From a town `that time forgot,' master folklorist Keillor

IT happens every Saturday across the nation. Some 2 million Americans -- from Yuppies to farmers -- drop everything, turn on their radios, and listen avidly to a resonant voice reminisce about a mythical little town in Minnesota.

The program is Minnesota Public Radio's ``A Prairie Home Companion.'' The voice belongs to its 6-foot, 4-inch host, Garrison Keillor. And the listeners -- a fast-growing group with totally varied backgrounds -- have at least one thing in common: a devotion to the human insight and folk humor of Mr. Keillor's beguiling monologue, ``News from Lake Wobegon,'' a town ``that time forgot and the decades cannot improve, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are abo ve average.''

The two-hour show airs live -- a rare practice for national non-news programs -- on 260 American Public Radio stations. Its regular home is St. Paul's World Theater, but that's being restored, and the show is on tour. Recently, it began airing on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's FM network. Meanwhile, ``Prairie Home Companion'' T-shirts -- worn by distinctly nonprairie types -- can be seen all over the United States, along with other program mementos.

Keillor (rhymes with ``dealer'') has been called America's favorite storyteller, and although the program has a music-variety format, his monologue is the key to its potent and widespread mystique. While full of local Minnesota lore, that 20 minutes or so evokes the universal spirit of Hometown, USA. Even for lifelong urbanites, it taps a rich vein of collective longing and wistful Americana.

To radio fans entranced by Keillor's masterfully homespun delivery, his talk sounds as natural and unpackaged as a daydream. But actually it's a work of art -- half performer's art, half writer's -- a result of thinking, writing, and ad-libbing.

``People don't want to know that,'' Keillor points out. ``They don't want to know that there has been work done, because people believe in spontaneity. So it's always awkward when they come up to me after the show and ask, `Did you write that?' -- because to most people, writing represents something artificial, and a man who stands up on stage and just talks off the top of his head represents something that is spontaneous and therefore more truthful and good.

``Of course, I don't believe that at all,'' he said as we talked in the Minnesota Public Radio building here. Keillor's spacious frame -- legs stretched out before him as he sat reclining in a chair in front of a word processor -- seemed to fill half his tiny, windowless office. A square-faced man with straight, black hair, he wore jeans and a black T-shirt with a Great Northern Railway seal on the front.

``People who stand up on stage in front of people and just talk,'' he continued, ``if there are any people like that, are boring and very predictable.''

But apart from the words, how much of the personality that fans hear is artifice and how much is really Keillor?

``Everything that a person does on stage is unnatural,'' says Keillor. ``It's not natural to be there, but we choose to be there. And once you are out there, you find a way of playing for the audience, and you play it bigger. The way in which I'm talking right now is not the way that a person would talk on the stage.''

Yet I had to remind myself -- as the familiar voice reverberated slightly in the small room -- that I wasn't listening to the radio.

In preparing for his monologue, he writes several pages. ``But then, without studying them too hard -- because it is only a start -- you put them aside and go out and speak from memory,'' he explains. ``And once you let go of the mooring, then you can sail. I don't rehearse a monologue, and I don't write it as a script. But I want to -- when I go out on stage -- have come to a point where I can ad lib. I would never stand up in front of an audience and read something like that. But there is something in

the process of writing it that goes into what you end up with in your monologue.''

It was already Thursday afternoon, and Keillor's monologue for that Saturday was still turning over in his mind.

``I have started to get some idea about it, and it has to do with the 25th Reunion of the Class of 1960, which actually is my high school class,'' he said reflectively, speaking in slow, thoughtful takes.

``It's being held up in Anoka [Minn.] after the show on Saturday. I have to go off to that. Thus far the hardest part of my day on Saturday is going to be my reunion. I will talk about it in the monologue but set it in Lake Wobegon, and I think I'll do it with another character, not myself. I'm . . . trying to formulate some ideas about where this goes.''

An embryonic ``News From Lake Wobegon'' episode was forming, I realized, right in front of me. Its delivery took place about 50 miles south of St. Paul in the bucolic town of Red Wing, Minn., from which the program will be broadcasting through tomorrow.

When I arrived there, a local celebration marked the show's presence, complete with street banners and an oom-pah-pah band outside the T. D. Sheldon Auditorium. Inside, close to 900 people waited excitedly before a stage containing a grand piano, several floor mikes down in front, and various performers. High on the backdrop above them all, a banner proclaimed the program's already legendary ``sponsor'' and one of its running jokes -- ``Powdermilk Biscuits.''

