Happy 40th Anniversary Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion, broadcasting the final program of their 39th year on June 28, 2014 at Tanglewood. The Berkshires have been on the show’s itinerary every year since 2000; the July 2, 2006 show, featuring Meryl Streep, was recorded for the PBS series Great Performances.
I got hip to A Prairie Home Companion around 1980, at a time in my life when sitting still indoors with the radio on was the last thing on my mind. Today, that’s my favorite pastime! Whatever it was about the show that got my attention initially is lost to memory; it may have been an ad for the Sidetrack Tap, Bob’s Bank, or Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, or a musical guest, rarely heard on radio, such as Chet Adkins, or Johnny Gimble?
In reporting the News from Lake Wobegon accross the decades, Garrison Keillor relates anecdotes on the denizens of his imagination that are imbued with the same pathos and insight as you’ll find in a great novel.
Never an ardent reader of the comics, nor fan of TV serials, nevertheless I got totally hooked on Buster the Show Dog, the drama that ran from December 1986 to June 1987, with Father Finian and Timmy, the sad rich teenage boy. I was an English teacher then, and would tape shows to replay highlights of for my students.
No show is more memorable than the Feb. 14, 1987 one, which included Keillor’s bombshell announcement that the show would be shutting down later that year. I remember him saying he wanted to return to a life that included Saturdays! Who could begrudge him that? I remember also that show had Bobby McFerrin performing an 8 minute version of The Wizard of Oz – the whole damn movie, not just Over the Rainbow!
Bertha’s Kitty Boutique
Sometime after the show had returned, I got the bright idea to send them an idea for a new product for Bertha’s Kitty Boutique. My creation was Air of the Dog, an aerosol spray of dog scent, to be marketed to “Our lapless friends, persons who don’t care for cats.” Someone from the show wrote back: “cute idea, mister, but we write own own material here.”
In 2000, by which time I was covering Tanglewood here, A Prairie Home Companion began making annual appearances in the Koussevitsky Music Shed. where Keillor had his second date with his wife, an alumnus of the B.U. Tanglewood Institute.
I got to watch the dress rehearsal for the 2001 show, which afforded me the opportunity to have confirmed the genius of Keillor and the brilliance of the progrm. Can you imagine showing up late in the week at some venue or another, assembling a disparate cast of musical artists to be integrated with the house band and acting company, and then being ready by 6 PM Saturday to go live with 120 seamless minutes of material that flat-out entertains millions strong women, good-looking men, and above average children? Phew!
I chatted with Russ Ringsak, the show’s truck driver, who also is responsible for much of the local information that Keillor uses when he talks about whatever place the show is coming from. Arriving before everybody else, Ringsak has time to visit local establishments and get a feel for the place’s ambience.
My favorite local bit was the skit they did in 2001 re-visiting the legendary 1850 picnic on Monument Mountain where Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne met and began their important literary friendship. As related by Keillor, the party included Emily Dickinson, who would have been a teenager at the time, because “nobody said she wasn’t there!”
The chief value of A Prairie Home Companion for me is that not only does it make the suspension of disbelief easy, but it presents an alternate universe where I feel not only welcome but also satisfied with being troubled by frets and woes that are within the ken of an ordinary schmoe to deal with. It’s the version of life that God had in mind when we first were fitted-out with appetites – like wanting a little more of this and that – a little more time with someone or other, maybe, but not so much that anybody gets hurt. Or hurt too bad or for too long, anyway.
Pre-show serenade to after-party
The 2 hour show heard on the radio gets augmented at Tanglewood (maybe elsewhere, too) by a 10-15 minute pre-show serendae among the Shed audience and picnicers on the Lawn, and then an encore that sometimes goes on so long it feels like another show. You can see examples of both on our Youtube channel.