A Prairie Home Companion

It’s a radio show. It’s been on air for 30 years. It’s performed live every Saturday night, usually in Minnesota, but last night in Noo Yoik!

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It’s exceedingly home spun, feel good, light, bright, nostalgic, musical, and smiley. M told me all of that when she asked me along, but it was more of each of those things than I thought could exist in one theatre, on one night, even in America.

Garrison Keillor is the tall guy in red sneakers. He started it all in 1974, and despite announcing various retirements along the way, still performs it every week. For two hours. He writes the whole thing, including songs, sings many of them, recites his ‘News From Lake Wobegon’ (the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve) without notes, wanders around the stage orchestrating and bantering, and is evidently much loved. Between gigs he runs an independent bookshop in Minnesota, hosts 2 other daily radio shows, including, ‘The Writer’s Almanac’, has authored about 30 books, writes essays for The New Yorker and National Geographic, and does voice over work (he was Walt Whitman in ‘The Civil War’). He wrote the movie ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, which Alan Alder produced a few years ago (then died), which had a cast of anyone who’s anyone in American Film, including Meryl Streep, who went on to appear on the actual radio show, on stage (!) sometimes.

Before the ON-AIR light comes on (there really is one, it’s RED) Garrison leads a theatre-wide sing along.

This is ‘America’, or perhaps ‘My Country ‘Tis Of Thee’, despite sounding very much like ‘God Save The Queen’. It was America’s de facto national anthem until they changed to ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, in the 1930s. Kids still sing it in schools. Everybody in the audience knew all the words to all the songs. I didn’t know any of the words to any of the songs. The woman next to me certainly knew all the words, sang exceedingly well, slapped her thighs in delight whenever she laughed, raised her hands to either side of her face in elaborate surprise whenever the story demanded elaborate surprise, feigned shock with a lighting quick hand to her husbands thigh and a full body throwback in her seat whenever shock was warranted, and rubbed her arthritic knees during the off times.

There are skits and segments and old-fashioned sound-effect radio dramas. Songs, tunes, special guests and make-believe sponsor thanking. A quick intermission after an hour when I presume the radio station reads its hourly news, and then during the second hour Garrison delivers his  ‘News From Lake Wobegon’ story telling monologue.

Lake Wobegon is a fictional town, very much like the one he grew up in, in Minnesota. Nothing at all happens there. The news is the sort that might be exchanged between two cheerful locals on The Main Street on a Saturday morning, and comprises town fair competition wins, successful lutefisk festive dinners at the Lutheran Church Hall and progress on the repairs to the flood damaged basement of the Post Office. It’s always agreeable, and the audience loves it.

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The New York Town Hall, West 43rd Street.

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Afterwards M showed me which was The Empire State Building. I should have known it, of course, but didn’t. We ate a mountain of Indian Curry under it (in a Chinese Restaurant) talked about Noo Yoik life, her 6 hour interview at Goldman Sachs the previous day, my finals, Slavoj Zizek and Lars Von Trier, and then trained home.

I sat on the balcony for a bit (it’s vastly less cold now), realised I can see it (The Empire State Building) and took these;

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It’s the glowy bit.

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