Keillor takes 'Prairie' pause

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2011 - 10:50 PM

Minnesota's radio institution pulled himself out of the lineup to "appreciate" the show he started in '74.

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He wore his usual uniform, er outfit: suit, red tie and tattered red running shoes. This time, though, Garrison Keillor watched his "A Prairie Home Companion" from the sidelines for the first time in decades.

On Saturday evening, he didn't even introduce guest host Sara Watkins, the San Diego singer/fiddler who had toured with Keillor last summer for 25 shows, to his audience of 4 million people via 590 public radio stations. She just started singing "Prairie Home's" theme song. His voice would not be heard on the radio for the first 10 minutes.

After an iron-man streak worthy of baseball's Cal Ripken, Keillor stepped aside for the first time since the late 1970s. The audience got a scrap of paper notice in their program but in an interview, he explained: "It's odd that you can't appreciate this show you've been doing unless you stop doing it."

For the record, this was the 1,273rd show of "Prairie Home." Keillor recalls missing Show No. 2 in 1974 (WCCO Radio's Bob DeHaven was the scheduled host) and once in the late 1970s when he was sick.

Keillor did have a cold on Saturday, but Watkins' substitution had been planned for weeks. During the first half of the two-hour program, the veteran radio personality paced the wings of the Fitzgerald Theater stage, tapping his hands or feet to the music, clapping whenever the audience clapped. Like a pitcher pulled prematurely from a game, he seemed a bit lost at what to do. He occasionally consulted the show's rundown or studied a single-spaced copy of his News from Lake Wobegon. Then he'd close his eyes and mutter to himself.

Public radio poobah Bill Kling, a longtime "Prairie Home" administrator, made a rare appearance backstage, to give Keillor some positive feedback. The radio host ripped half-a-page of script, rolled it into a ball and popped it into his mouth like a baseball player dipping chewing tobacco. The wad must help him deliver the twangy voice of Lefty in a weekly cowboy skit. To be sure, Keillor had a hand in crafting the show. But Watkins chose the musical guests and did all the announcing duties. He just listened to the music and, of course, delivered his weekly monologue and did a little comedy with Watkins.

In the second half, Keillor took charge in the wings, ordering some shuffling of songs because the show was running ahead of schedule and he wanted Watkins to finish on an up-tempo note.

After the show, Keillor, 68, praised Watkins, 29. "She did great," he said. "I think she would do even better next time."

Will there be a next time? "I hope so," he said, adding that he has plans to continue on the show until at least 2012 but likes the sound of "executive producer."

There's something to be said for "youth, beauty and bare shoulders," he said referring to Watkins. "Then, if you can play fiddle, too, and sing."

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

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