Live from Lake Wobegon; WILL NPR'S 'PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION' BRING RADIO OF AGE AGAIN?
Lake Wobegon, Minn.
He has become public radio's No. 1 fund-raiser, the hero of a growing national cult, and he single-handedly made this little town (pronounced ''woebegone'') and its ''residents'' famous.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet Garrison Keillor spends a disproportionate amount of his time trying to avoid the limelight and trying to convince people that he is only having fun.
The 39-year-old Minnesotan hosts National Public Radio's increasingly popular ''A Prairie Home Companion.'' Athenaeum has just released a collection of his humorous New Yorker and Atlantic pieces entitled ''Happy to Be Here.'' Can the cover of People be far behind?
Not if Keillor can help it.
After all, he is also the man who composed the stirring ''shy rights'' manifesto to President Carter (''It is clear to me that if we don't get some action on this, it could be a darned quiet summer. . . . Whatever you decide will be OK by me'') and then in typical ''shy person'' fashion, didn't mail it. He also steadfastly declines to speculate that there is any significance to ''A Prairie Home Companion'': It is just two hours of fun.
In fact, when he brought the show to the East for the first time last fall, Keillor chided reporters for ''wanting to know a demographic profile of the audience and whether the show represents a search for the simple verities of the past.'' He good-naturedly twitted the press for ''taking too many humanities courses in college.''
With all due respect for Mr. Keillor's rights as a shy person, if someone can make people of all ages, urban and rural, liberal and conservative, switch off the TV for two hours and huddle around the radio for a celebration of small-town life and courtesy toward others, it's. . . . well, nothing to be shy about. It's news.
''A Prairie Home Companion'' is produced by Minnesota Public Radio's National Program Service and airs live each Saturday night on most National Public Radio member stations. In 1980 it won broadcasting's most distinguished award, the George Foster Peabody Award, but even its fans admit it is an unlikely candidate for success in the slick, video-oriented '80s.
The show, done before a capacity audience of 630 at St. Paul's down-at-the-heels World Theater, steams along at a pace midway between that of a snail and turtle. It is a combination of eclectic musical acts, Keillor's tales of Lake Wobegon, and an inordinate number of commercials.
Commercials, on noncommercial public radio?
Yes, and truth to tell, some of those products are just not in keeping with the highbrow image of public radio. For instance, there's the designer cat collection (in colors to match your decor) at Bertha's Kitty Boutique, Jack's Toast Shop (with a toaster on every table), and the Deep Valley Bed from the linchpin of Jack's Lake Wobegon empire, Jack's Auto Repair and School of Thought (''all tracks lead to Jack's, where the flashing lights show you the way to complete satisfaction''). There are several hard sells each night for the show's prime sponsor, Powdermilk Biscuits.
The latter, made with ''wheat grown by bachelor Norwegian farmers,'' come in ''the big blue box with the biscuit on the front,'' or in brown bags ''with the stains that indicate freshness.'' The claims made for the product are so extreme that they cry out for an FTC investigation: Keillor says Powdermilk biscuits are not only ''tasty and expeditious,'' but that they also ''give shy persons the strength to do what needs to be done.'' (The show has also been underwritten since its inception by a real-life grant from Cargill, the agricultural conglomerate.)
The second component of each week's show is a constantly changing assortment of little-known musical groups, which Keillor and producer Margaret Moos select. One week Phillip Brunelle and Vern Sutton of the Minnesota Opera may be joined by Stevie Beck, crowned by Keillor as the ''queen of the autoharp.'' Next it may be gospel singer Lisa Neustadt teamed with Scottish folk-singer Jean Redpath, followed by the Klezmer Conservatory Orchestra, enrapturing the audience with obscure Yiddish klezmer music.
In what has become a tradition, Keillor sets aside one night a year for the ''mouth-off,'' a bizarre competition among musicians whose only instruments are their mouths. One element of continuity is jazz played each week by the versatile house band, the Butch Thompson Trio.
The eclectic music is dictated by the show's low budget. As Keillor said, ''Our guests represent an impoverished cottage industry,'' recording for little-known purist labels such as Folk-Legacy and Philo. ''Because of the show's low budget, we have to wait for them to come by,'' he said. Happily, Ms. Neustadt said that her frequent appearances on the show have increased her audience, and that her hard-to-find records sell particularly well in the Twin Cities.