Prelude: The Publicist.
I got the phone call while I was in DC. It was Sarah Roy, the hyper competent publicist for the Artist Series here in Jacksonville wondering if I would be interested in interviewing Garrison Keillor, the man behind one of this era's longest running radio shows, The Prairie Home Companion, whose voice has soothingly contextualized the American Experience for almost forty years now.
I was in the back of a compact car when the call came, using a substandard Metro PCS cell phone with no recording equipment of any kind, nor any access to the web. Would I be interested in interviewing the imperturbable Mr. Keillor? No doubt I could improvise. It would mean a pretty old fashioned kind of a phone affair in which I had to take hand notes and write it all down for later. Primitive of course, but then again it was Garrison Keillor after all, and hes been in radio since before video ostensibly killed its star. He wouldn't mind. Probably wouldn't even notice.
Id be delighted to interview him, in fact. I told Sarah as much.
What followed was a suspensefully delicate and somewhat precipitous series of attempts to schedule the actual deed.
In the meantime I was left with a little bit of performance anxiety. Garrison Keillor..... Garrison Keillor..... Now what on earth do I actually know about Garrison Keillor and how do I ask him questions that don't involve his favorite color, what kind of tree he would be or some other ignominious bit of uninformed tripe that he hadn't been asked a gazillion times before. I had already determined that this was (obviously) going to be a breakout interview with Mr. Keillor. The Voice of America. I'd give him a spin. Somehow I was going to make him sweat a little. Put him through his paces. Maybe illuminate the character of this brilliant and celebrated intellect.
I first ran across "The Prairie Home Companion" his radio show in Muncie Indiana during the mid 1990s. Late to the game I suppose, but I'm a native Floridian and (like Keillor) from a fundamentalist family. Our home radio had but one purpose, and that was to glorify the name of Jesus--- day in and day out. It was eternally tuned to the old radio evangelists like Kenneth Hagan and Jimmy Swaggart, and while it played many of the old gospel and bluegrass tunes that give the Prairie Home Companion its authentic homespun flavor, it certainly didn't broadcast the likes of NPR (which in our home was as synonymous with red communism as trade unions and George McGovern). In my teens, I discovered punk rock and New Wave and like everyone else in my generation, rushed home to watch the newest videos on MTV. I never listened to the Radio.
By the time I made it to Muncie however, I was more favorably disposed to Public Radio. Or maybe I was just in culture shock and falling head over heels with Midwestern Culture.
Like anyone and everyone raised on the coasts, I grew up without any suspicion whatsoever that the midwestern states had any discernible culture on their own. Our media would certainly give you the impression that all the colorful interesting things happen in the Coastal Cities. As far as I knew, the Midwest was more like a void, notable for its absence of a distinct culture and always in the unenviable position of catching up to trends from hipper, more socially advanced places. It was apparently where people from the 1950s grew up, after which they moved out if they were smart or else became farmers and retail employees. In malls. Or hardware stores.
Discovering that the opposite was true was almost magical. The experience of the Midwest was as exotic to me as the native people of the Amazon, the tiny Chinese women in San Francisco, the Aborigines of Australia or any other delightfully different cultural group I'd ever run across.
Gentle, exact, literate, patient, thoughtful, ingenious, and often peculiar.
Its a land where people put great stock in the baking of Pies. Where carrots and peas live together in unexpectedly lemon jell-o concoctions. Where people have word choice discussions, whiz through crosswords, and play cutthroat scrabble. Where the Amish don't seem alarming or otherworldly, and where the long winters force people to read the classics or learn how to use a woodshop.
Dads actually do hang out in garages working on projects, and there are a surprising number of old men working on unlikely gizmos and inventions in these ManCaves for the disconcertingly Handy.
Passive aggressive, rules following, committee forming 'consensus' builders.
In short the very antithesis of the rest of the country, where almost everything is loud, dysfunctional, on the brink of exploding, collapsing, transforming or some other cage rattling kind of transition---- all to the clatter of hyper commercialized self romanticization.
