A night with Garrison Keillor

Saturday night, my mom and I attend the live performance of A Prairie Home Companion at Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls. I bought my mom her ticket as a Mother’s Day/birthday gift this year. My husband introduced me to the show, as well as NPR, back in the infancy of our dating, and I’ve been a huge fan of both ever since. Paying it forward, I played for my mom The Christmas Companion–a compilation of Christmas-related performances Keillor released a few years ago, which I got as my gift for donating generously to NPR that year. She liked it instantly and began to drive my father nuts by playing her dubbed copy of it incessantly for the next several months beyond Christmas. Now my mom listens to the show as frequently as I do.

So we were both really, really excited to get the chance to be a part of the live audience when the show came to town. I watched the website for three months, waiting for the tickets to go on sale. I personally never thought they’d come to a small little place like the Akron area; they always seemed to go to sophisticated places like New York or San Franscisco. Of course, I guess being a show centered in the Midwest (Minneapolis-St. Paul) about the Midwest, I should have suspected they would pay us a visit.

I was really not disappointed at all. It’s amazing to watch these people work–Garrison, Sue Scott, Tim Russell, Fred Newman. The entire show moves like clockwork with everyone flowing naturally through their parts as though it were an effortless activity. Keillor is constantly walking about the stage, even when he’s not performing, having whispered conversations with stage hands and production crew. It’s amazing to see him sing a refrain in one breath, turn to a production crew member to talk off mike, and then return–without skipping a beat–to the song. He’s got the whole stage working like puppets in his hands and it goes off virtually flawlessly.

Lucky for us, we were sitting in the pavilion because a huge thunderstorm came through right as the show began. I pity the fools in the lawn seats. Too many shows gone wrong have taught me that lawn seats at Blossom are a gamble for any show I actually intend to watch. I don’t know whose crazy idea it was to build an outdoor theatre in wet Ohio where only two to three months a year are stable enough weather-wise to hold an outdoor event. The idea of outdoor theatre is romantic, though completely impractical in a state like Ohio.

The thunderstorm actually added to the entertainment of the show. During a skit between Sue Scott and Keillor where Scott’s character, a neurologist, was making passes at Keillor’s Guy Noir, a loud clap of thunder erupted through the theatre. Scott quipped, in her character’s voice, without missing a beat, “Oh my! It’s a sign!”

After the laughter passed, she continued, “Anyway, the real punchline was…” and proceeded to recite the scripted line. The next few lines between she and Keillor continued the ad libs about the lightening and rain and thunderstorms.

We actually did lose power during the second song of the show. However, at the end of the entire performance, Keillor and his singers came back on stage to repeat the first two songs–a cover of the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” and a cover of “They All Went to Mexico” (either by Willie Nelson or Santana)– so that they could be inserted into the rebroadcast without the missing time that the power outage caused. None of us were disappointed that we got to stay around for a final two songs after the show to provide the required applause that would make listeners of the rebroadcast believe we’d never lost power at all (though, I think Keillor did reference the power loss sometime during the show).

The crew went off script a few times to make remarks about the thunderstorm. Keillor and his crew just seemed like naturals in the performance of the entire show, which only seems expected since they’ve been working with A Prairie Home Companion for so long. Watching Fred Newman producing his sound affects was like watching a kid waiting about to pull off a stunt he knows he’s going to get in trouble for if he gets caught; there was still a childlike bounce about him as he produced accompanying noises for the skits which, at times, were in rapid fire succession.

It was great to hear all the local references Keillor worked into the show. It’s like a salute to your heritage and you know, since it’s broadcast throughout the U.S. (particularly in the Midwest), that people in other cities are learning special local highlights of your home. I think, too, I’ve been discovering over the last few months a lot of interesting things about the state of my birth–historical tidbits that connect me to this land in some way. Every place has its history, you simply need to uncover it. I’ve had a recent fascination with the Erie Canal as well as the many other more minor canals along rivers in Ohio. I hope to explore the history of these canals further (sometimes I can hear a historical work of fiction brewing in my head). What can I say? Ohio: I love to hate it, though, really, I love it in a dysfunctional parent-child relationship sort of way. I guess I’m never happy!

