An Open Letter from Garrison Keillor

This letter appeared in the July 6, 1999 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

On July 6, 1974, some friends and I did a radio show in front of a small audience at Macalester College, and twenty-five years later, I want to thank St. Paul for being the home of A Prairie Home Companion.

The Fitzgerald Theater
The Fitzgerald Theater
The show has played Radio City Music Hall, Town Hall, The Fox in Atlanta, Wolf Trap, Hollywood Bowl, and Mark Twain's house in Hartford, but our home is here at the Fitzgerald Theater on Exchange and Wabasha. The St. Paul Public Library is our research arm. Cossetta's pizza fuels many a staff meeting. The St. Paul Hotel ministers to our guests. Dayton's has provided red socks at the last minute on Saturday. Mickey's Diner sent over a waiter to take orders on the air. St. Paul Parks & Recreation helps put on our street dances and the St. Paul police have made sure everything was cool.

The best St. Paul has given us is talent. Pure talent. Judy Larson was a Murray High grad and the most moving blues singer I ever heard. Butch Thompson is from Marine on St. Croix and lives on Crocus Hill; he's the best classic jazz pianist in America, none better. We found Bob Douglas, the Powdermilk Biscuit Band leader and mandolinist and spoon player, on Holly Avenue. There was the late George "Red" Maddock, an old St. Paul nightclub drummer of whom Chet Atkins said he had the steadiest beat and could propel a band better than anyone he ever heard. God bless you, Red. And then there was the old railroad electrician from the East Side, Ray Marklund, who became our volunteer stagehand and was backstage, with his tools, at every show until he died a few years ago. He knew music from his youth spent at the Coliseum ballroom on Lexington and University, where Duke Ellington and Woody Herman and Count Basie played.
The Fitzgerald Theater
Soundman Tom Keith
Ray was the salt of the earth and a big booster back when we had no confidence in ourselves and from time to time he appointed himself the producer. "You can't fire me, I'm a volunteer," he said.

Along the way we found the best radio sound-effects man in America over in West St. Paul, Tom Keith, a sound engineer who segued into doing hoof clops, rockets, toilets, helicopters, and elk. A few years later, we found a Highland Park guy for a musical director, Richard Dworsky, an ace studio musician and recording artist and Children's Theatre composer, and the absolute perfect pianist for our show. Nobody else in America can do what this guy does, improvising, underscoring, arranging, playing great gospel piano and jazz and blues. And then there is the girl from Holy Spirit Grade School (where she played the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz") Christine Tschida, who has produced the show for the past ten years and brought it into the black and extended its life. And then we added a terrific guitarist, Pat Donohue, known to every acoustic guitarist in America, who grew up on Summit and who is featured on the show every week. You could take this guy anywhere.

St. Paul is a great city and what makes it so is its power to raise your spirits when you feel discouraged and over-worked and misunderstood. I get inspired by listening to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, their beautiful translucent sound redolent of white Burgundy and fresh mown grass, or seeing the Minnesota Opera put on Turandot or La Traviata in The Ordway. Or by hiking across the Wabasha bridge and getting that magnificent river-level view of the city from Navy Island.
The St. Paul Saints (courtesy MN Historical Society)

A Saints ball game is a cheering experience and so is buying a large box of buttered popcorn from Candyland. The existence of fresh popcorn is one thing that makes a city livable. This city has many such distinctions. The Hungry Mind is one of the best bookstores in America. The bar of the St. Paul Grill is everything a bar should be. Eating on W.A. Frost's terrace on a summer night. A movie at the Grandview. In August, there's the State Fair calling to us from North Snelling. You can walk into Rice Park, a lively square that any city in America could envy, and see The Ordway lit up and the James J. Hill Library and admire our great municipal castle that Betty Musser and Georgia DeCoster and Frank Marzitelli saved from the wrecking ball. You can walk up past the Cathedral to F. Scott's old neighborhood on Ramsey Hill and stroll along Summit or Portland or Goodrich (where the big white house stands where he wrote Winter Dreams) and know that there isn't another place quite like it anywhere.

This is a good city and it's been good to me and to our show. It's almost all the honor a person could want just to be able to live here.

The folks who put out this paper have been good to our show. When we were young and raw and naive, the paper promoted us, and then when the show moved back here in 1992, two guys from the paper, aware of bruised feelings in the past, took me to lunch, simply to say, "The past is the past. If you're going to get mad at us, it should be for something new." It was a good lunch, we laughed a lot, and it was a classy thing for them to do.

A Prairie Home Companion is only a radio show, so it doesn't bear celebration anymore than you'd celebrate fireflies. It's transitory. There is always the next show to think about. I always wish it were better. I have a thousand regrets. But I look forward to the start of our new season October 2. And thank you, St. Paul, for all these sweet years.

APHC 25th Anniversary Home

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

Available now»

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