Did he Stay a Bit too Long?
by Cara Buckley, New York Times June 16 2016
ST. PAUL, MINN. — Garrison Keillor was riding shotgun in a rented Chevy, motoring east through the steamy Midwestern heat.
His linen suit was appropriately rumpled — everything about this public radio legend suggests disregard for crisp lines — and his gangly legs were jacked up against the glove box, as he resisted suggestions to slide his seat back. Hitching a ride with a reporter from Minneapolis to his home here, he filled the yawning silences with a weird little singsong, “bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp.”
He had just spent hours rehearsing for the following night, May 21, when he hosted “A Prairie Home Companion,” at the State Theater in Minneapolis, before a packed, adoring crowd for the last time.
After more than four decades of hosting this homespun Americana musical variety program, which he created and which, in turn, created him, Mr. Keillor is retiring. He has done this before, in 1987, though that retirement ended up being a sabbatical. In 2011, there were rumors — baseless, Mr. Keillor’s people said — that he was thinking of abandoning ship then, too.
But this time, Mr. Keillor, 73, said he means it. While he has a solo tour planned through the year, along with a “Prairie”-esque Labor Day weekend show at the Minnesota State Fair, he will host his final official “Prairie Home Companion” on July 1 at, of all places, the Hollywood Bowl.
“It’s very much real, and it’s simply a matter of wanting to rearrange one’s life,” Mr. Keillor said after we had arrived at his large, handsome Georgian house, and he had eased his stooping 6-foot-4 frame into a porch chair. “In order to do these things, I’ve got to clear out the big buffalo in the room, which is the show.”
At his home, Mr. Keillor looms, a melancholy presence, and doesn’t make much eye contact, keeping his bespectacled eyes averted under scraggly eyebrows. Rather than savor the conversation, he seems to cordially endure it. His mellifluous voice, likened to a down comforter or “a slow drip of Midwestern molasses,” feels warmly familiar to any public radio listener who has heard him sing “Tishomingo Blues,” which opens his show each Saturday evening.
Yet as familiar and cherished as “Prairie” has become to millions, it was always about Mr. Keillor’s fascinations, rather than the inner tickings of its host.
“It was never about self expression, never,” Mr. Keillor said.
Everything about “Prairie Home” — the Guy Noir and Lives of the Cowboys sketches, the spots for Powdermilk Biscuits and the Ketchup Advisory Board, the monologues about the fictional Lake Wobegon — sprang from Mr. Keillor’s imagination. But the man spinning the plates at the center of it all managed to stay a mystery, even to people who know him well.
“Garrison in person is quite different,” said his longtime friend, the writer Mark Singer. “Garrison does not express emotion in interpersonal conversations the way the rest of us do.”
Performers often cultivate alternate personas, but with Mr. Keillor the difference is startling. That night, onstage in Minneapolis, he was garrulous and affable, and afterward ventured out onto the sidewalk to meet his hundreds-strong admirers, many of whom feel they know him intimately.
As fans flocked around him, Mr. Keillor graciously deflected questions, directing queries back to the scrum. This helps him gather story ideas but also serves as a bridge from his onstage personality to his default setting, the introverted, removed man who seems miles away, even when you’re sitting two feet from him on his porch, eating the jelly beans he has set out.
Credit Ackerman + Gruber for The New York Times
“His gaze is often floating and takes you in from a strange distance,” said the writer and editor Roger Angell, who in 1970 edited Mr. Keillor’s first piece for The New Yorker. “He is certainly the strangest person I know.”
There is debate about whether Mr. Keillor should have exited a while ago. His weekly radio audience peaked 10 years ago, at 4.1 million, and has since dropped to 3.2 million. While that does not include listeners on Sirius XM, or the show’s three million monthly digital requests, many stations have dropped their Sunday repeat broadcast of his show.
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