And with these words, Minnesotan author and story-teller Garrison Keillor concludes his weekly News from Lake Wobegon monologue, a regular feature of the variety show, A Prairie Home Companion, that has been broadcast for 40 years on Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). The monologue features the characters and goings-on in an imaginary (or is it?) small town, somewhere north of the Twin Cities, ‘on the edge of the prairie’.
I first became an APHC aficionado on 17 October 2004. My elder daughter had transferred her studies from Swansea University in the UK to Macalester College, a well-respected liberal arts college in St Paul. And whenever my work with IRRI required travel to the USA I usually routed my flights through the Twin Cities. On one occasion Hannah and her boyfriend (now husband) Michael took me to Stillwater on the St Croix River which forms the state boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin, a short distance east of the Cities. It was a Sunday, late morning. As usual they had the car radio tuned to MPR, and a repeat of the previous evening’s broadcast of APHC was playing. As we pulled into Stillwater I became mesmerized (and that’s not too strong a description) by the the mellifluous voice of Garrison Keillor weaving his tales about Lake Wobegon. I was hooked, and ever since have tried to tune in whenever possible, through the web site, Internet radio while we lived in the Philippines, or rebroadcasts on the BBC.
Listen to that October 2004 episode of News from Lake Wobegon.
At the Minnesota State Fair
On a visit to St Paul in September 2010, shortly after the birth of our first grandchild Callum, Steph and I had the opportunity of attending a live broadcast of APHC from the Minnesota State Fair. Here are Garrison Keillor and guest Sara Watkins singing about state fair gourmet essentials.
Although we enjoyed the show, an outside broadcast, we weren’t as well prepared as we might have been and became thoroughly chilled. It was a windy day. And sitting off to one side, we didn’t really have a great view of all that was happening on the stage. So I promised myself that if I ever got the chance to see APHC at its ‘home base’, the Fitzgerald Theater on Exchange Street in downtown St Paul, I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase tickets. A broadcast from the Fitzgerald just hadn’t coincided with any of our annual visits to see Hannah and family since 2010. Until this year, that is.
An ambition fulfilled
Last Saturday, Steph and I, Hannah and Michael enjoyed the show Easy Come, Easy Go, broadcast live at 17:00 CT. With convenient parking just next to the theater on Wabasha St N, we arrived to the Fitzgerald around 16:35, just in time to buy a welcome gin and tonic to enjoy throughout the show.
We had great seats in Section B1R, Row JJ with a clear view of the stage.
Around 16:45, the curtain went up and on stage came Garrison Keillor, dressed in his summer suit and signature red tie and red shoes, and one of the guests, singer Heather Masse, for an audience warm-up session.
Then, on the dot of 5 pm, the introductory MPR theme played and we were LIVE!
As always, Garrison sang along to the show’s signature theme Tishomingo Blues followed by his usual introductory remarks—some classic comments on ‘illegal immigrant Canadians and the proposal of Wisconsin Governor and former Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker to build a wall along the border. One of the beauties of radio is that you can sit back, listen, and imagine. Click the icon below to listen to the show.
But it’s also great fun to watch the show, and APHC is now streamed live on video, and available on YouTube. So this blog post, with photos and vidoes, is also my memory of that memorable evening last Saturday in St Paul.
Supported by a small cast, including the Royal Academy of Radio Actors (Sue Scott, Tim Russell, and sound effects man Fred Newman), musical director Richard Dworsky and his musicians, and several guests, APHC follows much the same format of sketches, songs and musical interludes, although which regular items are included does vary from week to week. My favorites, Guy Noir-Private Eye, The Lives of the Cowboys, and Mom were all included last Saturday.
The special guest from Nashville was mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull (supported by Ethan Jodziewicz on bass and Justin Moses on banjo and guitar) who made her debut aged 12 at the Grand Ole Opry (check out the video here) with Alison Krauss and Union Station.
Heather Masse, from New York, and also a member of the trio The Wailin’ Jennys sang one of my favorites, September Song (composed by Kurt Weill, with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, and originally sung by Walter Huston in the 1938 Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday).
Following September Song, Garrison Keillor talked about September memories stirred up by the smell of fallen leaves and coffee in The News from Lake Wobegon.
And then, it was all over. Two hours had flown by. It was time for the ‘curtain call’.
Meeting Mr Keillor
On the way out, I looked for the bust of F Scott Fitzgerald (after whom the theater was named) as I remembered it from Robert Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion, released in 2006, and with a stellar cast including Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, Garrison Keillor, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reily, and Lindsay Lohan (and some of the regular APHC contributors).
Garrison Keillor was outside the theater to meet those leaving, and I hoped to have chance of doing so. We edged our way to the exit. In front of me were a couple who were also hoping to meet him.
‘Tell him you’re from California’, said the woman to her husband. ‘He’s sure to want to speak to us, knowing we’ve come so far’.
‘That’s not far’, I butted in, smiling. ‘I’ve come all the way from England!’
They were flabbergasted, and made way for me to move forward, to shake the hand of the great man. That’s them behind me.
This season of A Prairie Home Companion will be Garrison Keillor’s last. He’s calling it a day after more than 40 years, almost a weekly show, in which he writes under the pen name of ‘Sarah Bellum‘. So I’m pleased to have been able to see the ‘original’ show. Mandolinist Chris Thile will host the show after Keillor’s retirement next year, and no doubt the format will change. He’s hosted the show before, and I guess there will be more music. It will be interesting to see how the ‘new APHC’ will fare. Until then, sit back, and tune into MPR at 17:00 CT. Or like me, tune into the internet when it’s more convenient. APHC will take you back to the radio days of my childhood, and you won’t be disappointed.
Good luck, Mr Keillor, and thank you for hundreds of hours of radio-listening pleasure all these years.