The person who first accused Garrison Keillor of inappropriate behavior wasn’t a woman — it was an angry man.
Dan Rowles, a close associate of Keillor’s and a 16-year employee of “A Prairie Home Companion,” spoke up after he was dumped from the show last summer and rejected a severance offer from Minnesota Public Radio, according to seven people who have worked on the show.
Rowles’ disclosure triggered internal and external investigations by MPR that concluded Keillor had engaged in “dozens of sexually inappropriate incidents … over a period of years,” including “unwanted sexual touching,” according to MPR. All of the alleged misconduct involved a longtime female writer for the show.
Some staff members now accuse Rowles of exploiting that writer’s pain in an effort to obtain a larger financial package. They note that the woman did not come forward with her own account until two months after Rowles told MPR officials of Keillor’s alleged misconduct.
Attorney Frances Baillon, who represents both Rowles and Keillor’s alleged victim, declined to address why the writer chose to wait until last fall to lodge a complaint against Keillor.
She said her clients are still negotiating with MPR over the terms of a confidential settlement of their claims.
“The parties have been and are attempting to resolve their differences and we ask those efforts be respected,” Baillon said in a written statement.
Baillon declined to say what either is seeking, but said Rowles was not acting from selfish motives. “Because our client believes people should feel safe at work, he raised his concerns about inappropriate workplace conduct,” she said.
The identity of the whistleblower stunned cast members and others who have been instrumental in the success of “Prairie Home.” They say they never witnessed any unpleasantness between Keillor and Rowles, who together were chiefly responsible for the show’s creative content in recent years.
“When I heard it was Dan, I just about fell out of the chair,” said Jennifer Howe, Keillor’s personal assistant for 10 years. “I am dumbfounded by it. From what I saw and observed, they got along very well. Garrison was always very kind to him and his wife.”
Rowles did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Baillon said Rowles is not ready to discuss his departure from the show or his reasons for informing on Keillor.
Keillor, who has denied the allegations and described himself as a victim of “extortion,” declined to comment for this story, saying he is still “tied up” in his own talks with MPR to settle their legal separation.
His life on 'Prairie Home'
For Rowles, who is 65, “A Prairie Home Companion” was the pinnacle of a four-decade career in show business.
A longtime Twin Cities musician, he joined the show in 1985 as a stagehand but soon worked himself into a spot on the cast, performing in some of the show’s most beloved recurring skits, including “Guy Noir” and “Buster the Show Dog.” He also began contributing ideas as a writer.
In 1987, when Keillor retired from radio for the first time, Rowles was tapped to help write for “Good Evening,” created by MPR to fill the slot left by “Prairie Home.” It failed to catch on with listeners, so Rowles was given a crack at hosting his own show, “The First House on the Right,” in 1989. It lasted four months.
Meanwhile, Keillor launched a new show, “American Radio Company of the Air.” He enlisted Rowles as a performer, later promoting him to director.
In 1992, a collection of monologues from the show received a Grammy nomination as best comedy album. Keillor took Rowles to the awards show, telling the Star Tribune that if he won, “I’ll give the trophy to Dan Rowles, who did most of the work. The album is a triumph of editing.”
Three years later, though, after Keillor restored the “Prairie Home” name, Rowles was let go for the first time. Such turnover was typical, staffers said — some had been fired more than once themselves. Rowles spent the next 16 years writing a musical, working in communications at General Mills and playing with local bands. In 2011, when he filed for divorce from his first wife, he was unemployed and earning about $360 a month “for his music, freelance, voice work and royalties,” court records show.
Rowles’ “Prairie Home” homecoming began with the 2011 death of Tom Keith, the show’s longtime sound-effects wizard. Rowles was tapped to produce a lighthearted memorial service featuring jugglers, bagpipes and even Keillor in drag.
“It was amazing. It was moving,” said former “PHC” actress Sue Scott. “The next thing any of us know, Dan is back on the show.”
Rowles became part of Keillor’s inner circle. His title was director, but he also helped shape the scripts and select the music.
One veteran employee said Rowles’ support was critical at a time when Keillor, now in his 70s, was trying to juggle so many writing projects.
“Garrison was really overworked,” said the staffer. “He finally couldn’t do everything and wanted a little help.”
When Keillor retired from the show in 2016, he recommended that new host Chris Thile promote Rowles to creative producer, a role in which he would supervise the writing of sketches while maintaining some of the 44-year-old show’s traditions.
But co-workers said his relationship with Thile, a gifted musician but inexperienced host, was frayed from the start.
The two had different opinions about what was funny, with Rowles often second-guessing his boss.
“I felt confident the music was heading in the right direction, but less sure about the spoken-word aspect,” Thile said in October as he reflected on his first season.
Staffers said Rowles was openly worried about his future with the show, and they said he sometimes became verbally abusive, ridiculing their efforts and yelling at them.
Baillon said Rowles “disputes those allegations” and other claims about his subsequent conduct, while declining to address specific issues. “I am not going to get into a point-by-point substantive conversation about the facts,” she said.
‘You’ll all be sorry’
Unhappy with the show’s artistic direction and concerned about staff morale, MPR informed Rowles in mid-August that he would not be invited back for a second season with Thile, employees said. He was offered a severance package of around $30,000, staffers said.
“He was angry,” said one person familiar with the matter. “Then he made some statements about Garrison that were surprising.”
Without identifying anyone, Rowles told MPR officials that he knew Keillor had behaved inappropriately with at least one female colleague, according to a source familiar with the situation. But he refused to share details.
Afterward, Rowles went to the “Prairie Home” office in St. Paul, even though he had been instructed to stay away, employees said.
His message to former colleagues: “You’ll all be sorry,” according to an employee who was there.
It’s unclear how well Rowles and the woman knew each other. In mid-October, shortly before MPR obtained written documentation of her complaint, several former co-workers saw her and Rowles socializing at a celebration for a recently deceased “Prairie Home” staffer.
The Star Tribune has confirmed her identity but is not naming the woman.
Based on Rowles’ statements, MPR officials launched an internal investigation of Keillor’s behavior. The company was not aware of the woman’s identity or her specific complaints until her lawyer provided a 12-page summary to the company in late October, according to MPR President Jon McTaggart.
The letter included “excerpts of e-mails and written messages, requests for sexual contact and explicit descriptions of sexual communications and touching,” according to MPR.
A close family friend of the woman told the Star Tribune that Keillor’s behavior was “disgusting” and involved “vulgar” sexual language. When she rejected Keillor’s unwanted advances, the friend said, the messages turned “threatening.”