After more than four decades of hosting this homespun Americana musical variety program, which he created and which, in turn, created him, Garrison Keillor, 73, is retiring. The holiday weekend show is his last.
ST. PAUL, MINN. — Garrison Keillor was riding shotgun in a rented Chevy, motoring east through the steamy Midwestern heat.
His linen suit was appropriately rumpled — everything about this public radio legend suggests disregard for crisp lines — and his gangly legs were jacked up against the glove box, as he resisted suggestions to slide his seat back. Hitching a ride with a reporter from Minneapolis to his home here, he filled the yawning silences with a weird little singsong, “bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp.”
He had just spent hours rehearsing for the following night, when he hosted “A Prairie Home Companion,” at the State Theater in Minneapolis, before a packed, adoring crowd for the last time.
ON THE RADIO
‘A Prairie Home Companion’
3 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. Sunday, KUOW 94.9 FM
After more than four decades of hosting this homespun Americana musical variety program, which he created and which, in turn, created him, Keillor, 73, is retiring.
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He has named a successor and lined up meaty post-“Prairie” projects, among them columns for The Washington Post, a screenplay and a book. He will host his final official “Prairie Home Companion” on July 1 at, of all places, the Hollywood Bowl.
“It’s very much real, and it’s simply a matter of wanting to rearrange one’s life,” Keillor said after we had arrived at his large, handsome Georgian house, and he had eased his stooping 6-foot-4 frame into a porch chair. “In order to do these things, I’ve got to clear out the big buffalo in the room, which is the show.”
At his home, Keillor looms, a melancholy presence, and doesn’t make much eye contact, keeping his bespectacled eyes averted under scraggly eyebrows. Rather than savor the conversation, he seems to cordially endure it. His mellifluous voice, likened to a down comforter or “a slow drip of Midwestern molasses,” feels warmly familiar to any public radio listener who has heard him sing “Tishomingo Blues,” which opens his show each Saturday evening.
Yet as familiar and cherished as “Prairie” has become to millions, it was always about Keillor’s fascinations, rather than the inner tickings of its host.
“It was never about self expression, never,” Keillor said.
Everything about “Prairie Home” sprang from Keillor’s imagination. But the man spinning the plates at the center of it all managed to stay a mystery, even to people who know him well.
“Garrison in person is quite different,” said his longtime friend, the writer Mark Singer. “Garrison does not express emotion in interpersonal conversations the way the rest of us do.”
Performers often cultivate alternate personas, but with Keillor the difference is startling.
“His gaze is often floating and takes you in from a strange distance,” said the writer and editor Roger Angell, who in 1970 edited Keillor’s first piece for The New Yorker. “He is certainly the strangest person I know.”
There is debate about whether Keillor should have exited a while ago. His weekly radio audience peaked 10 years ago, at 4.1 million, and has since dropped to 3.2 million.
“A lot of the conversation has been: ‘Did Garrison wait too long? Should Garrison have done this years ago?’ ” said Eric Nuzum, former vice president for programming at NPR. “The problem of ‘Prairie Home Companion’ is it’s part of public radio’s past, not their future,” Nuzum said.
Still, Keillor played an outsize role in shaping what public radio has become.
He was a pioneering force and taught public radio valuable lessons, Nuzum said. The live performances and touring built audiences and kept them connected and deeply loyal. That proved lucrative, as did sales of “Prairie Home Companion” tchotchkes. The show itself, with its singing, quirky sidekicks, stealthily dark humor and fart jokes, forged a new path.
Adored as he has been by millions, Keillor drove a few critics around the bend.
Detractors view “Prairie Home” as excruciatingly hokey, syrupy and dull. In a withering review of Robert Altman’s 2006 film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” Rex Reed called Keillor “a myopic doughboy” and his program “a lumbering, affected and pointless audio curiosity.”
Keillor has had health concerns. But he insists it’s his other projects that compelled him to step away. After July, he will continue to have a small radio foothold, hosting “The Writer’s Almanac.”
Still, the future of “Prairie Home Companion,” and public radio, without Keillor remains somewhat of an open question.
Keillor’s hand-picked successor, folk musician Chris Thile, 35, cheerfully admitted in an interview that it could all go down the drain if audiences reject him after he begins hosting on Oct. 15.
“Public radio always wondered what it was going to do when Garrison leaves,” Nuzum said. “It’s about to find out.”
Born in 1942 in Anoka, Minn., Keillor grew up the third of six children. He wrote for the local paper, majored in English at the University of Minnesota and in 1969 took a job at a radio station as a classical music announcer.
Curiously, Keillor has always found it difficult spending so much time with the strong, good-looking, above average people of Lake Wobegon.
Speaking on his porch, Keillor said of Lake Wobegonians, i.e., his relatives, “I am frustrated by them in real life.”
So why devote so much of his professional life ruminating about them?
“It’s the people I think I know,” he replied.
Will he miss them, and the weekly jolt of the show?
“No,” he replied. “No.”
And yet. It was gloriously warm and sunny in Minneapolis for his last show there. After his show drew to a close, Keillor stayed onstage and began leading the audience in song, keeping them singing and swaying for perhaps half an hour.
Then he stepped offstage and swept through the wings, heading toward the lobby, where he would greet his people like a preacher. He stood for photographs with fans for nearly two hours.
As he passed by backstage, striding purposefully, he glanced at me, registered no recognition, and continued on, muttering, “bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp.”