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Keillor rules the ‘Prairie Home’ kingdom

During rehearsal, the boss meanders backstage, singing to himself. The boss is Garrison Keillor, the omnipotent and sometimes oblivious creator of "A Prairie Home Companion," the public radio show adored by 4 million fans, broadcast live from Minnesota's mythical Lake Wobegon.
/ Source: The Associated Press

During rehearsal, the boss meanders backstage, singing to himself. He doesn't so much wander as he circles like an approaching jet. When he descends from on high is anybody's guess. He's also the air traffic controller. And it's his airport.

The boss is Garrison Keillor, the omnipotent and sometimes oblivious creator of "A Prairie Home Companion," the public radio show adored by 4 million fans, broadcast live from Minnesota's mythical Lake Wobegon — home to Norwegian bachelor farmers, strong women, good-looking men and above-average children.

This is not the gentle narrator you hear on the air — that witty, sensitive observer of triviality and tribulations. This is a complicated and detached ringmaster, issuing orders that change faster than weather. His loyal, highly professional staff stays right in step.

Ditch the script? No problem. Get the mayor of International Falls, Minn., on the phone and patch her into the live broadcast? Alrighty, then. Fill five minutes of otherwise dead air because he's cut short his much-loved monologue ("Well, it's been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon ...") in the middle of a live broadcast? You betcha, as they say in Minnesota.

He's written books, essays, columns and a screenplay, but he's most revered for what he does on Saturday nights: tender teller of tales from a town that does not exist; impresario of an exceptional house band and troupe of actors who deliver a dizzying series of skits, songs and sound effects.

His need for others on a show he's hosted for 31 years appears purely practical. It is impossible to sing every song, play every musical instrument and read each actor's lines — simultaneously, anyway. If he could, he might just would.

He started hiring writers not too long ago, but virtually the entire two-hour program still comes out of his head. Which is its beauty, or its conceit, depending on one's viewpoint.

But for now, take a moment to enjoy this view: stage right at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul. Dimmed house lights bask the old, refurbished auditorium in burnished gold. The 996 red-upholstered seats are empty. Onstage, the cast and crew are rehearsing.

Linger over images not seen in the mind's-eye of radio. This is the well-oiled and often magical machine that produces "A Prairie Home Companion."

Laden with love
There are two shows this weekend.

Friday's performance won't be broadcast — it's staged only for the program's worshipful hometown audience, and serves as a kind of dress rehearsal for Saturday's regular show, which will be broadcast coast-to-coast on more than 580 stations and later aired in Europe.

At 2 p.m. on Friday, tonight's musical lineup is laden with love.

"Devoted to You," the Everly Brothers classic; "Loving You," a 1957 hit by Elvis Presley; "I Can't Stop Loving You," made memorable by Ray Charles, and Freddy Fender's country promise, "Before the Next Teardrop Falls."

Keillor and band leader Rich Dworsky — a short, bubbling, balding man who can lovingly play most any song off the top of his head — are working out chord changes with the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band.

"I think I need an A, A, B, A," says Keillor, who arrives in jeans, a black T-shirt and his ever-present red sneakers. He loves to sing but the feeling isn't mutual. His voice is best suited to deep, rumbling bass lines. That doesn't stop him from charging up the scales, or dropping into harmony. Sometimes in key, just as often not.

He has not shaved. His hair stands on end. His body language says: "I Am Thinking. Approach At Your Own Peril."

Keillor, who is about to turn 65, has never cared much about his appearance.

His forehead is a cliff dropping into overgrown eyebrows that hang like swollen rain gutters. His 6-foot-4, gangly frame hangs at odd angles. His legs go on for miles.

"I have a face for radio," he says quite often.

Words are most important to him. Writing, he believes, is rewriting.

He does the latter during rehearsals, after rehearsals and during the broadcast. A song is in. It's out. Likewise for the comedy skits.

The performers learned long ago to roll with it. "This is his show," smiles bassist Gary Raynor, who's recorded with Janet Jackson and played with the Count Basie band. "We put this together very fast. There's not a moment to waste. Everyone just kind of gives him space. He always has a vision, and he knows what it is."

