A gifted storyteller and humorist is making his way to Austin soon, and once again it’s another who impacted me as a youth. This time, it’s Garrison Keillor: author, radio persona, and creator of “A Prairie Home Companion.” The production is a live radio variety show famous for its musical guests, cheeky radio drama and a segment narrated by Keillor himself, “News from Lake Wobegon.” This is news of a small town in Minnesota where Garrison claims to hail from. A place where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” It may be the home of Keillor, but most certainly not of modesty.
One would think that this “hometown boy who made it big” would put a community like Lake Wobegon on the map. And perhaps it would have, if not for one big catch. You see, one won’t be able to locate Lake Wobegon on Google Maps or any other atlas (go ahead, click through and see for yourself). That’s because it’s also a creation of Garrison Keillor. It’s a principal location referred to on his show, but is merely representative of any small rural Midwestern town. Quintessential Minnesota, if you will.
Far from being offended by the concept of a fictional town, however, Minnesotans have embraced Lake Wobegon with open arms and dishes of ludefisk. For a time, there was even a retail store in the gigantic Mall of America specializing solely in Lake Wobegon merchandise. Keillor has gone on to write several tongue-in-cheek books about the place, and even The Onion has unearthed ghastly details that the town would likely prefer to sweep under the rug.
All joking aside, “A Prairie Home Companion” is remarkable for its longevity. It first aired in 1974 and, with the exception of a “hiatus” from 1987 until 1993, it’s been a staple of the public radio. Like clockwork, the show is broadcast on Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. As they say, check your local listings. Of course, a radio production isn’t merely confined to the airwaves in such modern times. If you so desire, audio clips and podcasts are available here.
Naturally, some of your readers may be most familiar with Keillor from the 2006 film (of the same name) based on his radio program. A Prairie Home Companion was the big screen adaptation of the show, and happened to have been the final film directed by American auteur Robert Altman. Boasting an all-star cast, this whimsical film featured the talents of Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, and (ahem!!) Lindsay Lohan. Yeah, yeah. I’ll save the obvious red-headed train wreck jokes out of the respect I have for Keillor.
A story about the backstage happenings of a radio broadcast is a fascinating idea for a film, but in the mid 1980s, a television program saw the possibilities as well. You see, there were televised broadcasts of “A Prairie Home Companion” and tales of Lake Wobegon that appeared on The Disney Channel a quarter century back. Yes, you read that correctly, the Disney Channel. And while I may have fuzzy memories of those shows, I recall being captivated by the brand of storytelling and the format of that show. A child’s mind like mine would wonder: why is there a radio show on the TV? Isn’t this Disney Channel? Where are the Donald Duck cartoons? It was a strange new adult experience for yours truly, but it was miles more entertaining than “Kids Incorporated.” What can I say? It clearly made an impression. In addition, I distinctly recall a Garfield cartoon where the setting was near a “Lake Wobegon.” That location rang a bell of recognition, and as a result it was probably one of the first small Midwest town names to stick with me in my youthful memory banks. I told myself I’d go see it one day. Imagine my disappointment years later when I found out it didn’t actually exist. C’est le vie.
So, all these years later, I will finally get the opportunity to partake of the most famous citizen of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Garrison Keillor is more than a fortunate son from a fictional town, he’s a prolific writer and radio royalty. I now relish the chance to hear him live (in person, not just on the radio). Join me and see this bespectacled humorist and storyteller shine on the stage. I promise Lindsay Lohan won’t be anywhere nearby.