Keillor -- in light-tan suit, red tie, and red socks -- was solidly cheered as he came onstage to do a brief audience ``warm-up'' before going on air with his theme song, ``Hello, Love.'' Besides regulars like the Butch Thompson Trio, the program regularly includes visiting musicians and performers -- and this time some local talent, too. Through it all, Keillor was the Comfortable Presence, deftly tying segments together, gently stepping in if someone was slow on the uptake, joshing the people along (w ithout showing them up) when things dragged a bit. Sometimes he looked at notes on a script stand, but his deceptively casual lines were usually ad lib.

Later, as the heart of boyhood memories began to take shape in Keillor's evocative monologue, he grasped the mike stand, leaned forward, and stared raptly into the darkened seats at some shimmering vision of small-town life.

To whom is he speaking at moments like these? Is there an image of the listener in his mind's eye?

``I do see people who are listening to radio,'' he says, ``but my purpose is not to manipulate the audience in the hall or to find out what they want to laugh at and then keep poking them in that spot. My purpose is to tell stories which are for the radio, stories which allow my friends on the other side to supply all of the details and the sensual surface. I simply lead them along a certain path. They supply everything that is worthwhile. Everything that is memorable in a story comes from their memori es. These stories are only vehicles. They are just little trucks they are taking for a ride. But the point is not the ride. The point is what you see outside. And that's all supplied by the listener.

``The most disastrous thing that a person could do in telling a story for the radio would be to be literary, to do flourishes and put in strange, symbolic touches of the sort that people get master's degrees in fine arts for. That would be just awful. I can't think of anything worse than to stand up in front of people and try to show them that you can turn a phrase.''

Literary visions, though, are much closer to Keillor than many radio fans realize. From boyhood, he wanted to be a writer. His pieces have been published in The New Yorker, and on occasion he has written that magazine's ``Talk of the Town'' -- an unsigned section whose urban sophistication is a very far cry from Lake Wobegon. He's also contributed often to The Atlantic, and the magazine's August cover story was from Keillor's new book, ``Lake Wobegon Days'' (Viking and Penguin). His previous book of hu mor -- ``Happy To Be Here'' (Atheneum) -- was a best seller.

But his spiritual roots are unabashedly with the people he remembers in his real hometown: Anoka, Minn.

``I really have more curiosity and respect for people whom I grew up among and less and less for the people I went to college with [at the University of Minnesota],'' he asserts.

Unaffected storytelling, he feels, came naturally to the people who were about two generations older than him. He remembers especially his father's uncle, Lou Thomas, a man who ``felt that everything that was of interest to him was, of course, of interest to other people. And he was right. They were fascinated by stories that he told.

``I think that with my father and his family -- people who grew up with newpapers, and as radio came in, and then television -- storytelling was killed off by mass communication. If you've heard all of these smooth voices and read all of these voices in the papers and so on, it's intimidating, and you feel a self-consciousness that my Uncle Lou never felt.''

So it's now a lost talent?

``No, I don't think it's ever lost. I think there are always people who will have a talent for doing that in small company and who perhaps have some talent for mimicry, who have a good eye and ear for detail, which is what makes a story.''

As for himself, Keillor found ``I had never done much in front of an audience before 1974. I took a high school speech course and a college speech course. They were every bit as painful for me as I'm sure they were for most of the others.''

After graduating from college in 1966, Keillor held jobs at university radio stations, then began an early-morning show four days a week on Minnesota Public Radio.

``When I went to Nashville to write about the Grand Ole Opry for The New Yorker in March of 1974,'' Keillor recounts, ``I can remember sitting in the balcony and looking at them down on stage on a Friday night and thinking to myself, `I could do that.' I had been in radio for years, and I could imagine having friends of mine who were musicians playing on a show like that. That's, I'm sure, where most people in performing get started -- by sitting and watching somebody else do it and thinking, `I could do that myself.'

``So I came back home and talked to Minnesota Public Radio, where I had worked in the past. I asked if they would like me to do this, and they said sure. They even supplied a little bit of money for me. And we taped three shows in one day. I threw myself into it, thinking that I was going to do it for a little while for fun, because I was a writer. That was how I was supporting myself and my family.''

The show ran out of money, stopped, then started again. ``I don't think it was that good a show. It was very hard work. I was trained to write scripts for people, and dialogue, and I have no real talent for doing that. I was trying to sing on the show. I'm not a singer, so it was kind of a long, uphill battle.''

``Now of course, 11 years later, there are a great many people who remember the show from back then who think it has become too slick, you see, and not as good as it was then, not as -- I don't know -- not as folksy or something. But they're so terribly wrong. I think that the performers are better now. The show is so much more fun to do. The last thing I'd want to do is go back to 1975-76 or any of a lot of years after that.''

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