The Garrison Keillor You Never Knew

By CARA BUCKLEY  (JUNE 16, 2016)

ST. PAUL, MINN. — Garrison Keillor was riding shotgun in a rented Chevy, motoring east through the steamy Midwestern heat.

His linen suit was appropriately rumpled — everything about this public radio legend suggests disregard for crisp lines — and his gangly legs were jacked up against the glove box, as he resisted suggestions to slide his seat back. Hitching a ride with a reporter from Minneapolis to his home here, he filled the yawning silences with a weird little singsong, “bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp.”

He had just spent hours rehearsing for the following night, May 21, when he hosted “A Prairie Home Companion,” at the State Theater in Minneapolis, before a packed, adoring crowd for the last time.

After more than four decades of hosting this homespun Americana musical variety program, which he created and which, in turn, created him, Mr. Keillor is retiring. He has done this before, in 1987, though that retirement ended up being a sabbatical. In 2011, there were rumors — baseless, Mr. Keillor’s people said — that he was thinking of abandoning ship then, too.

But this time, Mr. Keillor, 73, said he means it. He has named a successor and lined up meaty post-“Prairie” projects, among them columns for The Washington Post, a screenplay and a book. While he has a solo tour planned through the year, along with a “Prairie”-esque Labor Day weekend show at the Minnesota State Fair, he will host his final official “Prairie Home Companion” on July 1 at, of all places, the Hollywood Bowl.

“It’s very much real, and it’s simply a matter of wanting to rearrange one’s life,” Mr. Keillor said after we had arrived at his large, handsome Georgian house, and he had eased his stooping 6-foot-4 frame into a porch chair. “In order to do these things, I’ve got to clear out the big buffalo in the room, which is the show.”

At his home, Mr. Keillor looms, a melancholy presence, and doesn’t make much eye contact, keeping his bespectacled eyes averted under scraggly eyebrows. Rather than savor the conversation, he seems to cordially endure it. His mellifluous voice, likened to a down comforter or “a slow drip of Midwestern molasses,” feels warmly familiar to any public radio listener who has heard him sing “Tishomingo Blues,” which opens his show each Saturday evening.

Yet as familiar and cherished as “Prairie” has become to millions, it was always about Mr. Keillor’s fascinations, rather than the inner tickings of its host.

“It was never about self expression, never,” Mr. Keillor said.

Everything about “Prairie Home” — the Guy Noir and Lives of the Cowboys sketches, the spots for Powdermilk Biscuits and the Ketchup Advisory Board, the monologues about the fictional Lake Wobegon — sprang from Mr. Keillor’s imagination. But the man spinning the plates at the center of it all managed to stay a mystery, even to people who know him well.

“Garrison in person is quite different,” said his longtime friend, the writer Mark Singer. “Garrison does not express emotion in interpersonal conversations the way the rest of us do.”

Performers often cultivate alternate personas, but with Mr. Keillor the difference is startling. That night, onstage in Minneapolis, he was garrulous and affable, and afterward ventured out onto the sidewalk to meet his hundreds-strong admirers, many of whom feel they know him intimately.
As fans flocked around him, Mr. Keillor graciously deflected questions, directing queries back to the scrum. This helps him gather story ideas but also serves as a bridge from his onstage personality to his default setting, the introverted, removed man who seems miles away, even when you’re sitting two feet from him on his porch, eating the jelly beans he has set out.
“His gaze is often floating and takes you in from a strange distance,” said the writer and editor Roger Angell, who in 1970 edited Mr. Keillor’s first piece for The New Yorker. “He is certainly the strangest person I know.”

There is debate about whether Mr. Keillor should have exited a while ago. His weekly radio audience peaked 10 years ago, at 4.1 million, and has since dropped to 3.2 million. While that does not include listeners on Sirius XM, or the show’s three million monthly digital requests, many stations have dropped their Sunday repeat broadcast of his show.

“Prairie Home” captured a time, before tweets and Facebook posts, when people talked more over fence posts and pots of coffee but nowadays feels increasingly removed from many listeners’ lives.

“A lot of the conversation has been: ‘Did Garrison wait too long? Should Garrison have done this years ago?’” said Eric Nuzum, former vice president for programming at NPR. “The problem of ‘Prairie Home Companion’ is it’s part of public radio’s past, not their future,” Mr. Nuzum said. (American Public Media distributes “Prairie Home”; NPR member stations air programs from APM as well as from other distributors.)

