After 25 Years, It's Still the Small Things
By Caroline Moss

What is it about this mild Minnesota man, slouching at six foot, four inches in front of a microphone and breathing in deeply and audibly through his nose, that brings millions of Americans' lives to a screeching halt at five o'clock on a Saturday night so they can plop down in front of their radios? A good question.
 


When Garrison Keillor started A Prairie Home Companion (named after the Prairie Home cemetery in Moorhead, MN), only a handful of people seemed to think the show was worth much. About 12 people paid a dollar (50 cents for kids) to attend the first live show from Macalester College in St. Paul on July 6, 1974. The total gate was something less than $8.00. "The thought of people in this day and age sitting down to listen to a radio variety show on Saturday evening is rather implausible and was even more so in 1974 when we started A Prairie Home Companion," says Keillor. "Thank goodness Minnesota Public Radio was too poor to afford good advice, or the show would've never got on the air. We only did it because we knew it would be fun to do. It was a dumb idea. I wish I knew how to be that dumb again."

Now Doonesbury is calling Garrison a "national treasure," and the program is enjoying record listenership - over 2.6 million people tuning in every week to about 460 public radio stations across the country. But it's not about being a national treasure or anything very large at all. In fact, it's really about being small.


"Life is complicated, so think small. You can't live life in raging torrents; you have to take it one day at a time, and if you need drama, read Dickens," says former Lake Wobegon resident and meek public radio station manager John Tollefson (the main character in Keillor's book Wobegon Boy (Viking Press, 1997)). The appeal that Lake Wobegon had for John Tollefson, and has for listeners of the program, obviously isn't that it's some terribly exotic place where life is led by busy people with cell phones and low-fat diets. It's a life of Jell-O salad, hard work, and family.

In talking and writing about Lake Wobegon, Keillor chronicles part of our lives. In every A Prairie Home Companion monologue about the "strong women, good-looking men, and above-average children" in Lake Wobegon, he spins a tale of real life. It's this tale of small things that brings us to our radios on a Saturday night when we should be out whooping it up with our friends. It's these bits of real life - the Living Flag, Carl's Dog Story, and Tomato Butt - that have kept us tuning in for 25 years.

"I guess the high point for me is the News from Lake Wobegon. It's like a cross between a New Yorker short story and a sermon. There is ritual there and a sense of belonging to this small-town community," says Lars Negstad, a 30-something from Washington, D.C. And the funny part is, whether, like Lars, listeners are 30 years old, or 10, or 90, it's still just about being human. Listeners can relate to the Tolleruds and the Gundersens, and to a greater or lesser degree, the priest at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic Church. It's the condition of our lives.

But it's doubtful that the study of the human condition is really what Garrison Keillor had in mind when he started. When he started, it was just showbiz. After he began work on an article for the New Yorker magazine about the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Keillor developed an idea for a radio show with musical guests and commercials for imaginary products. A Prairie Home Companion was and is a show with a little of everything, which appeals to pretty much everybody. It's like the weather in Schenectady, right? Wait 10 minutes and it'll change.

Every week the two-hour live variety show is packed with musical guests, comedy sketches, and Keillor commentary. "When you start up a radio show like this one," Keillor says, "you don't stop to think of the consequences, I guess. You happen to know a few musicians, you feel like being the announcer and telling some jokes, your Saturdays are free, and the next thing you know, an engineer is pointing his finger, and you and you sing, 'Look who's coming through the door.'"
 
Musical guests on A Prairie Home Companion have included legends like Chet Atkins and young newcomers like Gillian Welch. We also hear from people like National Poet Laureate Rita Dove, humorist Roy Blount, Jr., Studs Terkel, and Al Franken. Some of Keillor's imaginary sponsors have been Powdermilk Biscuits (Heavens, They're Tasty!), Bertha's Kitty Boutique, Jack's Auto Repair (All Tracks Lead to Jack's), The American Duct Tape Council, and The Ketchup Advisory Board. Keillor does make it seem like he's managed to get some of his friends together to sing songs, tell jokes, and laugh a little. And the best part is that we're always invited.

At some points in A Prairie Home Companion's history, though, it wasn't as much being invited that was the key; it was knowing where to show up. After pitching its tent at venues like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, St. John's University in Collegeville, and the St. Paul Ramsey Arts and Science Center auditorium, the show finally found a home. In 1978, A Prairie Home Companion moved to the World Theater (now the Fitzgerald Theater) in St. Paul. The theater, scheduled at one point for demolition, is still home base. Keillor remembers, "I wrote the show on an old Underwood typewriter, then I switched to a word processor in 1985. A laptop in 1989. It's all slicker and more sophisticated now, of course. "On the first long tour, I drove around with Rod Bellville, Rudy Darling, Dakota Dave Hull, Sean Blackburn, and Buzz Kemper, and we slept in a tent and carried around the box office receipts in a canvas bag."

After a well-publicized exit from the show in 1987, Keillor brought the show back, this time to New York where it headlined as The American Radio Company. The show built momentum, and more stations began to air it, and in March 1992, Keillor announced that the program would head back to Minnesota. In 1993 the program resumed the name A Prairie Home Companion, and since then, the show has gained and continues to gain incredible popularity. After A Prairie Home Companion visited his town, the sponsoring station manager in Peoria, IL, remarked, "I could've run for mayor and gotten elected." Both tour shows and home shows often sell out within hours to loyal fans; the PrairieHome website has been deluged with hits; and many of the faithful stand out in the elements on Saturday mornings (some arriving around 6:30 a.m.), hoping for rush tickets to that day's live broadcast. "When the show started, it was something funny to do with my friends, and then it became an achievement that I hoped would be successful, and now it's a good way of life," acknowledges Keillor.

Whether it's the Gen-X'er with purple hair sitting in the balcony at the theater, or the middle-aged guy who laughs uneasily in his La-Z-Boy at Keillor's jokes about hair loss, we all still know that there's really only one guy at A Prairie Home Companion. And every week for the past 25 years, he's taken us on the short trip to Lake Wobegon; he's entertained us, and he's given the us the gift of himself. We can look forward to more quiet weeks in Garrison Keillor's hometown, to more rhubarb pie, and to more of the small things.

Thank you, Garrison Keillor, and congratulations on 25 years of A Prairie Home Companion.

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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