Stage manager Albert Webster may be the hardest-working man in Lake Wobegon. He books the out-of-town gigs — anywhere from one-third to one-half of the season's 36 performances. He handles all arrangements for the troupe's yearly cruise, when the actors and musicians entertain a sold-out luxury liner for a week.

Then there's his real job: keeping the show on schedule, despite morphing dialogue and disappearing songs.

At 3 p.m. Webster still doesn't have a script for tonight's performance. He never really gets a final one, just a succession of marked-up pages as the day wears on. Webster gets each version to actors Sue Scott, Tim Russell and sound-effects guy Tom Keith.

"A lot of it's off the top of their heads," Webster jokes, "and other body orifices."

Like most of the cast, he lives nearby. (Drummer Arnie Kinsella, a wry and tiny man barely visible behind his high-hat cymbals, commutes from New York's Staten Island.) "We all come here every weekend to do a really fun job," Webster says.

Where else could a group of actors and musicians put on a radio show featuring renowned guests like actress Meryl Streep, author Calvin Trillin, musician Bonnie Raitt, comedy bits, gospel songs, audience sing-alongs and poetry readings?

At 3:45 p.m Keillor is having second thoughts. "I'm going to scratch 'Teardrop,'" he says. "It's gone."

He debates bandleader Dworsky about whether he's singing the right notes. "How do I know that you're right and I'm wrong?" asks Keillor. Dworsky hands him the score. "Oh, the sheet music," Keillor drawls. That little ol' thing.

The actors' call is for 4:30 p.m., but Scott is stuck in a traffic jam. Russell and Keith wait downstairs in the green room.

Another chance for 'Teardrop'
At 5 p.m. Keillor announces: "I'm thinking of restoring 'Teardrop,'" he says. "Try it."

The band obliges. "If he brings you happiness, then I wish you both the best," sings frequent musical guest Prudence Johnson.

No, Keillor decides after a few bars. "That's it," he says. "It's gone."

On to "Loving You," whose lyrics Keillor has rewritten. Now it's an ode to erupting children. He rhymes diarrhea with bad tortillas. Next verse: "Pools of vomit in my lap. Great big chunks. Of your lunch."

There's plenty of potty talk on "Prairie Home Companion." Much ado about poop and boogers and the various vagaries of advancing age — incontinence, for example, and its slippery slide into Depends. There is constant work for the sound-effects guys (Keith and Fred Newman) in simulating audible flatulence.

Such pranks never fail to delight audience members possessing the sense of humor of a 10-year-old boy. There's lots of these folks in the crowd. Many have gray hair.

At 6:30 p.m., the actors are rehearsing. Show time in 90 minutes.

To his sound-effects table, Keith has added shoes (he buys very old pairs at thrift shops because they have harder soles and make more noise) and three pieces of black fabric.

There also are miniature doors with metal knobs, a dead bolt lock, a rotary dial telephone (to get that old-fashioned, metallic brr-iinn-gg) and a box of small stones (in which he will walk his palms to simulate footsteps on a gravel road).

A gaggle of talkative geeseFor a skit about migrating, talkative Canada geese, Keith distributes the fabric swatches. The idea is for the actors to snap them like accordions, thereby creating the sound of flapping wings.

They look silly doing it. That's Keillor's point. It's a sight gag for the theater audience. The folks listening at home won't know.

And while they're winging it, Scott, Russell and Keith take a moment to practice honking like geese.

For the next 30 minutes or so, they run through other bits, including a scene from Cafe Boeuf, where the patronizing waiter speaks in bad puns and French-accented gibberish (it says so in the script: "French Gibberish"). "What wine goes with zee pea-nuht buhterr and jellie sandweech? Why zee pea-nuht new-arrr, but of course. Heh heh heh."

Keillor listens with a faraway look. His mouth hardens into a perfectly shaped, upside-down U. This happens when he's not crazy about the way his lines are being read.

Keillor has written his monologue, but he rarely lets anyone see it. It's all in his head.

Ten minutes to show time; the house is full.

In his tiny dressing room, Keillor changes into a white shirt and black pants. Then he paces, fiddling with the knot of his red tie, which matches his red socks and his red shoes — the uniform of every show.

He slips on a black jacket, brushes the lapels and takes a sip of water. He strides across the hardwood floor to center stage and turns to face the Shoe band.

