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Garrison Keillor returns to Savannah to share stories and secrets

  • Garrison Keillor
 

Garrison Keillor returns to Savannah to share stories and secrets

02 Jan 2017

For a fictional town, Lake Wobegon seems very real.

“With Lake Wobegon, I forget just where facts leave off and imagination takes over,” says its creator, Garrison Keillor. “My family was very adept at keeping secrets and the Wobegon stories are my way of opening up the door and seeing what’s behind it.”

Keillor is best known as the host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” a popular radio and television show that was the basis of a film. He will be in Savannah on Jan. 6 at the Johnny Mercer Theatre.

Lake Wobegon was inspired by Keillor’s hometown of Anoka, Minn., which had its own stories and secrets.

“I am only now finding out about my dad’s cousin, Berniece, who died of a botched abortion in my hometown in 1937 about the time my older brother was born,” Keillor says. “She lived a couple blocks from my parents and her death — and the circumstances of it — must have shaken them terribly, and yet not a word of it was breathed and here I am, at 74, scratching for details.

“Some Wobegon characters are stock characters: the angry priest, the combative old couple, the gossipy old maid, the lascivious old men, the bachelor farmers; but woven into the stories are the values of my family, namely loyalty, modesty and the therapeutic value of vocation and hard work.”

“A Prairie Home Companion” debuted July 6, 1974, in the style of an old-timey variety show. It featured music and comic skits plus sound effects, all recorded before a live audience.

The monologue, “The News from Lake Wobegon,” featured Keillor delivering items about a town “… where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”

Radio seemed a perfect fit as a career for Keillor.

“My mother loved radio,” he says. “Not the crooners, not the soaps, but the comedians — George and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, My Little Luigi, Our Miss Brooks.

“I don’t know anybody who worked as hard as my mother, raising six children, cooking, cleaning, washing, mending, weaving rugs from rags, canning and freezing vegetables,” he says. “She sat and listened to George and Gracie.”

And his father?

“I got a full-length mirror for my father so he wouldn’t catch pneumonia,” Keillor says. “Oh? Before, he only had a half-length mirror, so when he went outside he forgot his pants.”

It was his mother who influenced Keillor’s love of radio.

“She sat by the radio mending our socks and laughing,” he says. “I hid in the hall closet among the coats and pretended I was on the radio, using my mother’s Hoover upright vacuum cleaner handle as a microphone.

“I told jokes into it. Like, ‘A man sat down in the café and said, ‘I’d like a cup of coffee, black, no cream.’

“And the waitress said, ‘We’re out of cream, how about no milk?’ Nobody else thought it was funny but I did,” Keillor says. “As for writing, I was a bookworm and one sort of leads to the other.”

Keillor’s teachers soon noticed his gift for reading and writing.

“In eighth grade, my English teacher Frayne Anderson handed me a copy of The New Yorker and said, ‘I thought you might find this interesting,’” Keillor says. “I’d never seen the magazine. We were a National Geographic and Reader’s Digest family.”

But Keillor was intrigued.

“I admired the typeface, the columns wending around cartoons and between ads for Pan-American Airways and sailing gear and Baccarat crystal, the fillers in which the editors held up ridiculous quotes from newspapers, books, for ridicule,” he says.

“The writing was so splendid to me, elegant, precise, knowing. A.J. Liebling was in that issue, S.J. Perelman, John Cheever.

“Sixty years later, I still have the copy he gave me,” Keillor says. “It struck a spark.”

Keillor made quite an impression on others.

“I was a quiet boy and wore glasses, which made people imagine I was brilliant, though today they might say high-functioning end of the autism spectrum,” he says. “But back then they thought I had talent, and so I proceeded as if I did.”

In 1969, Keillor started his professional radio career with what would become Minnesota Public Radio. He also launched his writing career, selling a story to The New Yorker magazine titled “Local Family Keeps Son Happy,” published in 1970.

Since then, Keillor has written many magazine and newspaper articles and more than a dozen books for adults and children. He wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman’s 2006 film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” and also has a part in the film.

The original radio show was inspired by the Grand Ole Opry.

“I went down to Nashville in the spring of 1974 to write a piece about the Grand Ole Opry on WSM and loved the show and thought I’d like to do something similar in Minnesota,” Keillor says. “I had no long-term plan, no clear vision.

“I just walked into Bill Kling’s office and said I wanted to do a live variety show on Saturdays and he said, ‘Sure, let’s do it.’ The meeting lasted about 10 minutes.

“He was old enough to remember old radio shows with bands and actors and comedians and he was an entrepreneur at heart,” Keillor says. “So off we went.”

That first effort was not successful.

“It was a dysfunctional operation from the get-go,” Keillor says. “I was not a good manager.

“I was thin-skinned, easily wounded. Amateurism was part of our identity.

“We equated it with authenticity, Midwestern self-denigration as a defense,” he says. “We hired people we already knew, whether qualified or not.”

It got worse from there.

“There were no staff meetings, no memos,” Keillor says. “We had no goal or objective, no five-year plan.

“There was no marketing. All the emcees of shows I’d ever seen were toothsome men who strode the stage and flung smiles unceasingly hither and yon.

“I didn’t smile at all, ever,” he says. “I walked out with my solemn Brethren face as if to open the casket for reviewal.”

But there was music.

“I loved old songs so that’s what we did,” Keillor says. “We were archivists at heart.

“We were resolutely anti-professional,” he says. “There was no rehearsal, never, it was considered uncool, showing lack of confidence.”

Despite the rough beginning, Keillor remained the show’s host through 2016. Since his retirement, Chris Thile, a mandolinist, singer and songwriter, is the host.

That fictional town of Lake Wobegon proved so popular, it became the setting of many of Keillor’s books, including “Lake Wobegon Days” and “Leaving Home: A Collection of Lake Wobegon Stories.”

Keillor’s best memory from the show might surprise some fans.

“An 11-year-old girl came on the show one week — it was our ‘Talent From Towns Under 2,000’ show — and she walked out on stage in her nice dress, her Mary Janes, her cat’s-eye glasses, her blonde hair in a ponytail,” he says. “Everyone could see she was very nervous.

“She stood at the microphone and launched into ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and the audience simply held its breath,” Keillor says. “I was standing a few feet behind her and off to the side and never before had I felt an audience’s intensity as that day.”

That girl was Emily Shackelton from Biwabik, Minn., a fifth-grader at the time. She became the 1996 Talent From Towns Under 2,000 champion and returned the next year to hand over the title to her successor. She is now a songwriter in Nashville. 

“They held her in their hands,” Keillor says. “They willed her to be good and she was perfect and hit the big notes and when she sang ‘Why, oh why, can’t I?’ they burst out yelling and whooping.”

Despite his success and the many awards and honors bestowed on him, Keillor is modest.

“I was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters about 10 years ago and that was it for me,” he says. “No other honor was needed because it was voted by other artists and writers.”

IF YOU GO

What: Garrison Keillor

When: 7 p.m. Jan. 6

Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.

Cost: $69.50, $49.50 or $149.50 for VIP meet and greet

Info: 912-651-6550, savannahcivic.com

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