Most men can't tell a decent lie, much less a decent story, but here is a man who has created a whole mythical state in his head. Though there really is a Minnesota, the Minnesota that surrounds the town of Lake Wobegon and its like-named body of water is a state of mind more than a state of the Union. We have Garrison Keillor to thank for this extra state, and thinking people throughout the United States do thank him.
A native of Anoka, Minnesota, Gary Edward Keillor's childhood north of Minneapolis is perhaps best defined by his family's membership in the Plymouth Brethren, a strict conservative Christian sect. Keillor may have chosen to be a radio personality because he did not see television until he was in high school. His family allowed radios, perhaps because dancing and drinking, among other vices, could not be heard.
By the time Keillor left home to attend the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, he had experienced a bit more of life, and at the university, he got into radio. Apart from that, he had a penchant for writing, and by 1969 he was making consistent sales of fiction to the New Yorker. Though he was selling his stories at $1000 a pop, he also took on the 6-9am slot for Minnesota Public Radio. His show was called 'A Prairie Home Companion'; he named it for a cemetery in Moorhead, Minnesota (across the state line from Fargo, North Dakota).
Five years into the morning program, Keillor got an idea for a variety show styled after Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. Basing it on what he knew, Keillor called it 'A Prairie Home Companion.' The show debuted live on Minnesota Public Radio on July 6, 1974. The audience of twelve did not quite fill the seats at the auditorium in St. Paul, so you can imagine how the applause sounded on the air.
Soon, though, the show was playing to a packed house. Nearly four years into its first run, the show moved from its home in a college auditorium to the Fitzgerald Theater, which had been rescued from demolition for the sake of the show. Tickets to A Prairie Home Companion were now a hot item, and they stayed hot until Keillor retired the show in June, 1987.
Two years off were enough to recharge Garrison Keillor's batteries, and in 1989, he put together a radio show called The American Radio Company, based this time in Brooklyn. The final steps back to the show's roots took place in 1992, when the show moved back to Minnesota, and in 1993, when it was rechristened A Prairie Home Companion.
Now, 4 million people listen to A Prairie Home Companion each week, and since the show spends part of the year on the road, tickets to those shows, held in cities as diverse as Charlotte, North Carolina and Los Angeles, are a coveted item. The show is one of the mainstays of National Public Radio and its strongest contingent organization, Minnesota Public Radio.
But Keillor has not let radio do all of his talking. Apart from the 'News from Lake Wobegon,' which he recounts on each show, Keillor has written a number of books, including Lake Wobegon Days (1985), a semi-fictional account of growing up in Minnesota; the book topped the New York Times bestseller list. More recently, Keillor has written Lake Wobegon Boy' (1997); Me: By Jimmy (Big Boy) Valenta (1999) and Love Me (2003), a satirical romantic comedy. He has written several books for children as well.
We are fortunate to be able to hear Garrison Keillor's genius on the radio every weekend, but you can't hear his trademark red socks or his facial expressions. Making A Prairie Home Companion a live show with an intimate audience was, as are so many of Keillor's artistic moves, a brilliant decision.
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