After 35 years with APHC Keillor looks back and forward

Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor says the special 35th anniversary broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion came together very quickly. He had been opposed to the idea, but staff convinced him to return to the show's roots, and do a program as he might have done it 35 years ago,
Image courtesy of A Prairie Home Companion (photo: Andrew Harrer)

This weekend a large crowd came to Avon, Minnesota, for the special 35th-anniversary broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. Host Garrison Keillor admits he wasn't keen to do the show, but he does tell a few stories about a program he says should never have survived.

"It was a tiny audience," Garrison Keillor said of the first concert on July 6, 1974. "It was at Macalester College, in their beautiful concert hall, this magnificent concert hall with a big pipe organ with exposed ranks of pipes behind us. It was like a church in there."

Keillor said it was a rag-tag kind of show.

"I think self indulgent was generous description of it," he said. "It was a writer with a fantasy of being a performer."

Keillor had been doing the Morning show on Minnesota Public Radio for five years and wanted to branch out. He said A Prairie Home Companion probably shouldn't have been allowed to continue.

"But management didn't work on weekends, you see," he smiles, claiming golf-playing and water-ski-ing bosses never heard the show.

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Keillor said the show was saved by ignorance. Many people didn't know it was going on.

"The audience was small to begin with, and it got smaller as the show went on," he said.

Three of the stars
Three of the stars from the "A Prairie Home Companion" film Garrison Keillor, host of the radio show, Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan.
Photo courtesy of Picturehouse

Keillor claims they cut out the intermission to reduce the opportunities for audience departures. The program labored in comparative obscurity for years.

So when it erupted in popularity in the mid-1980s, it appeared to be an overnight sensation. Audience numbers exploded and Keillor found himself on the cover of Time and splashed across other national magazines.

"I was in Playgirl magazine, as long as you've brought this up, the national magazines," he said. "I was fully clothed and I was there as one of Americas '10 sexiest men.'"

For Keillor success was a combination of several key components.

"When you are in radio and attractive and sexy, it astonishes people," he said. "Plus I had written a book in 1985. When you are sexy and you also can type, people just can't get over it."

"I think self indulgent was generous description of it. It was a writer with a fantasy of being a performer."

And of course the astonishing array of musical talent and special guests on the show over the years have also helped. He admits when he was asked, he wasn't keen to celebrate 35 years of broadcasts. He actually dislikes birthdays and other anniversaries.

"Months of stewing and brooding went into it and in the end, I decided not to do it," he said.

Despite his reservations, Prairie Home staff travelled to the proposed site in Avon, Minnesota, and it inspired them.

"They came back with the idea of doing a sort of grassroots show," he said. "The kind of show that we might have done 35 years ago and we don't do any more."

There will be few celebrities, but a great local band; the mayor of Avon and maybe some county commissioners, and lots of people in a big crowd.

"They are going to rediscover the National Anthem in the key of G and find that it's a great song, and from there the show will just take off," Keillor said.

When asked how many people will be at the broadcast, Keillor predicted 10 or 15, but settled on 1,000. Others at Prairie Home guessed 2,500, but everyone says it would all depend on the weather.

The Avon show wraps up the Prairie Home Companion season, but Keillor won't be twiddling his thumbs. He has several books coming out before the year is out.

He's 66 now and says he has carefully whittled away what he sees as non-essential activities, like meetings, business dinners and sleeping more than five hours a night, to give more time to write.

"So you adopt a manic kind of life. I love mania," he said. "I grew up in a sort of mild depressive way. I thought it was good character, stoicism, but in fact it was mild depression, and I gave it up. I gave it up a few years ago in favor of mania. Attention deficit disorder: a man's best friend."

He pauses then leans forward.

"Are we done yet? Want to go ride our bikes? Let's go ride our bikes."

And with that, we wrap up. We don't go for a bike ride. Garrison Keillor goes back to prepare for the show, and to work on the novel he's writing.