Garrison Keillor's 'Lake Wobegon' Creates Cozy Community On Air


Fans of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" are tuning their radios in preparation for this Saturday's live season premire, which honors the 100th birthday of fellow Minnesota writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. It's been 22 years since Mr. Keillor created the fictitious Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon, and it is one of the most popular radio shows since televisions burst into living rooms in the 1950s.

How does one explain the ongoing popularity of Keillor and Lake Wobegon?

"So many people lead a nomadic life in America that they're looking for a sense of community," says Keillor in a baritone voice as soft as a whisper. He's sitting backstage in the Green Room in Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre in Denver.

Keillor devotees who long for this sense of community can be found at live performances in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and St. Louis, where Keillor is backed by 40-piece orchestras. In spectacular venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., Keillor combines his considerable musical skills (usually with humorous lyrics) and trademark monologue, which always closes with "And that's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

Outside Fiddler's Green Amphitheater at one such recent performance, Chris Pennel and her husband are the first ones in line. They've made listening to the monologues and songs of "A Prairie Home Companion," a Saturday night ritual since they were married 14 years ago. What does Lake Wobegon mean to them?

"Home," Ms. Pennell says. "It gives you a sense of security. He's like a father-figure to me, telling stories to his family."

At that point an usher unlocks a gate and several older people rush in like young rock-and-roll fans. It's not time yet, the bewildered usher explains, and Methodist Pastor Ken Moreland sheepishly returns to his place in line behind the Pennells, explaining how the attraction can lead to unpastor-like behavior.

"Lake Wobegon helps us laugh at ourselves," he chuckles, "and we all want to be part of that sense of community."

Pastor Moreland sees Keillor as something of a colleague, as well. "You can tell he has a strong faith background because Lake Wobegon has core religious values and ideals. Children are safe, and people get involved in their community. But it's not a dream world; he's talking about us," Mr. Moreland said.

One young lady at Fiddler's Green has been listening to Keillor since she was five years old. Shauna Moore and her friend Nina Barry, both teenagers, are here with their parents. While Ms. Moore likes the stories, Ms. Barry likes Keillor's humor, which comes from the characters and their context more than just the jokes.

Barry's mother, Natalya Barry, is from Moscow. She feels a special affinity for Keillor's program.

"Garrison Keillor is very close to the Russian soul," Ms. Barry says. "He's like Chekhov with his very subtle humor. He never really diminishes his characters. He's very kind and gentle."

Keillor considers himself a writer who performs perhaps more than a performer who writes, and his best-selling books and writing for a variety of newspapers and magazines are testament to the seriousness with which the humorist regards that craft. He wrote for The New Yorker beginning in 1970, but he left a few years ago because of a change in ownership, philosophy, and editors.

As a native Minnesotan living in Alabama, the first time Barbara Peterson heard the news from Lake Wobegon, she thought it was real news coming from a real place.

"I called out to my husband, 'Tim, where's Lake Wobegon?' We still laugh about that," Ms. Peterson says with a smile.

Kevin Rosser spent a year studying Arabic in Yemen on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, a culturally isolated nation. The government screens mail, including audio and video tapes because of a strict ban on pornography. But they couldn't find anything wrong with the tapes of "A Prairie Home Companion" his father sent him each week.

Rosser appreciates verbal storytelling because "It's an art that isn't as common as it once was. Listening makes you a participant; you're not just staring up at the screen."

Keillor echoes the sentiment: "TV is like an anchor. If you move somewhere, and you're not a churchgoing person then your local sports team or television can become a substitute for neighbors."

But is that good, bad, or neutral?

Keillor takes one of his famous pauses. "It's not a good thing," he finally says. "TV is a form of contact that doesn't demand that much of you."

Keillor's gentle demands to listen have attracted a highly educated audience, which includes teachers of all levels. Mr. and Ms. Pennell are both teachers who say Keillor's shows have changed their lives.

"Listening to him influenced our decision to move to a smaller town," Ms. Pennell says. "If we don't believe that a sense of community like that can happen in our lives, then it never will."

*Garrison Keillor performs Nov. 26 and 27 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore; Nov. 16, 23, 30, and Dec. 7 at Town Hall in New York; and New Year's Eve at the Music Hall in Fair Park in Dallas.

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