Garrison Keillor, I was to discover, is their King, and the Prairie Home Companion is their Opera.
Prairie Home Companion came on after dinner, and Cheryl and I would listen to the show on the porch finishing off a bottle of red wine from dinner while the kids cleaned up dishes inside.
I fell in love with the show to the perfume of the good earth and cut grass and the music of crickets and frogs in an historic district of small town Indiana.
And lots of fireflies. Seriously miss the evenings with tiny living lights dancing across the lawn. Is there anything as mystical as the winking little winged creatures at twilight? But I digress. Or maybe I don't. Because at the end of the day, Keillor is part and parcel with these simple pleasures. His show both recollects them and has become part of them, and he with it. For fans, Garrison is one of the simple pleasures of life.
And I think this is the significant accomplishment of this sighing, melancholy, man. He has managed to call from the ether the voice of how America views its better, simpler self. And he has given that voice a uniquely midwestern accent.
This seems like the kind of thing that I should save for the article and perhaps work it into a question for Keillor. Or would that sound less sincere and more ass kissy?
Too asskissy I decide. At least to ask him in person. Save it for the article.
Background on Keillor and The Prairie Home Companion
Keillor started the show in its present form in 1974, when he was only 28 years old. It was on Minnesota Public Radio.
Technically, Wikipedia says that he actually started a show by the same name in 1971, except that it was more of a music program. Here is the actual entry on the subject:
Garrison Keillor started his professional radio career in November 1969 with Minnesota Educational Radio (MER), now Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and distributing programs under the American Public Media (APM) brand. He hosted The Morning Program in the weekday drive time slot of 6 to 9 a.m. on KSJR 90.1 FM at St. John's University in Collegeville, which the station called "A Prairie Home Entertainment." The show's eclectic music was a major divergence from the station's usual classical fare.
Keillor resigned from The Morning Program in February 1971 to protest what he considered an attempt to interfere with his musical programming. The show became A Prairie Home Companion when he returned in October.
So he actually began working on something by a similar title when he was only 23.
This certainly is a stark contrast to what has been happening with our own public radio station.
In fact, the local NPR affiliate has declined so steeply that it recently cancelled The Prairie Home Companion. Another thing to ask Keillor about.
But officially, the Prairie Home Companion that would become internationally famous began in 1974.
Again from wikipedia:
A Prairie Home Companion debuted as an old-style variety show before a live audience on July 6, 1974, featuring guest musicians and a cadre cast doing musical numbers and comic skits replete with elaborate live sound effects. The show was punctuated by spoof commercial spots from such fictitious sponsors as Jack's Auto Repair ("All tracks lead to Jack's where the bright shining lights show you the way to complete satisfaction") and Powdermilk Biscuits, which "give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done." Later imaginary sponsors have included Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery ("If you can't find it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it"), Bertha's Kitty Boutique, the Ketchup Advisory Board (which touted "the natural mellowing agents of ketchup"), the American Duct Tape Council, and Bebop-A-Reebop Rhubarb Pie ("sweetening the sour taste of failure through the generations"). The show also contains parodic serial melodramas, such as The Adventures of Guy Noir, Private Eye and The Lives of the Cowboys. After the show's intermission, Keillor reads clever and often humorous greetings to friends and family at home submitted by members of the theater audience in exchange for an honorarium.
Also in the second half of the show, the broadcasts showcase a weekly monologue by Keillor entitled The News from Lake Wobegon. The town is based in part on Keillor's own hometown of Anoka, Minnesota, and in part on Freeport and other towns in Stearns County, where he lived in the early 1970s. Lake Wobegon is a quintessential but fictional Minnesotan small town "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." A Prairie Home Companion ran until 1987, when Keillor decided to end it; he worked on other projects, including another live radio program, "The American Radio Company of the Air" which had almost the same format as A Prairie Home Companion's for several years. In 1993 he began producing A Prairie Home Companion again, in a format nearly identical to the original's, and has done so since
The Variety Show, which is quintessentially what Prairie Home Companion is, was a stock production in American culture and had been for years.
