 1993, however, shortly after I moved back to Minnesota (coincidence?), Keillor restored the show's original name and Minnesota locale. "A Prairie Home Companion" now makes its home at the restored Fitzgerald Theatre in downtown St. Paul, although Keillor regularly takes the show on the road to places like Las Cruces.

We attended several live broadcasts at the Fitzgerald — I blame the lighting for Keillor not recognizing me and calling me onstage out of the audience — but I next saw Keillor close-up when he spoke to a gathering of newspaper journalists. This was a bit awkward, since it had been a journalist who'd helped drive the shy radio star out of town in the first place. And, to be honest, when Keillor first moved back — to a "cabin" over the border in Wisconsin, initially — my marching orders from the Pioneer Press editor were to move heaven and earth to find out the price for those new digs, too. We would "own that story," in a favorite phrase of the editor. I don't recall whether we ever did ferret out what Keillor paid for his cabin, but I do see on the About.com Web site that he and his current wife now reside in a St. Paul house they bought in 1998 for $710,000.

No doubt "Gary" didn't look me up when I was at the Pioneer Press — where my bailiwick included local radio coverage — to avoid putting me in a position of possible conflict of interest.

Keillor and I lost touch, naturally, when I moved first to Cincinnati and now to southwest New Mexico. I did keep up with him by watching the 2006 movie Robert Altman made about a re-imagined backstage view of the show, also titled A Prairie Home Companion, which will screen May 24 at the Fountain Theatre in Mesilla. And of course I continued to listen to Keillor's radio program, which airs on KRWG-FM on Saturdays, 6-8 p.m., and again on Sundays, 12-2 p.m.

Hearing Keillor spin his yarns about Lake Wobegon, I sometimes recall what he told me about radio storytelling. "I try to begin with some clear image, a few clear images of people and some suggestion of action," he'd explained. "I don't try to write a storyline, which is why often my monologues don't have one.

"It's a reverse process, storytelling on the radio," Keillor went on. "You begin with a clear image and you have to be very clear about it yourself, but when you tell the story you don't describe it point by point. You want to let the listener make up his own, fill in everything else from his own experience — in color."

I guess my long relationship with Garrison Keillor has been sort of like that — a lot of making it up and filling in the blanks over the years. And now here he is coming to Las Cruces. Sure, I'll try to make his show — if I'm not busy delivering the June issue of Desert Exposure that day — but I just hope he doesn't do anything to embarrass me. We Scandinavians are famous for our reserve, after all.

If Keillor shows up here in Silver City after the broadcast, though, I may have to get a restraining order.


KRWG-FM and NMSU present "A Prairie Home Companion" on Saturday, May 31, at 3:45 p.m. at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces. Tickets range from $25 to $53, with special floor seating at $253 including a contribution to KRWG. For tickets and information, call (575) 646-1420.

 

The CineMatinee series at the Fountain Theatre in Mesilla will screen Robert Altman's film, A Prairie Home Companion, starring Garrison Keillor, at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 24. Admission is $4, $1 for Mesilla Valley Film Society members.

 

 

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.
Just please don't tell Garrison Keillor.

 

 

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