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A `Prairie Home' farewell

By Catherine Foster / June 22, 1987



`A Prairie Home Companion'' ended recently, at least the live versions of it, and I for one will sorely miss it. I thought of trying to join the throngs of others who sent in for tickets and flew to St. Paul to participate in the live broadcast, but decided in the end that I'd just celebrate it as I always have, listening. This public radio show, written and hosted by Garrison Keillor, was about the goings-on in the mythical town of Lake Wobegon, Minn., where ``all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.'' It became a pleasant ritual on the Saturday nights I was home. Usually I timed dinner so it would be done right at 6 when the show started. When I'd finished eating, I'd flop down on a big velvet pillow, turn out the lights, and join my radio family, so to speak.

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One Saturday night awhile back was a little different. My radio reception got fuzzy, and the only way to keep a clear signal was to drag my heavy rocker right up to the stereo cabinet and place my right hand across the radio. The signal was clear as long as my hand stayed put, but any movement away started instant growls of static. It was like trying to rock a crying child to sleep; stop too soon, and the child will jerk awake and you'll have to start all over. So I spent the two hours of my favorite show with hand planted on radio as if I were taking an oath.

It was no chore. ``Prairie Home Companion'' gave me hope for the race. It's pretty amazing to think that with the myriads of things to do on a good Saturday night, a respectable portion of the American public will happily give up two hours to sit around and listen to exuberant ethnic bands, to a guy making up yarns about small-town folks, and to silly commercials about Bertha's Kitty Boutique. That tells me something about America. I'm not sure what yet, but it has to do with family and roots and sincerity and the awkwardness of growing up and ``the indescribable joy of living,'' as he put it. It also tells me there are a lot of people out there whose concerns are being missed by Madison Avenue, People magazine, the miniseries folks, and Dr. Ruth.

Who are these listeners, I wonder. Are they Norwegian bachelor farmers in Minnesota who listen to Garrison (one can't very well call a man who appears in one's living room on Saturday nights Mr. Keillor) talk about -- and make gentle fun of -- people like themselves? Or are they suburban families chowing down macaroni and cheese and shushing each other? Is it singles, sitting home alone, reheating takeout Chinese food in the microwave? Do people gather to listen to ``A Prairie Home Companion'' as they used to do for ``Amos 'n' Andy''?

The show taps into what I call a ``rural yearning'' -- that sometimes sentimental, sometimes cleareyed attraction for simplicity, for people who don't make a big deal out of things but who have hearts and ethics and can dance a mean polka.

Like that very memorable evening I spent with my arm on the receiver. It was the first show after the announcement of our soft-spoken host's engagement to an exchange student from Denmark he'd re-met at their high school reunion. His theme, sure enough, was love. It always is, somehow: love for small-town folks and their goodnesses and quirks.

But he's always been a solitary sort, and his talk on romantic love was always wistful. He'd been on the merry-go-round but never quite gotten the ring. You could tell something had changed with him this time, because he was speaking, as they say, ``with authority and not as the scribes.'' That night he shone with extra tenderness and the quiet joy of being a participant, instead of an observer.

I tuned in, hand and ears glued to the set, to him describing what kinds of towns are good for those in love. These towns, he declared, should have bodies of water, old buildings, and places to walk. St. Paul, of course, is a good town for lovers. Seattle is another. He took care of his guests with extra respectful affection, it seemed. And even the ``commercials'' were about the coziness of home; the air spray, Household Odors, came in such scents as ``Farmhouse Porch,'' ``Wet Dog,'' and ``Liver and Onions,'' and you could spray them in strange rooms when you traveled to make them smell familiar.

His monologue was a ``letter'' from a woman who skedaddles fast out of a gambling casino with her $1,000 win-nings, her husband running after her, wanting to spend some of it. She jumps on a bus; he jumps on, too. They ride to the end of the line in silence, then walk back in the dawn, somehow made up. She says in the end that if it had been her husband running off, she would have gone after him, too, and that that is the wonderful thing about marriage -- knowing that about somebody. The monologue was shorter than usual that night, Garrison saying, sheepishly, ``Sometimes a person is so happy, he has a hard time talking.''

There was something tingly happening that night. I could tell his guests knew what was going on and were rooting for him. There was that palpable kind of communication that sometimes happens between actor and audience in the theater when everything clicks, but I had never experienced it listening to the radio.

The songs they sang were the polka of love, the waltz of love, and the twang-and-sob of love. Then he led the audience in an old and hard-to-sing hymn. As he sang, ``It won't be long ... we'll sing in harmony,'' the audience joined in tentatively. ``A little more bass,'' he encouraged, and the strong support of the bass firmed things up. When he got to ``I will marry her this year,'' the crowd broke into applause. A few people yelled out, ``Congratulations!'' Then the voices grew stronger, found their unity. They couldn't know it, but the love they were enveloped in was traveling across the airwaves to Boston, and they were joined by a woman with her hand on the radio, trying to keep the signal clear.

Goodbye, Garrison, enjoy Denmark.