Hearing that old piano from down the avenue

If you hear a guy crooning, “I hear that old piano from down the avenue,” then it’s a good bet it’s Garrison Keillor, it’s around 6 PM on a Saturday night and you are listening to A Prairie Home Companion on your local public radio station. While I rarely listen to the show in its entirety, I do often hear snippets of it while washing dishes. Although I am only a very part time listener, over the years I developed a certain intimacy with the show. It sort of creeps up on you.

It’s an intimacy that creeps up on many of us Caucasian Americans of a certain age. When the show first aired on July 6, 1974, Richard Nixon was still president. Its host and star, Garrison Keillor was only thirty-one years old. In 2010, Keillor is now age 67 and is old enough to draw social security. His show, except when it went on hiatus for couple of years between 1987 and 1989 has been going continuously. Today, even people who never hear the show cannot hear Keillor’s voice without somehow recognizing it. With Walter Cronkite’s passing last year, Keillor’s voice may now be American’s most recognizable voice. It oozes gentility and civility.

A Prairie Home Companion arrives at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Northern Virginia like clockwork every Memorial Day weekend. For at least a decade, I have intended to get tickets to see the show. I always wait too long; they tend to sell out quickly after they are announced. As luck would have it, a colleague of mine with tickets decided to go out of town this weekend. Thus I was able to pick up her three lawn “seats” for the Friday night show. My wife, our friend Mary and me all finally got a chance to watch a live performance, although we did have to endure a couple periods of mild rain. Oversized umbrellas helped.

Perhaps the first few years that Keillor did the show, he was nervous. Now he is so practiced he is completely at ease in front of crowds of thousands. When listening to the show, your imagination assumes he is on stage for the duration of the show. In person, at least during our performance, it seems Keillor will spend nearly as much time off the stage as on it. During the opening song, he quickly wandered off the stage and into the crowd. He ended up with his wireless mic on the lawn behind the pavilion where we were sitting, all while singing spontaneous new verses to The Tishomingo Blues, the show’s theme song. Out on the lawn you are allowed to bring food. It is almost required that you spread out a picnic blanket, open a wine bottle and eat some cheese with fancy crackers. As Keillor sauntered out on the lawn, one woman offered him a glass of champagne.

For a radio show, A Prairie Home Companion transitions fairly well to the stage. The cast, which includes the usual voice actors, sound effects artists and the Guys All-Star Shoe Band, operate at microphones in front of a prop house (presumably from Lake Wobegon) with an American flag and a lit porch light. Except for Keillor, I had no idea what the other actors looked like. Besides Keillor, for me the most recognizable voice has always been the voice of Sue Scott, who turned out to be much taller, skinnier and blonder than I imagined.

Nor had I known about Keillor’s attire. He may be dressed in a dark suit and tie, but he has to wear red shoes, red socks and a long red tie during each performance. Last night the red shoes were actually red sneakers. Presumably finding red shoes for men these days is next to impossible. I’m not even sure where red socks can be purchased. I imagine he either dyes them himself or has them special ordered.

I expected to find the performance so-so, but I was pleasantly surprised. The show is actually improved substantially by a live performance. The cast and crew may be aging along with Mr. Keillor, but they flawlessly went through many complicated scripts chock full of sound effects. Mr. Keillor always finds a way to tie the show at Wolf Trap to Memorial Day. He managed to do so in a very touching way with a story about an African American who went to war in Vietnam, did not return, and left a lot of friends and lovers with broken hearts behind. In addition, just because he could, he had us sing the national anthem and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Pretty much everyone stood and sang with genuine heart.

We also lucked out and got an excellent guest artist, folk singer Tom Rush whose songs I was only tangentially familiar with. Not only were his songs wonderfully heartfelt, Rush was very entertaining as well. I will be seeking him out when he hits smaller venues like The Birchmere.

A Prairie Home Companion is really a very odd show, fundamentally anchored somewhere around 1950 in the mythical Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. It is corny. It is cheesy. It is mostly heartfelt. It is often humorous and sometimes satirical. While anyone can enjoy it, it is frankly a show aimed straight at the heart of white America. It feels intrinsically comfortable, like a comfy pair of slippers. In a world gone mad with overpopulation and disastrous oil spills, it hearkens us to a mythical time in the past when we lived and thrived in small communities. Today, it is sort of a national campfire that many of us sit around and listen to on Saturday nights. It is a deeply soul satisfying experience. So if the show is coming locally to your city, it is worth your time to attend a performance. We are very glad we went.

As for Garrison Keillor, while he is fundamentally a decent and gentle man, he is more complex and crotchety than his gentle demeanor on stage would lead you to believe. He is a man full of opinions, most of them well informed, but some not so well formed and occasionally quite offensive. An article he wrote last year castigating Unitarian Universalists like me was particularly offensive and off base. Maybe someday, he will have the good sense to apologize for it.

I won’t hold it against him. Last year he suffered a mild stroke. While he claims to have recovered fine, he seemed to move somewhat slowly across the stage and down the aisles at Wolf Trap last night. He is doubtless feeling his mortality. When he passes, it is hard to imagine how the show can succeed without him.

The show will probably disappear long before we are ready for it. Maybe, like the Peanuts comic strip, it will live on perpetually as reruns. When that day comes, I and millions of others will be in mourning, as well as very grateful for this wonderful show that came straight from the heart of the Midwest.

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