Keillor's genius was in rescuing this coarse, primitive, disconnected art form and breathing meaning, nuance and context into it. He turned his Variety show into a living magical mirror which reflects a weekly narrative of the good heart of small town America. And for over three decades he has left behind an astounding Fanfare for the Common Man that may very well be the greatest repository of purely American culture ever produced in the past two centuries.
In 1974, the television waves were rife with Variety Shows. Sonny and Cher, The Carol Burnett Show, Hee Haw, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Captain and Tennille
When Keillor and I spoke, we actually did discuss this. Still on territory familiar enough to be read on wikipedia, he mentioned that he was heavily influenced by the Grand Ole Opry.
He observed that the only variety show left on television today was Saturday Night Live.
Now lest anyone underestimate the quality and scope of Garrison's achievement, I think this is a good time to ponder the ubiquitous variety show format.
When Keillor decided to create The Prairie Home Companion, America had already had a hundred years of experience with Variety Shows.
In the United States, former vaudeville performers such as the Marx Brothers, George Burns and Gracie Allen, W. C. Fields, and Jack Benny moved to sound movies, then radio, and then television shows, including variety shows. In the 1960s, even a popular rock band such as The Beatles undertook this ritual of appearing on variety shows on TV. In the US, shows featuring Perry Como, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope and Dean Martin also helped to make the Golden Age of Television successful.
From 1948 to 1971, The Ed Sullivan Show was one of CBS's most popular television series. Using his no-nonsense approach, Ed Sullivan allowed many acts from several different mediums to get their "fifteen minutes of fame." Sullivan was also partially responsible for bringing Elvis Presley and The Beatles to U.S. prominence.
Sid Caesar pioneered the television variety show format with Your Show of Shows (195054) and Caesar's Hour (195457).
ABC-TV aired The Hollywood Palace, an hour-long show broadcast weekly (generally on Saturday night) from January 4, 1964 to February 7, 1970, where the Rolling Stones first appeared on American TV.
On television, variety reached its peak during the period of the 1960s and 1970s. With a turn of the television dial, viewers around the globe could variously have seen shows and occasional specials featuring Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Julie Andrews, The Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John, John Denver, John Davidson, Mac Davis, Bobby Goldsboro, Lynda Carter, Johnny Cash, Sonny and Cher, Bob Monkhouse, Carol Burnett, Rod Hull and Emu, Flip Wilson, Lawrence Welk, Glen Campbell, Donny & Marie Osmond, Barbara Mandrell, Judy Garland, The Captain & Tennille, The Jacksons, The Keane Brothers, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Mary Tyler Moore, Dean Martin, Tony Orlando and Dawn, The Smothers Brothers, Danny Kaye, Buck and Roy, Roy Hudd, Billy Dainty Max Wall or The Muppet Show. Even "The Brady Bunch" had a variety show. Variety shows were once as common on television as Westerns, courtroom dramas, suspense thrillers, sitcoms, or (in more modern times) reality shows.
But the quality of the shows was,.......well.....judge for yourself.
The following are clips of standard variety show fare. See what you think.
Sonny and Cher Variety Hour
The Flip Wilson Variety Show
Tony Orlando and Dawn Variety Show
The Carol Burnett Show
Now compare these hackneyed, coarsely simple jokes and routines with the elegant, intellectual, graceful performance given by Keillor in 1987. Or the classic "Guy Noir" bit in the second video (from this year, actually).
It is a quantum leap forward in concept with a thematic unity that is as breathtaking in its consistency and scope as middle earth was for JRR Tolkien.
The entire show is basically a view of all of us through the prism of a morose but totally engaged life in a small town. The effects are subtle and consistent with the stylistic touches of 1950s America as we presently imagine them to have been, and the layers of style all hearken back to even older hinted at traditions.
