Old fans welcome Garrison Keillor on the comeback trail — but not everyone's thrilled
WORTHINGTON, MINN. — Dorothy Sietsema had a few choice words for Garrison Keillor.
The 94-year-old doesn't usually drive at night, but she made an exception on this late March evening to come see the storyteller's latest show, a mix of familiar songs, juvenile jokes and tales from Lake Wobegon.
It wasn't until after the standing ovation, and the main attraction had sauntered into the lobby of Memorial Auditorium, that Sietsema was able to get a few things off her chest.
"You're pretty good looking," she said, interrupting a conversation Keillor was having with fans. "But you need a haircut."
Keillor has heard worse.
It's been nearly five years since the former host of "A Prairie Home Companion" was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior toward a female employee of the show, allegations that led to Minnesota Public Radio severing ties with its biggest star. The case was eventually settled out of court, but his folksy image remains tarnished.
In a piece last October, Gawker's editor-in-chief Leah Finnegan ripped her fellow writer to shreds.
"All these crusty fossils are always like, 'Whatever I did — which by the way, I didn't do — was not THAT bad,'" she wrote. "If you even have to say that, you're done."
Comedian and activist Lizz Winstead says she's not inclined to perform anywhere that books Keillor.
"I kind of want to know what Garrison Keillor did or said to show people he understood the harm he did. I never saw it," said "The Daily Show" co-creator, who splits her time between New York and Minneapolis. "If there are venues that don't require a performer to be a good person and only care about filling a room, that's a sad state of affairs."
But here in Worthington, a meat-packing town of 14,000 near the South Dakota border, Keillor remains royalty.
"I bet he didn't do anything that bad," Sietsema said.
Rita Kemp, another of the nearly 600 people attending the show, said she was skeptical about stories that Keillor participated in "unwanted sexual touching," the language MPR used in its dismissal statement.
"I don't believe it," she said. "I'm all for the Me Too movement, but sometimes it goes too far."
Keillor says he can't be bothered by the detractors.
"For me, it's not worth thinking about it," he said in an interview a few weeks later. It was minutes before a book reading at St. Paul's Virginia Street Swedenborgian Church, just blocks away from his former home on Summit Avenue. "It's five years. If people still consider it an issue, that's up to them."
But Keillor can sometimes get rattled.
A recent Star Tribune review of his latest novel, "Boom Town," triggered a number of scathing comments from readers who think Keillor should just go away.
He responded in a Facebook posting.
"Hatred is tiresome," he wrote. "It's time for me to pack up and leave."
It's not the first time Keillor has threatened to turn his back on the state he's been identified with ever since he launched "Prairie Home" in 1974.
Truth is, Keillor spends most days now in New York City, where his apartment balcony offers a view of Central Park. There, he has been plotting his comeback — a mix of intimate musical evenings, one-man shows and "Prairie" revivals, like one scheduled Monday in Colorado's Red Rocks Amphitheater featuring many of the old cast members plus country superstar Brad Paisley, bluesman Elvin Bishop and Minnesota-bred opera singer Ellie Dehm.
He has one major regret — but it's not the one you might be thinking.
"I really wish I had turned 'Prairie Home Companion' into more of a comedy show," said Keillor, who left the show of his own volition in 2016. "I would have mostly abandoned the sketches and done more of a show for young comedians, interrupted by a little bit of music.
"I didn't have many stand-ups on the show. My motives were probably nothing to be proud of. Probably a sense of competition. I wouldn't feel that way anymore."
Keillor seems to be making up for lost time. While the Worthington show featured some musical numbers with guests Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard, it was mostly Keillor reciting limericks, sharing flatulence jokes and channeling Rodney Dangerfield.
Keillor said he decided to lean more into comedy after a 2019 performance at the Woodstock Playhouse in New York.
"The stand-up part really gave me a pleasure I've never had before," he said. "It was such a high. 'Prairie Home' was never a high. It was a complicated process, always done at the last minute with not enough rehearsals. Guests complicated things. It never gave me a great feeling."
One area his routines steer clear of is politics.
"I don't want to go anywhere near it," said Keillor, who has saved his liberal thoughts over the years for his newspaper columns. "I assume my audience has plenty of Trumpers. So be it. The lines are drawn so hard these days. You don't want to peel the audience apart. That's not your job. They pay money because they want to be amused and lightened."
That approach is appreciated in rural communities like Worthington, as is the chance to see a major entertainer without having to drive several hours. Almost all of the stops on Keillor's tour that aren't "Prairie" reunions are far from major cities.
Tammy Makram, managing director at Memorial Auditorium, had no qualms about signing off on the concert.
"We want to provide access to things people would normally have to drive to the Twin Cities to see," she said.
Many venues, small and large, are welcoming Keillor back. That wasn't the case in the year following the accusations. Shows in several cities, including Madison, Wis., and St. Paul, were canceled.
That's no longer true, according to Keillor's managing director, Kate Gustafson Sanderson, although he will postpone some shows in May to undergo medical procedures that Sanderson described as rather routine for a man who has had recurring heart problems and turns 80 in August.
Sanderson believes most of the voices who say Keillor should no longer perform come from the Twin Cities. That may explain why he hasn't scheduled a major show in the metro area this year.
"There's a strong vocal minority that feels like they have a mission to stick it to us, and you can't answer every question they have. They've made up their minds," said Sanderson, who like Keillor, is unable to go into detail about the accusations due to terms of a legal settlement. "We say, 'Trust us,' but what can you do? We don't want to dismiss the Me Too movement. It's of critical importance. But if you knew everything, we just don't fit into it."
The Rev. Gordon Meyer, pastor at Swedenborgian Church, said he received no blowback from his congregation for greenlighting the Keillor appearance.
"I believe in second chances," Meyer said. "I don't know much about Garrison's case, but we have to figure out how to be fair. For a long time, the burden of proof was on the person saying they were abused. Now it's swung the other way. It's true until it's proven false. That's not good, either. We need to be more balanced."
Alexandra Erin, a Maryland-based writer, has mixed feelings about Keillor's comeback. She grew up in Nebraska with a copy of "Lake Wobegon Days" on the family bookshelf, and has counted herself a fan. But she thinks it would be misguided to downplay the accusations just because they're less severe than those aimed at other prominent figures.
"I don't have a strong opinion on whether or not he should continue to perform," she said. "But somebody's misconduct doesn't have to sink to the level of Harvey Weinstein to merit consequences, be worth discussing in the public sphere, or merit mitigation efforts for the protection of others who might find themselves in a subordinate position to that person."
While the debate goes on, Keillor plans to continue writing ("I think I have another novel in me") and doing performances, including a stand-up show Wednesday in Stevens Point, Wis.
"People want to believe what they want to believe," Keillor said. "If you were to send people out to talk to everyone that's known you for 10 minutes or more, and offer them anonymity, you could draw a dark picture of anyone.
"You cherish your friends and do what you're supposed to do. I think I'm doing that."