Garrison Keillor: The Voice From Lake Wobegon

A Plowboy Interview with Garrison Keillor, whose radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" has delighted listeners for decades.

| May/June 1985

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    Garrison Keillor on stage.

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"It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon ... my home town. "

So begins an event that 2,000,000 public radio listeners — all across America's cities, suburbs, and countryside — wait for each Saturday night: Garrison Keillor's monologue on "A Prairie Home Companion." If you've heard the show, you're already familiar with Father Emil's sermons at The Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. You've heard the ads for Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery. ("If you can't find it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it.") You've taken refreshment — in your mind, at least — at the Sidetrack Tap ("where Wally and Evelyn are waiting to serve you.") and the Chatterbox Cafe ("where Dorothy presides."). And you've surely longed for Lake Wobegon's most famous product, Powdermilk Biscuits. As Keillor personally testifies, "Powdermilk Biscuits give shy people the strength to get up and do what needs to be done, even if it's just to sit down and shut up. I take one Powdermilk Biscuit if I'm just coming out here to talk, two if I'm going to sing."

If by chance you don't know anything about the goings-on in Lake Wobegon, we'd advise you to free up next Saturday night for some quiet listening by the radio. You'll find a warm, spontaneous, live musical variety show (Garrison was inspired to create "A Prairie Home Companion" after attending the "Grand Ole Opry" in Nashville, Tenn.), and you'll find yourself listening to one of America's most spellbinding storytellers.

Keillor's small-town Minnesota tales defy categorization. They're often hilarious, but they're never only funny. Rather, the same story that starts out with laughs can move to a sad, even tragic, note ... to something disarmingly human and touching ... then warm and reminiscent ... then still and quiet ... and back — closing a loop you probably hadn't even noticed being formed — to a humorous tie-in with its beginning. Although Garrison's monologues often have fun with Lake Wobegon's small-town inhabitants, they don't make fun of them. Keillor somehow manages to gently parody people's foibles and values while he still cares for and, indeed, honors the individuals involved.

Along with hosting this highly popular public radio show, Garrison Keillor is an established short fiction writer whose works have frequentIy appeared in the New Yorker. His first book, Happy to Be Here, is a collection of 34 stories, and he's currently working on a novel that will be based on his "Prairie Home" monologues. In fact, he started in radio almost 20 years ago (first at the University of Minnesota and ever since with Minnesota Public Radio) mainly as a way to earn money while pursuing his goals as a writer. These days, Keillor lives in St. Paul and learns to cope with his success. Still, part of him manages to stay closer in touch with his real-life Anoka, Minn., roots. Describing the members of the church of his youth, he once said, "These people were wonderful storytellers, and the purpose of their stories was to imbue us with compassion."

No better statement could be made concerning Garrison Keillor's own work. So come with us now to meet the funny and human creator of Lake Wobegon, "the town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve ... where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average."


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