Richard Nixon hung by an ever-thinning thread – in a month he’d be gone from the White House – and the phrases “personal computer” and “cellular telephone” were yet to be uttered when, on Saturday, July 6, 1974, a fellow calling himself Garrison Keillor hosted the first live broadcast of a thing called “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Over the next few years the program would grow, and by the early 1980s it was on public broadcasting stations throughout the land. Lines from it would be quoted the following Mondays in places like radio network newsrooms, which is how I came to know of it. It disappeared for five years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but in 1992 it came back.
Saturday night, July 2, four days shy of 42 years since that first broadcast, Garrison Keillor hosted his last episode of “A Prairie Home Companion.” This is a matter of great sadness to one portion of the population and of no significance at all to the much larger rest of the population, which ratio is further cause for regret.
(The show will continue, with new episodes beginning in mid-October. But without Keillor, who was not only the star but the writer of the whole two-hour program, it’s difficult to think of it hereafter as anything but a radio version of “Mayberry RFD,” what “The Andy Griffith Show” became when Andy left.)
Here’s something that even most hard-core “APHC” fans don’t know: Garrison Keillor isn’t his real name. When he was born 74 years ago next month his given name was “Gary.” But he thought the more elegant “Garrison” would better fit the literary career to which he aspired. And based on the interviews I’ve seen with him over the years, “Garrison Keillor” is almost a character played by the quiet, reticent Gary. But what a character it has been!
If you never heard the show, you missed a collection of hilarious but often touching skits, extraordinary music that tended toward folk and gospel – I have no idea as to Keillor’s religious beliefs, but he has a great love of the old, beautiful spirituals and hymns – and general merriment.
There was an annual joke show. Here’s a sample: A man walks into a bar and says, “Drinks are on me!” The bartender says, “You must be celebrating something.” The man says, “I am indeed – I just completed a jigsaw puzzle in record time!” The bartender says, “How long did it take?” The man says, “Two months!” The bartender says, “Two months? That doesn’t seem very fast.” The man says, “I thought so, too, but the box said ‘2 to 4 years’.”
His was a warm and gentle show in a time when warmth and gentleness are on the decline, and that was Keillor’s work. Though a committed Democrat – in his final show he praised Hillary Clinton, mentioned twice how much he will miss Barack Obama, and received a phone call from Obama – he did not treat those of differing views with contempt, and that alone made him very nearly unique.
I didn’t regularly listen to the show until I was living in Connecticut in the late 1990s. We boarded one of the horses at a lovely barn owned by our friends Bruce and Kim. Each Saturday night Kim would cook a wonderful supper, and we’d gather in the front room at the barn to eat, talk and listen to “APHC.” It was idyllic, especially because the weekly ritual began in a New England autumn. After the horse had been moved and the dinners didn’t happen anymore, I kept listening to the show. It had become a kind of friend.
Keillor’s anecdotal homilies, which always began, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, my home town…” were always pitch perfect. Seldom have I laughed as hard as I did the week it dealt with the young man who thought he would explore outside the Lutheranism in which he’d been raised. In describing the path of the young man’s search, Keillor exquisitely characterized each of the other religions the boy encountered, in a way that was amusing without ridicule.
Another week, just a few days before Christmas, the story had to do with a clergyman who was beginning to doubt his faith and who on Christmas Eve drove to a hill overlooking the town. As he sat there, he saw the smoke curling from the chimneys and the lights coming on in the houses as evening fell and then, faintly, coming from the little church he heard… and here the narration dissolved into “Silent Night.” I’d been out on an errand and sat in my old pickup listening to the end of it after I got home. Then I went inside and explained the tears in my eyes.
On his final show, the talk was about the fictional people he knew who are now in the fictional Lake Woebegone cemetery.
Keillor’s show wasn’t overtly or even covertly religious. But it was comfortable with religion and didn’t shy away from it. It was sweetly sentimental but never cloying. It was the radio equivalent of coming indoors on a cold evening to the smell of cinnamon and apples and pie crust in the oven. It was welcoming and safe.
Which aspect was of great comfort to me when I moved here. It was winter, and I knew few people here, none of them well. On Saturday morning I’d go to the Big Chimney Bakery and get (in addition to my two éclairs, which were to die for and possibly from) a loaf of Matt’s incredible, crusty olive bread, and in the evening I’d heat it up, slice it into thick slabs and enrich them with too much butter, open a decent red wine, and for two hours enjoy a bridge to other times and places I’d lived.
Later, I’d get to know, a little, some of the show’s regulars: Cindy Cashdollar and Pat Donohue (who was a friend of my friend Marjorie, having played with her in something called the “Marge-Tones”) and of course Jorma Kaukonen, who was on the show more than once. To me, having been on “APHC” with Garrison Keillor outclassed even Woodstock.
Now it’s gone, but in a way it’s not. The old shows are available online, for free. I recommend them. I hope they stay alive for a long time.
Along with the gentle, decent aspects of humanity they reflect.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at email@example.com.