All manifested consistently throughout every single sketch and song of a variety show.
No matter how updated the subject matter, no matter how contemporary the story, all seen through that magical perspective whose simplicity leaves room to embrace anything no matter how complex.
Garrison on his childhood
Guy Noir, One of the most Popular Characters of Prairie Home Companion
And this isn't simply a single show, but rather the slow steady accumulation of thirty years of shows. Without ever breaking character, without ever compromising the basic premise, without ever having a tapering off of quality or a drop in the validity or contemporary context of this unique American Chronicle.
What an achievement.
Truly one of the remarkable men of this century, even if he is too publicly modest to admit it or to really let anyone make too much of a fuss over him.
So what to ask this fellow about this?
Well first there was the tectonic pace of scheduling the interview itself.
Scheduling the Interview
I believe that I mentioned that I was in DC when the call from the publicist came. It was while I was on my way to the National Archive, hunting down evidence of the fabulous treasure carried by a Moncrief from Revolutionary France and lost here in Jacksonville. I was researching elements of the various legends for the clandestine quest to recover the pawned jewels of the Revolution from the badlands of our cities most poverty stricken neighborhoods.
Unfortunately for both Garrison and me, I was dressed like a Floridian in a city whose night time climate called for something a bit more arctic. Like a polar bear fur. Consequently I walked a nineteen block jaunt from the Archive to the car in shorts and a light sweater. It was a move I was destined to relive and regret a thousand times over.
Sarah (the publicist) had scheduled the interview for the very next day.
By the morning time, that had changed.
But never fear, it would probably be rescheduled.
Excellent I thought. That will give me time to prepare a stunning question list.
It was rescheduled.
It was recancelled.
Then, the interview was on again. I posted that the interview had been scheduled on metrojacksonville. In the meantime, the shape of my ground breaking interlude was beginning to become clearer. I found out that Keillor had announced his retirement for 2013, and was looking for a replacement.
Perhaps that replacement could be none other than myself. After all, why not? Besides, once Garrison had spoken with me and sampled the deviltry of my details, surely I would be in the running.....no question.
I wondered what it would be like running the Prairie Home Companion.
I could definitely see myself doing it. Of course it would require a bit more discipline than I am known for, but then again, great deeds require great sacrifice. Look at Herman Cain. Some changes would have to be made-----Tales from Lake Wobegon would have to move to Muncie Indiana. Perhaps I would rename it "Tales from The Elks Lodge". Something catchy.
My reveries were interrupted by a controlled but still nervous phone call from Sarah. The Publicist.
"Stephen I was just reading the forums, and I saw where one of the posters, a um....'urban libertarian' wrote
Poor Garrison won't know what hit him. : D
"And I noticed that you listed all that information, including the controversies..............'
There was a pregnant pause. I waited. Were there controversies in the Wikipedia entry? I clicked over to the page. Apparently there were. Dumb, totally uninteresting little dustups. Where was this going I wondered. She continued.
"And, well I just wanted to make sure that---- you know....this wasn't going to be some kind of ambush on Mr. Keillor." There was a nervous laugh. It needed reassurance.
I let the uncertainty grow with a pregnant silence of my own. It fed my sense of the absurd.
What would be the consequences to a publicist of setting up an ambush article for Garrison Keillor? Judging from her voice, I imagined that they would be fearsome indeed. It would have to seem as though the publicist had gone through great lengths merely to find someone so malicious and capricious that they would even want to embarrass the Midwestern Pope. Probably sprained something in the effort.
And where would you find such a person? Never mind that it would be the literary equivalent of beating up Santa Clause and molesting a couple of loose elfs, how exactly would you ambush Guy Noir? After letting cold panic set in for a couple of seconds I demurred:
"Well don't be ridiculous, Sarah. I'm sure that's just silly!" I said, while mentally reviewing my questions trying to decide if any of them could be construed as an 'ambush' question.