Still, Mr. Keillor played an outsize role in shaping what public radio has become.

He was a pioneering force and taught public radio valuable lessons, Mr. Nuzum said. The live performances and touring built audiences and kept them connected and deeply loyal. That proved lucrative, as did sales of “Prairie Home Companion” recordings, books, clothes and tchotchkes. Mr. Keillor also became one of public radio’s earliest celebrities, appearing on the cover of Time in 1985.

The show itself, with its singing, quirky sidekicks, stealthily dark humor and fart jokes, forged a new path.
“‘Prairie Home Companion’ came on the scene just as public radio was trying to figure out what its identity was,” said Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life.” “The fact that here was such a visibly weird, funny, idiosyncratic show opened up the space of other weird, idiosyncratic shows, like ‘Car Talk,’ and our show.”
Adored as he has been by millions, Mr. Keillor drove a few critics around the bend.

Detractors view “Prairie Home” as excruciatingly hokey, syrupy and dull. In a 1993 episode of “The Simpsons,” Homer bangs on the television — the Disney Channel broadcast the show in the late ’80s — hollering, “Be more funny!” In a withering review of Robert Altman’s 2006 film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” Rex Reed called Mr. Keillor “a myopic doughboy” and his program “a lumbering, affected and pointless audio curiosity.”

Yet Mr. Glass believes that many people mistake “Prairie Home” for quaint, homespun nostalgia, even though the tales from Lake Wobegon are, as often as not, richly emotional, contemporary and quite dark.

In recent monologues, Mr. Keillor has lambasted the gun lobby, told of people’s relatives being buried alive and mentioned a would-be suicidal woman left bald after she accidentally set her hair on fire in her gas oven, a presumably fictitious anecdote that is trademark Keillor: equal parts alarming, heartbreaking and funny.

“Like Howard Stern, Garrison Keillor created a packaging that nonlisteners took as real,” Mr. Glass said. “And the actual show is so much more complex, and human and complicated than nonlisteners think it is.”

Mr. Keillor has had health concerns, suffering a stroke in 2009, and, less than a week after the Minneapolis show, a seizure. But he insists it’s his other projects that compelled him to step away. After July, he will continue to have a small radio foothold, hosting “The Writer’s Almanac,” a stand-alone five-minute radio program he started in the early ’90s. And “Prairie Home” reruns will continue to air. Jon McTaggart, chief executive of American Public Media Group, the parent of American Public Media, said that as much as “Prairie Home” contributed financially, he has faith in the allure of the new version of the show and that “this transition has been planned for a while.”

Still, the future of “Prairie Home Companion,” and public radio, without Mr. Keillor remains somewhat of an open question.

Mr. Keillor’s handpicked successor, the folk musician Chris Thile, 35, who first performed on the show as a teenager, cheerfully admitted in an interview that it could all go down the drain if audiences reject him after he begins hosting on Oct. 15. Details are still being hammered out, but Mr. Thile plans to do musical numbers and comedy bits. There will be no Lake Wobegon.
“Public radio always wondered what it was going to do when Garrison leaves,” Mr. Nuzum said. “It’s about to find out.”

For all his radio fame, Mr. Keillor has always seen himself first as a writer, though that legacy was largely overshadowed by the success of “Prairie Home.”

Stripped of the sentimental trappings of the show, which he writes almost entirely by himself, Mr. Keillor’s words leap off the page and bite. In an excoriating book review in The New York Times, he called Bernard-Henri Lévy “a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore.” Thrice wed — he and his third wife, Jenny Lind Nilsson, a violinist, have a daughter, Maia, who just graduated from high school — he once described marriage as “the deathbed of romance.”

Throughout his career, Mr. Keillor penned columns, stories and books. He wrote regularly for The New Yorker, where he had a desk, until Tina Brown’s arrival as editor in 1992. “The day I heard that she would replace Bob Gottlieb, I packed up my stuff in a couple cardboard boxes and left in a cab and have not looked back,” he said in an email. But it was radio, his Plan B, that came to define his life.

Born in 1942 in Anoka, Minn., Mr. Keillor grew up the third of six children. His family was Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist Christian sect that forbade dancing and going to the movies. But Mr. Keillor’s youngest sister, Linda Keillor Berg, said theirs was a happy home, where family members routinely gathered to sing hymns.

