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The Garrison Keillor exit interview: He was surprised to find Prairie Home was a good Companion




Garrison Keillor, onstage
Garrison Keillor, onstage
Erik Hageness

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Off-Ramp's John Rabe conducts Garrison Keillor's exit interview. Keillor hosts his final "A Prairie Home Companion" July 1 at the Hollywood Bowl, which will be broadcast Saturday, July 2 at 6 p.m. on KPCC. New host Chris Thile takes over Oct. 15.

On July 6, 1974, then just 32-year-old Garrison Keillor hosted his first live "Prairie Home Companion" variety show on Minnesota Public Radio. Rejected by NPR's then-President Frank Mankiewicz,  the show became a huge national hit and won a Peabody in 1980. The success of the show — at one time it had 4.1 million listeners — eventually allowed Minnesota Public Radio to, among other things, transform KPCC into a leading all-news station.

Keillor and
Keillor and "A Prairie Home Companion" in the 1970s.
American Public Media

Keillor had a stroke in 2009, from which he's recovered, but in May of this year, he suffered a seizure and was checked out at the Mayo Clinic.

First of all, how are you feeling?

Garrison Keillor: I feel terrific. Never felt better. Everybody has brain episodes, sometimes self-inflicted, and otherwise they just come about. It's a mysterious organ compared to the heart. They know everything about the heart, they can put cameras up inside it, and the brain is very very murky. Neurology is no more a science than, I don't know, astrology or something.

You're doing your final show at the Hollywood Bowl in the beginning of July, which is almost exactly 42 years since the first "Prairie Home Companion." I want to know first, why did you pick doing the final show at the Bowl as opposed to doing it in St. Paul?

I've been suspended from broadcasting, John, for the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and so they kicked me out. I didn't have a choice.

What's the real reason?

(Laughs) Do you have some kind of a truthful sensor? Why won't you accept that answer?

Because after doing a show for 42 years, you could pick exactly how you want to go out.

Why did I pick that? Because it's the end of the season. We do the show in these very nice units called seasons, and you know, you wouldn't want to do it March, because that's not the end of the season. So, July 1st, Hollywood Bowl.

Are you okay ending at the Hollywood Bowl and not in St. Paul? Don't St. Paulites deserve a final goodbye?

No, because I'm coming back here to St. Paul. They won't say goodbye to me. I'll be all over the place. I'll be shopping at Kowalski's. They'll see me at the Dairy Queen down on Lexington. I'll be at the public library. I'll be sitting down watching the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. I'll be at the opera. I'll be everywhere.

What will your thoughts be as you're standing on the stage doing this final show?

The same as they would be for any other show. What do I do next? What do I say? What is going on in Lake Wobegon? Confusion.

You're being difficult! I'm trying to get at when is it going to hit you that you've done 42 years of this and this is going to be the end of it?

Oh, it hits me already. It's been on my mind for months, and I'm happy about it. Of course I am. If I didn't feel good about it, then I wouldn't have done it.

But if you're standing on the Hollywood Bowl stage with all of those people loving you... you'd be like Bernie Sanders at his final rally. That's something that I would find very hard to give up.

Bernie may find it hard to give up, but he's got to do it. You know. Why be a jerk?

Keillor went on to say, when asked what he's accomplished with the show over four decades, "I think that I've kept people company, at a time when they were looking for something." They're writing, he says, to tell him that listening to the show has gotten them though loneliness and heartache. "I had no idea, of course. I was only amusing myself." The Famous Self-Deprecator will admit, "It's interesting to find that you were of use."

Back in the 1970s, the show came out with a t-shirt and poster, which Keillor mentioned on PHC, and they were inundated with orders. That success spurred Minnesota Public Radio to form a for-profit arm called Rivertown Trading, a catalog company selling public radio-oriented items -- books on tape, book lights, etc. -- that MPR sold to Dayton Hudson in 1998 for $120m. That allowed MPR to create public radio's biggest endowment at the time and -- among other ventures -- come to California and transform KPCC, a small eclectic music station with perhaps 150,000 listeners, to the news station it is today with a weekly audience of more than 800,000 listeners.

Bill Kling, American Public Media's President Emeritus and the founder of Minnesota Public Radio, says that "might be an exaggeration." The sale of Rivertown and the huge boost to the endowment, he says, gave APM the ability - the "credit, the backing, the cash flow" - to take risks like transforming KPCC, but that the work was done by supporters in Southern California.

Kling hired Garrison in 1969. He remembers him as a "gangly college graduate hoping to make a career in writing; it was going kinda slow." Keillor first spiced up the morning classical music show with pop music, then started bringing in performers. Kling says he drew the line at a glass harmonica player, but suggested Keillor do a weekend show with music.

Bill Kling, in the early days of Minnesota Public Radio
Bill Kling, in the early days of Minnesota Public Radio
APM

What was Keillor like to work with, I asked. Would he come into the office, put his feet on the desk, and chat? "No, none of the above. It's not what he's about; he's an internal guy. Garrison works all the time." If he has five free minutes, "he'll start to write something, or he'll observe something that he'll turn into a sketch."

Is it time for Garrison to retire? Kling says it doesn't matter what he thinks, but that "Garrison is as good if not better than he has ever been, but he wants to do other things.  I think the Hollywood Bowl show is going to be an enormously emotional show because for him it really is letting go. I mean he'll show up again, of course he'll be on the show when Chris Thile is doing it, and you'll hear him again, but in terms of the show that he's in control of, that'll be the last one."

When I counter that Garrison says he's just going to be "the grey eminence in the background," and hasn't said he'll be actually on APHC 2.0, Kling says, simply, "Sure."

Listen to the bonus audio for much more from Bill Kling on Keillor's early years.

This story has been edited from it's original form to add comments from Bill Kling.