"Ha.. Ha!" False laughter rang in my ears. "Just wanted to make sure!......Well. Don't forget. The interview is set for tomorrow!"
But such was not to be.
Since returning from DC, I realized that I was definitely feeling a bit under the weather. Decidedly so, in fact. Coughing. Dizziness. Fever.
But I gamely soldiered on.
I had worried in DC about having to go virtually commando for the original interview----no internet, no recording device, just a cell phone that doesn't work half the time. We've been working with WOKV on recording interviews for about a month now and I was just deciding to call them up and ask them if we could record one yet again, when my cellphone began ringing.
My chiweenie puppy is not an improvement to my cell phone. Rarely, I think, are any dogs an improvement to technology, but with Nut, this is especially true. He's not sure exactly what the little piece of plastic is, but he does know for certain that nothing is funnier than grabbing it in his mouth and running like the devil whenever it rings. While at home, it is often a race between man and beast to see who is going to find the malfunctioning thing first.
In this case, the dog, being closer, won.
After much cursing and a fair amount of enraged chasing, I finally retrieved the mangled bit of communication. There was a message.
It was Garrison Keillor.
He was moving the appointment from the following day from noon until 3:30 in the afternoon.
I was grateful for the change, as I was getting groggier by the minute and hoped that sleeping in would improve my plight.
By 730am, I realized that not only wasn't I going to be able to sleep, but that it was high time to go to the hospital.
At 8am I arrived at Shands Emergency room.
Plenty of time to get in and out and still make the interview.
You can only imagine my dismay as the hours rolled on, and I was still waiting to see a doctor at 1:30 in the afternoon. I asked at the nurses station. I might as well have asked them when the Sphinx was built.
The clock ticked on.
I began to develop a sneaking suspicion that the universe was conspiring. I was soon to be proven right.
At 3:30 pm, with deadly midwestern punctuality, my cell phone rang. It was Garrison Keillor.
I answered it and thanked him for his time.
At 3:31 pm, with deadly southern tardiness, a nurse came from the back and called my name.
My phone reception was nothing less than inadequate.
"I'm afraid I'm having trouble hearing you, Mr. Dare"
My constant friend, Father Rick Benton, was with me waiting in crowded emergency room. He ran interference with the nurse explaining that I couldn't stop talking to my party on the phone as it was an interview with Garrison Keillor. The Guy from Prairie Home Companion Hour.
Between the priest and the NPR discussion coming from my end of the phone call, she acquiesced. And thus commenced one of the worst lapses in judgement in my life.
The phone had apparently been possessed by satan while I was in the waiting room. It developed a perfect sense of the worst possible time to fade out of reception and then do so.
"Mr Keillor, Jacksonville loves you, and you draw a huge crowd of people every time you come here. I wonder what you have to say to the fact that our local NPR affiliate recently cancelled your show?" I had meant to ask him if he thought that more content was going to migrate online and whether or not a broadcast radio station was still important.
"Well Mr. Dare, I don't really try to keep track of these things, I just let the------"
The phone unceremoniously hung up on him.
O my God. Id just ambushed him.
With lightning powered fingers I redialed his phone number.
Exactly as he came back online, the nurse came in and handed me the following object:
I need you to pee in this, Mr. Dare. She said, close enough to the phone that she might as well have been on a party line with the two of us.
She pointed to a nearby bathroom, and I looked at her, and then pointed at the phone.
She gave me the look of no nonsense, and I was treated to the spectacle of a nurse pantomime directing me to go into the bathroom and pee.
One wonders if the reader has ever attempted to urinate while not letting this fact on to a person with whom they are talking on a cell phone.
Never mind, we all know that this has already happened to every person who has ever lived at this point.
Trying to do it in a hospital bathroom is ludicrous. I don't recommend it.
First of all there is the tell tale bathroom echo that makes it sound like you are speaking from a mausoleum made out of pure smooth marble.
