Commentary: Prairie Home memories
The departure of Garrison Keillor as host of A Prairie Home Companion has triggered memories of my 40-year association with the show and with him.
In 1974, I was living in Oklahoma and ready to move. The question was where. I had been writing on assignment for National Lampoon Magazine, and they had invited me to move to New York. My other choice was Minnesota, where I had no prospects, but my mother was from St. Paul, and I had come up often on vacation as a child and loved the state. Honestly, moving to New York City was too scary a prospect so, in June 1974, my wife and I packed up our VW van and moved to the Land of Lakes.
I took a job at the Guthrie Theater, but soon started playing solo at the Coffeehouse Extempore, on Minneapolis’s West Bank. It was there that Keillor heard me and eventually hired me to play guitar in what was to be the first permanent house band for the Companion, the Powdermilk Biscuit Band.
It was already clear at that point that the show was going to survive and flourish, but it had no permanent home, so we played in many venues: the small theater in Park Square Court, the O’Shaughnessys at both St. Kate’s and St. Thomas, the University of Minnesota St. Paul Campus Student Center, the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis and, frequently, the theater in the old Science Museum of St. Paul or its sculpture garden.
This last venue was a challenge: the weather bureau would be called, and an indoor-or-outdoor decision would be made a couple of hours before airtime. We only got it wrong once, when rain hit mid-show and we had to stop the broadcast for about 20 minutes while everyone—audience included—humped instruments and technical gear inside.
Around a year later, the World Theater (cum the Fitzgerald Theater) was acquired. There was a false ceiling covering the second balcony, which made a happy home for a cloud of bats, and the backstage areas were long unused and very funky, but we had, for the first time, a permanent home. People would line up an hour or so before the show for first-come-first-served seating, and I’d see the same smiling faces each week as I entered the theater.
I guest-hosted the show three times. The first time was planned in advance, to allow Keillor and then-producer Margaret Moos take a vacation to San Francisco. Pulling this duty was bad enough, because Garrison had already become the alpha and omega of the show, but at least the audience knew in advance that he wouldn’t be there. Worse was a time I subbed for him at the last minute because he had the flu. No one in the audience knew he wasn’t going to be there, and the combined sigh of disappointment of 1,400 people when I walked out on stage instead of him almost blew out the World Theater’s windows.
I’ve written sporadically for the show: Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, Jack’s Fountain Lounge, the occasional Guy Noir script. Garrison’s had a number of writers, but 99 percent of what he’s said on the radio has bubbled out of his own head.
As an on-air dramatis personae, I was the hip jazz lover who grumpily endured the old-time string band music I was forced to play, and I was the unofficial spokesman for Jack (of the Fountain Lounge), who shared my downtown musical tastes.
Touring with the show changed dramatically over the years. We first used a van with a trailer on the back, but soon switched to a large motor home and added a box truck, driven by engineers Buzz Kemper and Tom Keith (later to become MPR’s Jim Ed Poole, and still later—as Tom Keith again—the Companion’s first sound effects man).
My first inkling of Tom’s skills of mimicry came when I was driving the box truck on Highway 2 toward Bemidji late one night with him sitting next to me. I heard a siren coming up behind me and, cursing, began to slow down. I looked for flashing lights in my rearview mirror. All was dark. Then I looked at Tom, who was grinning. He had done a perfect imitation of a siren as it would sound coming toward me from 500 feet back through a closed window.
The early tours were centered on the dozen or so cities from which the show was broadcast, but often included small towns like Chatfield, Lucan and Olivia. Latter-day touring was done by chartered bus, plane and, in the cases of the Prairie Home Companion cruises, ship. These last have afforded me the opportunity to see dozens of countries in the only manner a professional musician is likely to see them: as parts of working trips.
As my buddy Howard Mohr—he of How to Talk Minnesotan fame—would say, my experience was a heckuva deal. I wish I could close this piece by claiming that I saw the Keillor genius from the get-go, but that would be a lie. And I don’t think any of us musicians imagined, in 1975, where A Prairie Home Companion would end up. But I’d bet the bank Garrison did.
Adam Granger lives in St. Anthony Park with his wife and dog, Molly, and is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.