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The news from Lake Wobegon: more guest hosts likely

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"You've got scripts here and everything," Garrison Keillor said to Sara Watkins during a pre-broadcast warm-up just moments before A Prairie Home Companion hit the air this evening.

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"They never put these out for me," he continued drawing a laugh from the capacity crowd in the Fitzgerald Theater.

There was a lot of curiosity about what Keillor had described as an experiment, having Watkins, a bluegrass fiddler with a soulful voice be the first guest host on APHC in decades.

Prairie Home staff said when the arrangement was announced that it was just a one-off effort to try something new, and to allow Keillor the chance to actually watch the broadcast live.

When it was all done, and the enthusiastic applause had died down, Keillor described the experiment as a success.

She did great. She got everything in," he said after the show. "It's such a huge asset to have a musician host it."

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""I think she'll do even better the next time," he said. "I hope so. Why wouldn't she?"

Next time?

With those words Garrison Keillor may well have revealed the future of A Prairie Home Companion.

"I may be let free from this prison," he continued. "These prison bars may be about to open."

Keillor has been talking about the future of A Prairie Home Companion for some time. At 68 he says there are other things he'd like to do, but he feels a responsibility to the show.

"It was the result of the hard work of a lot of people and I don't think I should let it go into dry dock just because the captain gets old. There are other captains," he said.

He said no decisions have been made, but this is the first time he has talked about having a number of people step into the host role. He said show staff is beginning to book the 2011-2012 season, and that might be a good place to start with some guest hosts.

He says what's important is to maintain what he sees as the three essential elements of APHC: live music, comedy, and a midwestern identity.

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"The midwest, that's the tough part," he said.

However with those three elements he can see the show going in any number of directions.

However it also rules out Watkins as a possible longterm host as she is a Californian.

He said if they do decide to try more guest hosts in the future, it would likely mean more shows at the Fitzgerald, and fewer on the road.

"We could do it in a couple, two, three, years, maybe less," Keillor said. "And I could retreat to a comfortable position backstage. I could become a radio actor."

Or an executive producer someone suggested

Keillor's eyes popped open. "I like the sound of that," he said, continuing that he had never been an executive of any kind before.

From a listening point of view the show that precipitated all this was actually a pretty typical program, with the exception of the  guest host.

Watkins sang the opening song, and personalized it a little to explain how being from San Diego she was trying to get used to St Paul snow. Backstage Keillor was the first to applaud as the song drew to a close.

She introduced the guests, sang the Powdermilk Biscuit song, and vamped along with sound effects wizard Tom Keith as they described a snowmobile trip along the frozen Mississippi which involved a man-eating fish and snow monkeys.

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Keillor appeared as a guest performer, acting, and delivering the news from Lake Wobegon, where perhaps as a nod to the media interest in his own story, he mentioned Clint Bunsen's belief that "nothing in this town gores unnoticed."

Keillor also appeared in a skit where he hinted that Watkins might be back.

"You're not going to take the show off in some other direction?" he asked her.

"Not this week," she replied.

A few moments later backstage Keillor told  watching journalists "This is very easy work," not mentioning he had written the scripts. A few moments later came back to tell them careers were changing before their very eyes.

The only two minor mishaps were when Watkins announced that the news from Lake Wobegon would be coming up in the second half of the show, just moments after Keillor had done the segment.

"Kid had a defective script," Keillor said later, "My fault."

Then as the show entered its final half hour, producers realized they were ahead of schedule. Watkins quickly told her brother Sean they were going to do two extra songs together, even though he had not actually played one of them in several years. The extra songs went off perfectly.

When he was not on stage, Keillor generally kept a low profile, and actually listened more to the show than watched it. When the show wrapped up he did not come onstage until after the broadcast was off the air. He walked to the middle of the stage and led the audience in applauding Watkins.

"It was an interesting experiment, and we had to do it to prove it can be done," he said.

"I just enjoyed it," he said. "And I didn't even have a good seat."