Keillor and crew prepare to say goodbye to St. Paul's Prairie Home
Editor's note: A broadcast era ends Saturday, as Garrison Keillor takes the Fitzgerald Theater stage for the last time as host of A Prairie Home Companion. Last week, reporter Euan Kerr followed the creation of the next-to-final Fitz show, and found that Keillor's pending departure evoked a host of emotions:
At just after 5 on Friday afternoon, the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater was already crowded with performers, stagehands and radio technicians when a tall, shaggy-haired man walked out from backstage.
"Hi, Garrison!" music director Rich Dworsky called out.
Keillor turned to look at him. "What you hiding in the corner for?" he asked.
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In less than 24 hours, this group of people, many old friends and some who had yet to meet, would perform a two-hour show for the thousand or so people in the theater and millions of listeners around the world.
The work began immediately with the delivery of scripts fresh from Keillor's computer to the actors for review.
"Garrison, she's just printing it now. She'll bring it right up," stage manager Tom Campbell called out.
Some people had already been rehearsing. The band had begun work around 2:30, followed by Rick and Andy Ausland of Minneapolis, aka Buckets and Tap Shoes. Keillor told them it might have been decades since there were tap dancers on the show. The brothers had come with a present.
"We brought you some tap shoes," said Rick. "We heard you are maybe looking for new lines of work."
Keillor politely declined.
There was not a lot of talk about the show's coming transition. The Prairie Home season runs through July 1 with shows around the country, including one just added on May 21 at the State Theater in Minneapolis. That's 17 more that Keillor will host. The Feb. 27 show, however, will be his last at the Fitz.
But all that was in the future. Last Friday, there was a show to put together.
Around 5:30, Keillor and Lynn Peterson began working through a number of hymns to sing on the show. Keillor fiddled with a rhythm, nudging one hymn toward the dance number it would become by show time. Dworsky's skilled band slides easily among musical genres, from gospel to classical, from jazz to rock, often at a moment's notice.
After the singing rehearsal came the actors: Sue Scott, Tim Russell and sound effects man Fred Newman. He and Russell came up with a Tex Avery moment, set in the shack of pioneer trader and whiskey maker Pig's Eye Parrant.
"Care for a taste?" Russell asked in a thick French accent. Newman used his mouth to create the sound of pouring, and then switched to a hillbilly drawl.
"You make it yourself?" he asked, with eyes wide.
"Down the hatch!" Newman then launched into a series of yowls and face slaps indicating either joy or an extreme medical problem.
"That's what I call whiskey!" he concluded.
This was the first run-through, and the first time Keillor had heard each sketch performed. He declared each of them headed for rewrite. By 7:10 p.m. everything was finished, and the Fitzgerald stage stood empty. Keillor had gone off to do those rewrites himself.
The regulars say some visiting guests spend time rehearsing in their hotel rooms overnight, once they come to understand what they are going to have to do.
Just after noon Saturday, rehearsals began again. Stage manager Dan Zimmerman talked to members of the Louisiana band the Revelers about how they would come onstage during a sketch.
"We'll probably get you out here and get you set up with about a page or two of the script left," Zimmerman said. "So that when that's finished, he'll be able to roll right into you guys."
There was a rehearsal for the tap dancers, while the crew tried to make sure their sound would be crisp and distinct enough for the radio.
As the rehearsals progressed, director Dan Rowles walked around with a stopwatch.
"We are timing out the show, we are putting it together," he said. "We've got Draft 2 of the rundown going, trying to make to make sure it flows, trying to make sure the timing works out. And there is a point in the day when we feel as if we have a show. And we are not there yet," he said with a chuckle.
At about three hours before air, everyone seemed relaxed. Upstairs in a dressing room, actor Tim Russell was going through the latest from Keillor.
"We received, so far, four new scripts," he said. "Sometimes he'll combine some of the scripts, sometimes he'll just keep them as they are."
Russell's been doing the show for 22 years; Sue Scott's been at Prairie Home for 23. She said the editing process goes right up to show time, and sometimes continues on air. She stands next to Keillor as they perform, so she's often the first to know he's about to make a change, even as they are acting.
