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Garrison Keillor works on the script for the Atlanta performance of "A Prairie Home Companion"
Garrison Keillor, unplugged

Through it all, host of 'A Prairie Home Companion' is a writer

Web posted on: Wednesday, November 25, 1998 4:31:43 PM EST

By CNN Interactive Books Editor
Jonathan D. Austin

ATLANTA (CNN) -- The stage looks more appropriate for ballet, but tonight six musicians sit in a half-circle playing "Will the Circle be Unbroken."

They're professional, and they're good.

At the back of the stage stands the facade of a tidy house, maybe where a friend would be welcomed on a cold autumn night and offered something warm to drink. The presence of the house seems to say, "Come on in! Have a seat! Can I getcha something?"

At a microphone near the front of the stage stands a tall, dark-haired man. He's singing a song. His resonant baritone fills the air.

His name is Garrison Keillor.

"Will the circle, be unbroken,
By and by, Lord, by and by..."

The seats of the theater are empty; no spotlight illuminates Keillor. In mid-verse he looks back at the piano player. "Would it help if we pick up the tempo?" It seems less a question and more a direction. The musicians speed it up a bit.

"Will the circle, be unbroken,
By and by, Lord, by and by..."

"That sounds like it works for me," Keillor says over his shoulder. He looks down to study a page of paper -- maybe a script, maybe just an outline. The musicians make notes on their music.

Soundbites from Garrison Keillor

Are you nervous at 5 p.m. on Friday before the show?
370k MPEG-3 or 51k WAV

The year is 2070: What would you want people to remember about you and your work?
220k MPEG-3 or 300k WAV

On Mark Twain:
245k MPEG-3 or 335k WAV

From Minnesota to Atlanta

Welcome to a rehearsal for one of America's most popular radio shows. This is "A Prairie Home Companion" without the applause, without the audience, without the airwaves.

A public radio classic, "A Prairie Home Companion" is broadcast live on more than 450 radio stations in the United States. Millions of fans tune in weekly to hear music, funny skits, and the news from Lake Wobegon, Keillor's fictional Minnesota town of peace, prosperity and random acts of puzzlement. To the show's listeners, the characters who populate Lake Wobegon are like odd-but-kind relatives.

On this Friday evening, the rehearsal is in Atlanta at the elegant Fox Theater. Another rehearsal will be held Saturday, just a few hours before the sold-out show goes on the air live.

Though the show travels and the guests are varied, one thing stays the same: Keillor writes each skit and writes the monologue. This, in many ways, is a one-man show.

And the host is as unique as the production. Keillor is the author of 10 books, including the best-selling "Lake Wobegon Days" and "Wobegon Boy." He's received a Grammy Award and two ACE Awards for cable TV, and is in the Radio Hall of Fame at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

But at heart he is a writer. "All the ideas are his," says producer Christine Tschida. "He writes every bit of it."

And what a blast "it" is.

Keillor is the mastermind behind hilarious skits like the one from The Ketchup Advisory Board; the adventures of "Guy Noir, Private Eye;" and a five-minute opera about the common cold, appropriately titled "La Influenza." The Atlanta show offered a hilarious skit for the American Duct Tape Council:

"In a city that grows as fast as Atlanta does, there's not always time to pour concrete; sometime you need something else to hold things together, and that's duct tape."

The stress of the work

Keillor is the voice and imagination for the signature 20-some-minute monologue that transports millions of listeners to Lake Wobegon, the little town "that time forgot and decades cannot improve."

He doesn't have a filing cabinet full of monologues, ready to go. He writes each one during the 24 hours before the show. No one hears it before it goes out over the airwaves.

It's stressful, but it's as if he can sharpen his wit under the threat of an imminent deadline.

Keillor and the cast of "A Prairie Home Companion"

What's the pressure of writing the monologue like? Keillor took a moment to talk about it after Friday's rehersal:

"Friday at 5 o'clock is like the Saturday before the end of the semester for a college student. You meant well; you were planning to get those term papers written, and to read St. Augustine in time for the test, but it's Saturday and it's all piled up, and it's a righteous time.

"Let me tell you," he said with a chuckle. "It's a character-building time."

Then he offered a glimpse of what might be on the Atlanta show.

"As far as the news from Lake Wobegon, I am operating on only the vaguest, vaguest of ideas. I hoped that the story would be connecting Minnesota and Atlanta, and the best way -- the most natural way -- would be for someone from Minnesota to fall in love with somebody from Atlanta, and that's how you'd be able to get at some of the differences. So I think of having a young man from Lake Wobegon bring a young woman from Atlanta up to Minnesota in November, at a dreary, cold time of year, to meet his Lutheran family.

"It sounds like a good idea; I don't know. I just have to kind of pace in a room and talk out loud to myself and think about it."

Keillor's singing voice is warm and comforting. When he speaks to you one-to-one, he has that same, slow pace that millions know from radio. His style of speech seems filled with semicolons.

"I feel awfully nervous at five o'clock on Friday; this week is not too different from other weeks. It's a week in which the show is just very gradually taking shape in my mind; I knew that we'd be here in Atlanta, so Atlanta's full of so many cultural references that one can use, but writers shy away from cliches, or try to find a way to get around and come at them from behind, and it's such a slow process. I always wish that I were better prepared by this time of the week."

Thoughts of Mark Twain

In Keillor's mind, this radio work, no matter how intense, won't be his legacy. What does he think history will remember about him, say 70 years from now?

"I imagine there would be a few stories that might still have some life and breath in them, maybe a few, and I'm not sure I'd have any idea which those would be. The radio end of things would be long dead and gone."

Jokes and humor don't stand the test of time, he said. "People who tell jokes tend not to last as long as people who tell stories. So that's why I tell stories. Hope of stringing it out a little longer. But nobody knows."

He used Will Rogers to make his point:

"Will Rogers was a great radio performer and a beloved figure in America in the '20s and early '30s until he died in a plane crash, and then his star faded, because he was so much of his own time, wrote so much about politics, that his work -- his work didn't carry very well."

What about Mark Twain, the American humorist and author to whom many compare Keillor?

"Mark Twain told jokes, but they somehow stayed funny for a hundred years; they're still funny today," Keillor said. "When Mark Twain said, 'He was a good man in the worst sense of the word,' we know exactly what he's talking about. When he said 'Wagner's music is not as bad as it sounds,' it still is funny. Mark Twain was really a miracle."

So the difference between Twain and Rogers is the writing? That, Keillor said, and "the rhythm of his writing. The best of Mark Twain is writing that you want to read out loud to somebody. It really wants to be heard. ... The best parts of 'Huckleberry Finn,' you read them and you can hear them in your head."

Not unlike the stories from Lake Wobegon.

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