Folks in Lake Wobegon are misty-eyed these days because the humorist who created the mythical town of strong women, good-looking men and above-average children is leaving "A Prairie Home Companion."
"I want to enjoy the sweet life in my stories," said Garrison Keillor, who has been the heart and soul of the radio show for 13 years.
Keillor, 44, said he wants to return to writing after the final performance of his Peabody Award-winning "A Prairie Home Companion" next Saturday. Then he and his wife of two years, Ulla Skaerved, will move to her native Denmark.
At a May 30 performance, Keillor told of sneaking into a grain elevator with friends as a teen-ager and on a dare being lifted up in the bucket.
Clings for Dear Life
When he leaned to look out and see the skyline, the bucket tipped and he clung to it for dear life as his friends brought him safely to the ground.
"Doing this show has been what the trip up in the bucket was," he said. "I leaned, and then I finally made it to the bottom."
That theme came up in the program's adventure serial--"Buster the Show Dog"--when Buster and his friends wound up in a cable car and for the first time noticed the life going on below them that they were too busy to notice before.
The capacity crowd that packed the World Theater for the May 30 performance was treated to all the homespun charm that is Keillor's trademark.
The show opened as usual with Keillor crooning "Hello Love," and there was the gaggle of down-home sponsors like the "Boll Weevil Teen Casino" and "Cyrus Hartley's Touch and Glow Fertilizer."
Bluegrass and Gospel
And there was the good-time bluegrass music of Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys and the old-time gospel tunes from Emmy Lou Harris.
Then Keillor used his weekly monologue--his visit to Lake Wobegon--to defend his decision to leave. He said he went to "see everybody before I go away" and was cornered by Wally the bartender, who warned him about the big mistake he was making.
"You better think twice, mister," Keillor said Wally warned. "I know a lot of people who did what you're doing, and they left a good deal. They found out they made a mistake and tried to come back and they couldn't--it was too late."
To which Keillor responded: "Wally is a bartender and bartenders are conservative. They believe in hanging on to what you've got. I'm not a conservative. I'm a romantic guy and I believe in the romantic beauty of the world and the endless possibilities of the world."
The 'Town Time Forgot'
Keillor's Lake Wobegon is "the little town time forgot and the decades cannot improve . . . where all the women are strong, the men good-looking and the children above average."
Its inhabitants are benignly average yet slightly wacky--such as Uncle Ned, the Norwegian bachelor farmer; Betty and Carl Krebsbach, a poor couple with 11 children; Mayor Bunsen; Father Emil, the priest at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Church; peace officers Gary and LeRoy, and a poet laureate, Margaret Haskins Durber. The town has its own baseball team, the Whippets.
The show's fictitious commercial sponsors ring of small-town America--Jack's Auto Repair, Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, Bob's Bank, Bertha's Kitty Boutique and, of course, Powdermilk Biscuits, the ones that "give shy persons the strength to do what needs to be done."
Keillor is a shy, tall, cracker-barrel philosopher from America's heartland. Born in Anoka near the Twin Cities, his parents were members of a strict fundamentalist sect called the Plymouth Brethren that frowned on such things as dancing and movies. He draws on his upbringing for his material.
Thurber, White and Updike
A high school teacher introduced him to the works of James Thurber, E. B. White and John Updike, sparking his interest in writing.
Keillor went to the University of Minnesota and then landed in public radio, where he developed his brand of folksy humor.
Keillor, who has refused to give interviews, said in the May 30 show that he is unafraid of failing.
"Somehow failures make you love life more," he said. "When you start to fail, you start to notice other people. That's one of life's great gifts--to notice other people. But you'll only get it if you've failed at enough things yourself."
However, "A Prairie Home Companion" has been a major success. The program is broadcast on 278 public radio stations and recently was added to the cable television Disney Channel. It also spawned Keillor's best-selling book, "Lake Wobegon Days."
Tickets by Lottery
Tickets for the final show next Saturday had to be assigned by lottery because of an overwhelming number of requests for seats.
Sam and Ann Dibraccio, Brookfield, Wis., said they had a "long, hard struggle" to get tickets and had "a lot of help from a lot of people."
"I wrote in 10 times to get tickets," Ann Dibraccio said. "Two or three months ago there had been a rumor going around that a creative poem would get their attention."
Dibraccio's poem only triggered another rejection letter, but eventually persistence paid off and the couple got tickets.
A special "Prairie Home Companion" benefit for the World Theater is planned for Friday at $150 per person.