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A Prairie Home Follows Me To San Diego

— I’ve had a relationship with a Prairie Home Companion show for so long it’s embarrassing. I first attended the live show when I was a college student in Minnesota in 1981. Saturday, I’m going to see it again when it comes to the Civic Theatre in San Diego.

Garrison Keillor has single-handedly popularized a culture that few people knew about and an accent that was never taught in drama schools. But Minnesota isn’t the only thing the show’s about. It’s broad popularity proves that shyness, guarded emotions and small- town culture are things that people around the country and around the world identify with.

Although I’m not native to the state, I lived in Minnesota for 17 years and I was there when Keillor’s show went from being a local radio product to being national in scope. When I lived there, Keillor had the reputation of being aloof. Some people thought this was due to his signature trait, shyness. Some people thought it was arrogance.

He’s always struck me as an odd mix of pride and commonness. He took public transportation, for one thing. I remember riding a #3 bus to downtown St. Paul when I saw him get on board and sit in the seat right next to me. (It was the last open seat on the bus.) This was only one week after his face was on the cover of Time magazine.

When I worked at Minnesota Public Radio, a few years after the bus incident, I’d occasionally see him breeze into the newsroom to read one the newspapers we had on file. He never caught anyone’s eye. He never smiled or spoke a word.

What’s undeniable is Keillor’s comic genius and his tireless love of performing. The stage manager for PHC, Albert Webster, is still a close friend of my wife and me. He came to San Diego for the Civic Center show and had a drink and dinner at my place. He described the Prairie Home “cruises” they operate.

They fill a chartered cruise ship with public radio fans. Garrison goes along and does two shows a day. They also have assorted musical acts around the boat and lectures by naturalists. People get to hang out at the bar with musicians and with Keiller himself. Would he do this if he didn’t love it? Given his age (68) and the size of his bank account, I doubt it.

A Prairie Home Companion has become a national icon. We saw that when Robert Altman created a movie of the same name. PHC has also become a small industry, as we see in the Prairie Home cruises. In many ways, I’ve been along for the ride. For about 20 years I listened to the show every week without fail. Yes, I really am a public radio geek! I stopped listening regularly a few years ago because… well, everything gets old after a while.

But I hope Garrison keeps it up, and not just because it guarantees a job for my buddy Albert. Garrison Keillor has become as much of a show-biz legend as Johnny Carson, and he never needed Ed McMahon to be there to laugh at his jokes.

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