"So I am doing this little scene with Fred, maybe on this page 3, and I notice him, out of my periphery, he's crossing something out," she said. "And then he passes me the page. Now, we are live on the air in front of millions of people — did I tell you that part? So he will pass me the page and I kind of pass it along to everybody else. And we are acting as this is all going on. He is showing me page 4 but we are still on page 3. And then we have to pass it back to him, because this is his script. And you hope, and often it happens, that it's seamless."
At just past 3 p.m., two hours before show time, the actors were back on stage, rehearsing.
"This is sort of a poignant month for me," Keillor intoned. "Because the Fitzgerald Theater is where I've been doing this show since 1978 ... ."
Sue Scott interrupted him. "I thought you started in '79."
"No, '78, actually."
The sketch was as close to Keillor would come to referring to the end of his tenure as Prairie Home host at the Fitz. Not a lot has been revealed about how the show will work under new host Chris Thile.
It took a little prodding, but the other performers said they will miss the Fitzgerald. Fred Newman said it's actually the smallest venue they play, but it is home.
"It's this little china cup, this little crucible where we can play," he said. "And I love it here and I love being in the warm belly of the beast here at the Fitzgerald. I will miss that."
Time kept moving on, though, and as 4 p.m. approached, fans gathered outside the theater.
"Come on in, this way, please. I don't want to block the box office," called a staff member to people in the rush line.
There was quite a crowd for rush tickets. The first person had been in line since 5 a.m.
"OK, we'll start selling the rush tickets in about 15 minutes," the staff member continued. "We have 16 stage seats to sell, kind of a low number."
Inside the lobby, people who held tickets had come from far and wide. Among them was Tim Stiller and his wife, who had come from Bozeman, Mont.
"I have been listening to Garrison for almost 30 years," he said. "We are here on my birthday to see him before he retires, at the Fitzgerald Theater, which is just awesome, and I'm so excited."
A lot of people described a personal connection with the show. Carleen Johnson from Northfield said she's related to Keillor through marriage. She remembered that he would call her mother-in-law to ask for tidbits from her week, which might be fodder for "the news from Lake Wobegon."
"And then we would stay and listen to the show and hear how he would turn her afternoon activities into this lovely, interesting story," she said.
Backstage, at 4:27, Tim Russell sat by the stage door with the latest set of scripts.
"The score is five to two," he said. "Five scripts OK, two are x'ed out, I think."
One of the rejects contained Keillor's reference to wrapping up at the Fitzgerald.
On the other side of the stage, director Dan Rowles had wrapped up the latest rundown with producer Sam Hudson. "I think we are on six or seven," he said. "But we are done. So here we go."
At 4:45 the band kicked into the warmup, and Keillor walked onstage, as people were still taking their seats. He spoke with the audience, told a few jokes and sang a couple of songs — until he noticed it was almost time to go live.
"Got to do this fast now," he said, and the band sped up to triple time. They finished to applause.
"All right," Keillor said to the audience. "See you after the show!"
The program itself flew by, flowing from one act to another. Only if you held a copy of the rundown or watched Keillor very carefully might you have noticed that a song was added near the end of the first hour. Keillor also filled time through impromptu chats on stage. Dan Rowles paced around backstage, talking to performers about what was going on.
"At one point we had four, five minutes to kill," he said. "Then it moved around so we had only a minute to kill, and Garrison can do that in his sleep."
Keillor filled that last minute by asking Fred Newman if he wanted another shot of whiskey.
After Newman went through the routine again, Keillor issued a challenge: "Show me that in slow motion." Newman went right at it.
By the time he was finished, the show was back on time. After going off the air, Keillor said he probably wouldn't keep any of the discarded material for this week's show.
"Well, I probably should start earlier rather than later," he said. "Tonight's show really was last-minute."
Even as Keillor and the crew focused on the remainder of the season, Sue Scott said that this Saturday's final show with Keillor at the theater that has been home for almost four decades will be bittersweet.
"So I definitely think it will be tender," she said. "Yeah, tender."
The show is sold out, but rush tickets will be available. Video of the show will also be streamed live from the Prairie Home website.