"Mr. Keillor," I fumbled while trying to maneuver all the elements of the urine sample into position. I mangled my way through the rest of my original question.
Keillor was better equipped to answer the question and had just begun when I had a fresh dillemna.
If you have ever tried to urinate in a sample cup, you know how little urine, comparatively is actually necessary for the sample.
I discovered that the usually simple feat of simply cutting off midstream is actually impossible while simultaneously trying to manage a cell phone under pressure.
"Well, I don't really know what the future is of radio delivery is Mr. Dare, I just try and concentrate on producing the....."
Here, I had no choice but to complete the already launched urination into the toilet itself.
Not for the first time, I realized that there is an unmistakable pitch and tone to the sound of urine hitting water. No one, having once heard it, could ever be inconclusive about it ever again. I realized, to my panic, that Mr. Keillor had not finished his sentence, but was instead intently listening.
"Mr. Dare? Are you still there?"
"Why yes I am, Mr. Keillor....." Then for reasons known only to the Gods of Mayhem, the cellphone died again. Father Rick tells me that all of a sudden everyone from the nurses station came around the corner because of all the loud profanity that was coming from the bathroom. A few moments later, I emerged with the phone to my ear, redialing the redoubtable Mr. Keillor.
We resumed our odd conversation.
Keillor sounds exactly in person the way he does on the radio, and he is an attentive courteous man with a tremendous grasp for detail and nuance. He had not only heard of Muncie, but recounted his various trips to Ball State University for performances, and even knew of the small city's reputation for being the perfect statistical reflection of US demographics at large.
I was impressed. Delighted actually.
"Mr. Keillor, I was reading where you announced that you were going to retire in 2013. But then you changed your mind."
"Well Ive decided to rethink that decision."
"So you aren't retiring?"
The phone died for the third time.
My god. Id ambushed him yet again.
While I was ruminating over that grim thought the nurse reappeared with a syringe.
As I redialed the phone number, she began tying my arm off.
"Mr. Keillor, I am sooo SORRY!... This phone just keeps losing signal."
I wasn't prepared for the needle, and I involuntarily groaned a somewhat mighty groan of pain and dismay into the earpiece.
I must have sounded like Howard Dean, driven mad at last, by my recalcitrant phone.
"Mr. Dare, is everything all right? I seem to be having difficulty with the volume levels. First I can barely hear you, then you are very loud"
I died a thousand deaths, repositioned the phone vaguely in what I hoped was a better direction to receive radio signals.
We had just gotten pretty deeply in the conversation about choosing to do a Variety Show format when the airwaves were full of variety shows in the seventies, and how he had outlasted them all.
I asked him if he felt any sense of accomplishment in having created a voice of America that quite frankly had a midwestern accent, and I am afraid that he may have mistaken my intentions.
"You know, I faced a certain amount of derision or perhaps condescension about the midwest, especially from people out East. The best that would ever happen is that they would acknowledge me being from the midwest and then just kind of reach out and shake my hair,.. you know, pat me on the head."
And we came back to the show and the possibility of his eventual retirement.
"When you do find an eventual replacement, are you looking for someone who will preserve what you have already created and attempt to continue it, as is, or will you find someone that will make it their own, update it?
"Well I think the show will always have a comedy monologue, and should feature music and..."
Here my phone turned off again. At this exact moment the doctor materialized out of thin air, and rushed me off to get xrays.
With trembling fingers I once again redialed Garrison's phone number.
"Mr. Dare. Is everything alright?"
I decided to just come clean.
"Mr. Keillor, Ive gotta be honest with you. I'm in the hospital right now, being admitted for walking pneumonia. They've made me pee in a cup, and taken my blood, and I'm feeling very very weak right now. Can I continue this at a different time?"
There was a sustained silence on the other end. Then a reasonable (and no longer vexed) voice from the common recollection of our national self conception said:
"Well that seems doable. Try and call me later."
And thats where I left it.
His number is still on my queue.
Affectionately, Stephen Dare