One of the guest musicians was a group called The WailinJennys. I really liked their music and I think I’m going to look them up. My mom and I found them doing another performance after the show outside on of the other Blossom buildings and we stuck around to listen to them some more. The group consists of three women and a male violinist. The music is folk, which I’m usually not that keen on. However, I really enjoyed it. I probably should have bought one of their CDs, but my mom is so not into looking at merchandise at shows like this. She’s always commenting how things cost too much. I didn’t want to inspire a discourse on this topic so I just left it to myself to find them online somewhere later.

A Prairie Home Companion is one of my favorite shows to listen to on NPR. It hearkens to a time when radio was the main media and actors play-acted scenes to dramas and comedies. There’s something distinctly quaint about it all, about using your imagination to envision the scenes being enacted through only words. I’m in love with the image of the Midwest it portrays because the jokes are familiar to me–they make sense in a way that I understand in my Midwest mindset. There’s something different about our part of the world here in the Midwest. The show just really draws that out and makes you not only appreciate it, but laugh at it too. Keillor is a master at understanding the Midwest psyche–those topics that drive us–and he invites us to laugh at ourselves. His jokes aren’t offensive to anyone, but light-hearted and fun. Even his “political commentary,” though probably tending to liberalism at times, is actually generic enough that Democrats and Republicans alike can share the humor. (One of the best jokes from Saturday was his remark about the discovery of water on Mars, “The best thing to come out of this administration and it happened on Mars!”)

Keillor is very professorial in his speaking style and I always picture myself in a lecture hall at a university, captivated. He reminds me of the best of the professors I learned from at Hiram. I’m currently on two of his mailing lists from the A Prairie Home Companion website, one of which sends me a poem each day. I feel like I’m still actively involved in a literary community, though so far from the place from which I came in this technical writing community. At least, though, for once a day, I can pretend to be an English major again, studying the great works of man under the tutelage of a fun and inspiring professor.

The only thing I missed from Saturday’s performance was a reference to Keillor’s made-up society for English majors called the Professional Organization of English Majors (P.O.E.M–get it?). Occasionally on his show he runs “messages” from P.O.E.M with such themes as “why you should marry an English major” and “the validity of a degree in English” (which usually amounts to working at a made up fast food chain). These little salutes to my own degree make me laugh, for no other form of media has ever paid such respects to my degree, even if only to mock it. I guess the reason it’s actually heartwarming is because it comes from a man who is obviously the product of a liberal arts education and he’s making a great living working within liberal arts. It gives all of us hope. I know that as he mocks it he’s really validating the worthiness of a liberal arts education. His English major characters delve into the questions we all asked ourselves at the end of our college careers, “Now what am I going to do?” when we realized that we probably couldn’t be the novelists and poets we aspired to be if we wanted to move out of our parents’ house.

I recently bought his 2-CD compilation called For English Majors. There’s a delightful 6-minute Hamlet skit on it that makes me roll in hysterics because in just six minutes, Keillor captures the essence of a very long play with punchy humor. I love spoofs on even the things I cherish most (Hamlet being one of my favorite Shakespeare plays). For those who know the plight of the English major personally, his jokes are especially funny.

Seeing A Prairie Home Companion live was even more fun than I expected. My mom really liked it too and said to me before she left, “If the show comes back to town someday, let me know. I’d like to go again.”

Score one for Mars Girl and her amazing perfect-present purchasing power!!

And, thank you, Garrison Keillor, for a delightful show in my home town on a rainy, thunderstorming, Saturday night. You made me love to fall in love with the Midwest again!

3 thoughts on “A night with Garrison Keillor

  1. I really enjoyed this post! Sounds like a great time, I’d love to see one of his shows sometime, I’ll have to see if Seattle is on the radar.

  2. I’m a bit of a Garrison Keillor worshipper. ;) I’m just a big fan of his work and all that he represents with his show… ;)

  3. Thank you for such a beautiful description of the show. I have been lucky enough to have been present to a few of his shows. It is really amazing how hard he works and how beautifully the whole show flows.This particular show was one of the best I have heard. I think that what made it so special is Keillor and his entourage capability to ad-lib and make it funny.I have been a faithful listener since 1984 and have read most of his books. This man is a genius. Then again, I, too, am a Keillor worshiper.

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