The Music Center at Strathmore was filled with nary an empty seat.
The crowd was there to see – and listen to – their favorite National Public Radio star, 73 year-old 6 foot 3 inch Garrison Keillor.
During the show, to relive their radio experience, some folks sat with their eyes closed.
After 42 seasons as host of the Saturday evening radio variety show he created for Minnesota Public Radio, A Prairie Home Companion, relating tales from his fictive home town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, interspersed with skits, tall tales and musical acts, Keillor retired from the popular show July 1, 2016. The show had been broadcast around the world. At its peak it reached an audience of 4.2 million listeners.
He continues as host of a 5-minute program The Writer’s Almanac. Author of numerous books and a former writer for The New Yorker, he has already begun writing columns for The Washington Post.
The stage at Strathmore was unnaturally empty and plainly lit, devoid of any special effects. An unfinished platform formed a semi-circle around the rear of the stage, rimmed with black drapes.
Center front, there was a simple wooden stool and a mic on a stand. That’s it. Not even a bottle of water.
As people were still being seated, at 8:05 p.m. Keillor strode onstage in a rumpled tan linen suit, starched white shirt, bright red satin tie, and red sneakers and socks.
He would remain on stage, without notes, cue cards or a cute assistant for the next two-plus hours. Sometimes he’d stand. At other points, he’d plop on the seat, wrap his gangly legs around the stool and swivel like a young boy.
Keillor noted he was in town to accept the 2016 annual award for Achievement in American Literature from the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, meeting Oct. 29, 2016, in Rockville. Keillor stated Fitzgerald had deep roots in Montgomery County and his ancestor, Francis Scott Key, wrote the “Star Spangled Banner.”
He bade the audience to stand and sing it with him. The crowd did so, respectfully and joyfully. Orioles fans even left out the “O!!” part.
Keillor introduced the Conference president Jackson R. Bryer, who explained Fitzgerald – born in Minnesota – returned again and again to the area of his father’s birth and was buried, along with his wife Zelda, daughter Scottie, and family members, in nearby St. Mary’s Cemetery.
The conference, Bryer said, had sold out.
Then it was Keillor’s turn.
He riffed on the name Strathmore. “It sounds like a line of fine men’s fashions … So much more higher class than I normally wear.”
He also playfully riffed the award. “An award means you are old – and haven’t offended as many people.” He continued with a snarky dig at Bob Dylan, “but at least it’s not the Nobel Prize for Literature.”
Keillor had a stroke in 2009 and a seizure a week after his final show this July.
During the Strathmore show, he didn’t so much walk back and forth across the stage during his slightly more than two-hour monologue, he shuffled in a distinctive 2-step gait. Looking over the audience, he said, “I’m just a cranky white person … there’s a lot of us out there.”
The audience roared. And. Nodded in self-awareness.
He paused for a brief commentary on the ridiculousness of wearing a baseball cap backwards. Less than a minute later, after he delved into another topic, the ushers let in a small group of people and escorted them to their seats in the front right orchestra section.
The entire audience collectively gasped and shrieked with laughter. A youth in the group was wearing a baseball cap – backwards.
Keillor spun around, muffled a laugh and resisted the urge to call out the kid.
The evening was a series of circular stories. He’d start at one point, seemingly get distracted by a detail, follow that detail down a rabbit hole and through a series of tunnels, before emerging right next to the original story line – and continuing with it. Through it all, the rapt audience was engrossed, enthralled and enchanted.
During one of his stories – told in that deep, warm, comforting, familiar voice of his (a voice we’ve gone to bed listening to as children, made out to on date nights in the back of a car, grew up with, and, now, grown older with …) he talked about his fantasy of going into a biker bar and asking: “Which one of you punks wants to take on a public radio host?”
He mentioned his fondness for being surrounded by Millennials. “Young people like to hang out with me because I pick up the check.”
He described his hometown as a place where you left the back door unlocked. A relative would drop by, knock twice and let themselves in. “You lock the front door because that’s where the Jehovah’s Witnesses come … “ he said drily, later reminding the audience his family had belonged to a strict fundamentalist church sect, the Plymouth Bretheren, which forbids dancing and drinking.
In one, long circular tale involving an unexpected tossing of a friend’s cremains into the air and landing on the lakeside reunion of the Class of 1966, a wedding on the lake that was cancelled at the last moment, and memories of a late night session in a his high school’s girls’ locker room on Prom Night, he found space to recite a limerick:
“There was a girl from Madras,
Who had a nice ass,
Not the kind that you think,
All round and pink,
But had two ears, a tail and ate grass.”
There, too, was his version of an, ahem, urology exam. By a woman doctor.
He also, throughout the show, roused the audience to join in singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” the Beatle’s anthem “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Good Night, Ladies,” “Good Night Irene” and more.
It was a warm, fun, funny, memorable evening. The only thing we didn’t do was clasp hands and sing “Kumbaya.”
Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.
Here is more information on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion Solo” Tour.