“Becoming a star of any kind wasn’t an ambition our parents seeded in any of us,” Ms. Keillor Berg said, but Mr. Keillor could not be contained. In junior high, rather than signing poems with his given name, Gary, he began using the more regal sounding Garrison. It stuck. He went on to write for the local paper, majored in English at the University of Minnesota, and in 1969 took a job at a radio station as a classical music announcer.

There, he began breaking from convention, interspersing Mozart overtures with songs by the Beach Boys and Grateful Dead. One morning, he aired a live predawn show featuring a cowboy singer and a performer who made wine glasses sing. He later asked his boss, Bill Kling, who founded Minnesota Public Radio and also started American Public Media, to weigh in. “I said I thought it was awful, that it was one of the worst ways to wake up I had ever remembered,” Mr. Kling said. “He said, ‘Well, you know, it’s a beginning.’”
Mr. Keillor’s big break came when his short, slyly racy short story about local parents hiring a live-in prostitute for their teenage son fell into the hands of Mr. Angell at The New Yorker. “I thought it was brilliant,” Mr. Angell said. “The nearest thing to E. B. White that had come along.”

It was Mr. Keillor’s wildest dream come true. But it also made him miserable.

“Writing for the magazine put me in thrall to their reputation, to their style, to having fathers who were more talented than yourself,” said Mr. Keillor who, at that time, was supporting his first wife and their son, Jason. He recalled sitting frozen at his typewriter in his bedroom in Minnesota, wondering, “How do you measure up to the gods?”

In 1974, The New Yorker gave him what would turn out to be a pivotal assignment, covering the Grand Ole Opry’s final show at the Ryman Auditorium before its move to Opryland. Mr. Keillor was struck by the musicians’ rapport, by Minnie Pearl’s wry humor. He soon called Mr. Kling, telling him this was the kind of show they had to do back home.

Scant months later, the first “Prairie Home Companion” was performed live in St. Paul before an audience of 12. Mr. Keillor’s New Yorker colleagues were astonished, wondering how this painfully shy man could possibly host a radio show, let alone divert his energies from a burgeoning literary career. But Mr. Keillor adored the socializing, the camaraderie and the musicians’ gregariousness and generosity.

“With radio, I owned it. I owned it. Nobody else was doing this,” Mr. Keillor said. “You find yourself on new ground, and you are so free. You are so free.”

Onstage, a new side of Mr. Keillor shone; looser, less aloof, at times even jolly. Margaret Moos Pick, Mr. Keillor’s early producer and former longtime girlfriend, said his Lake Wobegon monologues put him into something like a state of hypnosis. In them, he could lose himself.

“I don’t think he’s necessarily a happy man,” Mr. Angell said, “But the time he is happy is when he is doing his monologue.”
As audiences embraced the show, more stations picked it up, and it began broadcasting nationally in 1980. Mr. Singer, a friend from The New Yorker, said the show appealed to baby boomers and felt like a counterweight to the Reagan era, when images of American life suddenly felt scripted and controlled. “It was an antidote to all that,” Mr. Singer said. “There was just a deeply wonderful feeling that this was speaking to many of us.”

Curiously, Mr. Keillor has always found it difficult spending so much time with the strong, good-looking, above average people of Lake Wobegon, which he based on his relatives, past and present.

In “The Keillor Reader” (2014), he complained bitterly about “their industriousness, their infernal humility, their schoolmarmish sincerity, their earnest interest in you, their clichés falling like clockwork — it can be tiring to be around.”

Speaking on his porch, Mr. Keillor said of Lake Wobegonians, i.e., his relatives, “I am frustrated by them in real life.” They were too controlled by good manners, he said, and “have a very hard time breaking through.”

So why devote so much of his professional life ruminating about them? “It’s the people I think I know,” he replied.

Will he miss them, and the weekly jolt of the show?

“No,” he replied. “No.”

And yet. It was gloriously warm and sunny in Minneapolis for his last show there. In the State Theater, the audience — nearly all white and middle-aged or older, the very Midwesterners Mr. Keillor has such a fraught yet close connection with — packed the auditorium.

After his show drew to a close, Mr. Keillor stayed onstage and began leading the audience in song, keeping them singing and swaying for perhaps half an hour. Then he stepped offstage and swept through the wings, heading toward the lobby, where he would greet his people like a preacher. He stood for photographs with fans for nearly two hours.

As he passed by backstage, striding purposefully, he glanced at me, registered no recognition, and continued on, muttering, “bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp.”

A version of this article appears in print on June 19, 2016, on page AR1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Garrison Keillor You Never Knew.

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