As Garrison Keillor lumbers across the Hollywood Bowl stage during a Thursday rehearsal for “A Prairie Home Companion,” the mood feels like the last day of summer camp: loose, filled with camaraderie and somewhat bittersweet. A breeze ripples through the venue’s nearly 18,000 empty seats as Keillor’s longtime pianist, Richard Dworsky, bangs out snippets of upbeat melodies on a grand piano, center stage. And the kids of Camp Keillor gather round.
First, it’s the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” followed by Billy Hill’s “The Glory of Love.” Then Keillor and fellow performers Heather Masse, Sara Watkins and Christine DiGiallonardo huddle around a microphone by the piano, crooning a tweaked version of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” “I … can’t … wait … for the show to begin,” they sing.
The show they sing about, of course, is the final episode of “A Prairie Home Companion,” with Keillor as host, after about 42 years on the air. But the gravity of the moment isn’t at all apparent from Keillor’s nonchalance. In his loose-in-the-seat blue jeans and rumpled, pin-striped blazer, Keillor appears supremely relaxed, tapping his foot and harmonizing with the gals, all while flipping through script pages and sputtering sound effects.
“Cluck-cluck-cluck” — his tongue on the roof of his mouth — is the sound of Keillor intensely mulling script notes during a break between songs. “Sshhh, Shhhh” — sucking air between his teeth, preceding a pronounced Donald Duck-like lip-purse — is the sound of creative fine tuning.
“Maybe we should do this in a cappella,” Keillor says to the women. Then they launch into a heartfelt version of Iris DeMent’s contemporary folk song “When My Morning Comes Around.”
“Hmm, well, it’s an experiment,” Keillor says, wrapping up the song. “An experiment.”
Tweaking his show right up to the last minute is par for the course. Keillor once leaned over actor Tim Russell’s shoulder with a Sharpie during a live broadcast and changed the script as Russell was reading it. Keillor began writing this Friday’s show on the flight Wednesday from Minnesota to Los Angeles; he finished penning the sketches over coffee and oatmeal in his hotel room Thursday morning, he says, with the monologue yet to be written as of rehearsal time and the fate of certain characters still hanging in the balance.
“I feel as if I need to close some doors on some characters who I haven’t talked about in a long time,” Keillor says during an interview in the Bowl’s box seats. “I need to tell where they are, or some of them simply have to die. I have to take care of them because they shouldn’t be left hanging.”
Keillor’s fate is far from uncertain, with a bevy of new projects underway, including a memoir and a Lake Wobegon screenplay in the works (the director-producer, he says, will be “Love & Mercy” filmmaker Bill Pohlad) as well as a new Washington Post column. Keillor will serve as executive producer on the new “A Prairie Home Companion,” which will be hosted by Chris Thile. And don’t forget his ongoing one-man live shows, the continuation of his five-minute poetry radio show, “The Writer’s Almanac,” and speeches and benefits. For the 73-year-old radio icon, retirement is relative.
“I don’t need a recliner; I need a bicycle,” Keillor jokes.
But one would think a certain sentimentality or nostalgia on the eve of Keillor’s final turn as host of “A Prairie Home Companion” would be inevitable. He insists not.
“I don’t think that one feels nostalgia for something you did every week, and that was so intense and you worked so hard on, and the next week you did it again,” he says. “I feel nostalgia for cities where I was in love with somebody. I feel a certain nostalgia for the game of softball, which I don’t play anymore. But this — it’s a job. I just want it to be good.”
Performing his final “A Prairie Home Companion” at the Hollywood Bowl made sense, Keillor says. He’s taped shows there on four occasions, and the grandiosity of the venue lends itself to the occasion.
“This is Hollywood; it’s Los Angeles. We’re from the Midwest. It’s a very big thing,” he says. “From the musicians, to the actors, to the guests — it’s a very big deal.”
What might he miss most about appearing on “A Prairie Home Companion”?
“Singing with women, clearly,” Keillor says. “Because I’ll never do it again. We used to have parties like that, but we don’t anymore. We sit around and talk about politics now. I mean, I sing in church, but in church, it’s discouraging because the organ is always too loud.”
Writing, he says, will more than fill the void.
“I’m returning to a life I envisioned for myself when I was [young], which is a life as a writer,” he says. “Ever since I was a kid, that seemed to me to be the ultimate life of dignity and privilege. And I really get inspired by writing in ways that I used to get inspired by the idea of doing the show.”
As Keillor and his band of musicians and engineers wander backstage for their dinner hour, the spirit of summer camp returns. As do Keillor’s sound effects.
As he “bim bops, bim bops” to himself, Masse agrees that “there’s definitely an air of excitement and bittersweetness” about this evening’s rehearsal.
“Tonight, it feels a little looser,” she says. “But it’s not really going to hit us until the show starts tomorrow. I think it’s gonna be emotional.”
Keillor insists otherwise.
“I’m not. I’m really not nostalgic. I’m not sad,” he says.
Is he having fun, at least?
“Well, I certainly want to give you that impression,” he says.
Then he climbs the stairs on his way to the dinner buffet, rattling off one last round of: “bomp, bomp, du-du-ja, du-du-wops” before disappearing, altogether, backstage.
Follow me on Twitter: @DebVankin