Garrison Keillor at 75: 'Relaxation is a dangerous thing'

At age 75, Garrison Keillor isn't slowing down.
At age 75, Garrison Keillor isn't slowing down. Here, he edits scripts on stage at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles ahead of his final Prairie Home show last summer.
Nate Ryan | MPR file

Monday is Garrison Keillor's 75th birthday.

While many would take that milestone as a reason to ease off, he definitely isn't.

On Tuesday, Keillor leaves on his 28-city Love and Comedy Tour. A year after stepping down as host of A Prairie Home Companion, he recently sat for an interview to talk about life, the tour and why he's never listened to the shows with new host Chris Thile.

Keillor admits to a concern — maybe even a fear — of not having enough to keep his attention.

"Relaxation is a dangerous thing," he said. "It's to be avoided. Retirement is very perilous."

He sits in his Prairie Home Companion office, surrounded by books, papers, and the ephemera of decades in the radio business. There are pictures, posters, and even a chair from the film he made with Robert Altman. He said many people retire to escape the stress of the daily work grind, then realize that stress was what kept them alert.

"Arizona and Florida are full of elderly people my age who are wandering lost in the shopping malls of America without a purpose," he said.

To escape that fate, Keillor has a simple plan: "Going out on a bus with some terrific musicians, and women, to sing duets with." One of those women is Aoife O'Donovan. The other is Heather Massie. Each will do half the cross-country tour.

Keillor said a lot of the show is based on the radio broadcast. There will be music and skits done with the help of sound effects wizard Fred Newman. However, Keillor said the road show, which rolls into the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Friday, will be more improvised.

It will also open with another of his loves — audience singing.

"The singing, this a capella singing, without a big organ battering you, really makes people feel good," he said. "It's astonishing. It's the simplest thing. Requires no talent. Thank goodness!"

While it's not officially in the tour, Keillor will also do his annual show at the Minnesota State Fair on Sept. 1, with Jearlyn and Jevetta Steele joining the cast.

Keillor has been keeping himself busy off stage too. He has completed a memoir, a collection of new limericks, and a screenplay for a movie set in Lake Wobegon.

That's in addition to his regular Washington Post column, where he sometimes writes about politics, but also about his love for Amelia Earheart, or summer memories spurred by the aroma of a perfect tomato.

One thing he has not been doing is keeping tabs on how his hand-picked successor Chris Thile sounds on A Prairie Home Companion.

"It's like when a minister retires from a church," he said. "You don't go to that church every Sunday and sit in the fourth pew back where the new minister can see you."

Keillor said he was offered the job of executive producer, but it sounded suspiciously like make-work to him. So, he stepped back — way back.

"I decided I wasn't going to listen to the show, in order to give the new people as much freedom as I had when I did the show, which was way too much freedom," he said. "And secondly because I missed doing the show so much that I really would find it unbearable to listen to it."

So, Keillor has no opinion on the new lineup. He said people come up to him and say Thile is doing a terrific job. Others say they miss hearing him on a Saturday evening.

"Or sometimes they say both, and I say 'Thank you very much,' and that is all I need to say."

After the tour, he has another screenplay in mind, a western this time. Maybe to be shot in black and white.

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