"Tony, white spot please," he says to an unseen light technician. He lifts his arms and nods to Dworsky at the piano, who plunks out the well-known notes that begin the show's theme song.

"Oh, hear that old piano," sings Keillor, "from down the avenue ..."

The audience claps and whistles. The noise grows thunderous.

Curtain up.

The show goes off with nary a hitch, but there were last-minute changes Friday's audience couldn't see:

After dying twice, "Teardrop" rose again. Keillor's monologue — which included the passing of Holy Week, the colors of snot, tornado sirens, pie baking and a bird — ended abruptly, for reasons only he knew.

"That's fun," Webster whispered into his headset. "He's cut it short by five minutes."

And so, in the cold light of Saturday, as rehearsals begin anew for tonight's broadcast, here's the question: How much of the show has Keillor changed overnight?

A lot, it turns out. And he's still at it.

He's rewritten the skits. And then there's the matter of the music therapist. No one has seen him, and Keillor has invited him to perform during the broadcast.

By 2 p.m., Scott and Russell are reading through revisions. Keillor scolds them for ad-libbing.

"Writers don't like to see actors invent dialogue," he says.

"Well, alrighty then," says a grinning Scott, the only female actor. She is the voice of gun molls and sultry, breathless bimbos ("Guy Noir, Private Eye"), dissatisfied wives ("The Catchup Advisory Board," which extolls the virtues of ketchup), and no-nonsense cowgirls ("Lives of the Cowboys," starring herders Dusty and Lefty).

At 3:15 p.m. a nervous-looking man in glasses approaches the stage manager.

"You're the music therapist?" asks Webster.


"You have any idea what you're supposed to do?"

"Not a clue."

Keillor has reappeared. Webster presents Todd Schwartzberg of the McPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis.

A lamb to the slaughterLike a lamb to slaughter, Schwartzberg trails Keillor across the stage to meet Dworsky. By way of introduction, the boss says: "Todd is going to do a couple of songs with the audience, and you're going to play."

Dworsky nods. Schwartzberg looks terrified.

He has to borrow a guitar from the band.

"In the key of G," Schwartzberg begins. "I play this song a lot with kids. It goes `I'm in the mood to clap my hands, hey how about you?'"

The therapist explains that during this number, the audience will clap, then shake their hands above their heads and then turn in a circle. A therapeutic hokey pokey, as it were.

He's got another mental health song, and it's about emotions. "What kind of feelings do you have?" he sings for Keillor and the band. "Are you happy? Are you frustrated? Are you sad?"

This is a little too treacly for stalwart Lake Wobegon, where one simply soldiers on like a good Norwegian Lutheran and keeps one's pie hole shut.

Keillor doesn't answer. He's wearing that frown he gets when he doesn't like something.

"Feelings" dies a silent death.

Twenty minutes to show time.

Keillor stands in the wings, his monologue its usual mystery.

But it never ceases to produce the same reverent response: Silence descends when he plops on a stool, bends into the microphone and weaves another intimate dispatch from the placid shores of a community so small you never need to use your turn signal, because everyone knows where you're going.

On the counter of his dressing room rests a ragged, half-sheet of paper. He has scrawled "Nearer, My God, to Thee" — the hymn reportedly sung by those going down with the Titanic.

Metaphor or musical selection?

The music therapist is staring straight ahead like a man about to be hanged.

The house lights dim.

In the dark, Dworsky begins to play.

Keillor takes a long breath. "Oh, hear that old piano ..."

The show begins.

Another show in the booksThree hours later, Keillor sags with exhaustion. He has shaken the hand of every fan who stayed after the show, He poses for photos. He signs autographs. He does this every week.

He thinks the monologue fell flat, but doesn't say why. After three decades of doing this, he still can't say what constitutes a good show. He's better at saying what doesn't.

"I don't want to get into self-righteousness or preachiness. I don't want to deal in nostalgia in the slightest degree." He directs these comments to a bottle of iced tea he swirls in his hand like a brandy snifter. His red-rimmed eyes stare at the brown liquid. "I aspire only to silliness."

Yet he built Lake Wobegon, a place steeped in sentimentality. A place where, week after week, millions of wistful strangers slide into the corner booth of a make-believe cafe, feeling that they belong to a place that exists only in Keillor's head.

And next week, he'll invite them back.