Over the years, when people learn I’m from Minnesota and work in public radio, the conversation sometimes turns to the one thing that just screams Minnesota — Lake Wobegon.
Yes, I’m a Garrison Keillor fan. You?
Show any interest, and I tick off my “Prairie Home Companion”bona fides
: Listened to the show since the 1970s. Attended live performances at the Fitzgerald and the old World Theater in St. Paul, Minn. Watched him perform once live from backstage in Berkeley, Calif. Interviewed him three times.
There’s something else: I know Ralph of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery. He used to go to my church. He’s a real guy.
Sometimes I’ll slip in something even better, something that separates me even more from the run-of-the-mill fan: I know, I’ll confide, where Lake Wobegon really is.
Yes, it’s a real place, a real town.
And I don’t care what Keillor, or anybody else, says.
Keillor, who performs in Kansas City tonight, will celebrate an extraordinary achievement exactly 12 months from now: 40 years on the air.
Think of it. Richard Nixon was a month away from resigning when Keillor trotted out his odd little show with its corny, homespun humor, folk songs and radio skits, loosely based on shows at the Grand Ole Opry. That first show in 1974 was broadcast from an auditorium at Macalester College in St. Paul in front of about 12 people, most of them kids. The hall’s capacity: 400.
Nobody had ever heard anything like it.
Powder Milk Biscuits. Bertha’s Kitty Boutique. Norwegian bachelor farmers. Buster the Show Dog. Father Emil. Stoic Clarence Bunsen. Jack’s Auto Repair.
Quirky, yes, and clearly appealing. Keillor started taking the show on the road in 1975. More than 10,000 showed up for a show at a Minneapolis band shell in ’79. In 1980, the show went national when 30 stations picked it up.
Keillor and company played the West Coast in ’82, New York City and Boston in ’83. He tore the doors down the next year when Time magazine stuck him on the cover and compared him to Mark Twain. His “Lake Wobegon Days”
hit No. 1 on the best-seller list.
In 1987, though, he announced that he was closing PHC, stunning his live audience and, no doubt, listeners on the 278 public radio stations that carried PHC at the time.
“The decision to close is mine — a simple, painful decision that we learned to make cheerfully,” he said that night.
But he was back a few years later, and, well, is still rolling today. About 612 public radio stations now carry the show. In the fall of 2012, it was heard by 3.3 million people a week, down 4 percent from the previous year. This summer, he’s playing 26 cities in 30 days on his “Radio Romance Tour.”
Just weeks from turning 71, Keillor is a Peabody and Emmy winner, a holder of the National Humanities Medal and a member of the National Radio Hall of Fame. He can lay claim to playing a key role in public radio’s coming of age in the ’70s and ’80s.
All those rosy moments came with some thorns. He fought the Twin Cities media — sometimes bitterly — over his privacy. He battled former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, addressing him as “Larry” and lampooning him as a frivolous do-nothing.
Minnesotans frothed over Keillor’s decision to move from St. Paul in 1987. A few years later, one local TV show panel debated the question, “Does Garrison Keillor deserve a second chance in Minnesota?” and one panelist intoned that Keillor had grown “too big for his britches” and “started acting like a star.”
That’s a mortal sin in Viking country.
These days, critics have started to suggest that the show has grown a tad stale.
Still, Keillor’s transformation from quirky, bearded, 1974-era oddball to red-shoe-wearing, full-blooded American icon is undeniable.
“He represents something much larger than the regional traditions that he’s talking about, the history he represents,” said Doug Hartmann, a sociologist and professor at the University of Minnesota. “He offers a much larger ethos about middle America and small towns that really still has a relevance to people who live lives that reflect little of that world.
“That’s why he’s achieved iconic status.”
For us one-time North Country inhabitants, it’s always been more than a radio show.
“Prairie Home” Companion is that steadfast connection to old times and old friends,doncha know.
The “Fargo” accents. The monologues about good people scarfing down their tuna casseroles and striving to lead good lives. The notion, as Keillor often intones, that Minnesotans are content suffering a little bit more than the rest of us through those bleak winters.
Dad, are you reading this?
My first night in Kansas City back in 1986 came on a September Saturday when I unpacked moving boxes in my 51st and Wyandotte apartment while listening to Keillor. It was a link to something, a foothold. I knew a total of two people in this town. When the show ended those first few Saturday nights, I’d feel blue.
The connection was especially strong because I was convinced I knew the town Keillor was talking about.
Lake Wobegon? That’s Marine on St. Croix, Minn., a town of 699 about 30 miles northeast of St. Paul and hard on the banks of the St. Croix River (turns out the lake is a river). Keillor lived there during the show’s formative years.
The village has an old tavern with a creek rushing beneath it (The SideTrack Tap), a small bank (perfect for Bob’s Bank) and Butch Thompson, Keillor’s long-time piano player, hails from Marine. Skoglund’s Five and Dime? “He took that from my name,” long-time Marine resident Bev Skoglund told me with obvious pride.
Throw in Ralph Malmberg, the long-time former proprietor of the Marine General Store housed in one of the original buildings in Minnesota’s original settlement, and there you go. Keillor, who lived in Marine from 1977 to 1980, just three years after the show opened, would linger back by the meat counter, soaking up the atmosphere and treading on the old store’s uneven wooden floorboards.
“If you can’t get it at Ralph’s,” Keillor would say on the air, “you can probably get by without it.”
Recalled Malmberg, “He’d come in one day, and the next day (on the radio) he’d be talking about something from the store.”
One time, Keillor came into the store when the floor was vibrating from the cooling system. The next day, he told his listeners that Ralph had thought of everything. “After a hard day on your feet, walk in front of the produce counter and get a foot message.”
Keillor, Malmberg said, “was a very observant fellow.” Keillor recalled how circumspect Malmberg was about the stories he told about his town, a practice Malmberg no doubt had to adopt given his sensitive position at the business hub of Marine.
When I talked to him in 1992, Keillor acknowledged that he also got a lot of material from a Marine neighbor. Judy Wilcox told lots of stories about the people there “without any tone of condemnation. She just loved the human circus.”
He did a Memorial Day monologue once based on what he saw in Marine.
“It’s a beautiful town. I always liked it,” Keillor said. “Marine is always like a dream for me because I wasn’t there enough to get in trouble with anybody or to get anybody mad at me. So it wasn’t like real life.”
Marine can be seen in one way as idyllic — a pretty place where folks are mostly friendly, where crime’s not much of a worry and neighbor looks out for neighbor. But, of course, it’s impossible to find a burg where all the children are above average. That’s Keillor’s humor at work. Small towns can be cozy, but they can fill claustrophobically with gossip, judgment and people knowing way too much about each other.
I asked Keillor point-blank if Marine was the model for Lake Wobegon. No, he said. “There are lawyers and corporate people living in Marine, and there aren’t any of those people in Lake Wobegon.”
Years later, when the true location of Lake Wobegon had become something of a media obsession, Keillor said his mythical town more resembled Stearns County in central Minnesota where a Lake Wobegon Trail bike path was built. He said that Holdingford, Minn., (population 638 at the time) “looks most Wobegonic to me.”
OK, fine. But sometimes you just believe what you believe, and each week when Keillor cranks up another monologue with his trademark “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,” my mind drifts to Marine and the nothing-quite-like-it General Store and the gazebo just off the highway. I think of the unspoiled views of a river unchanged from the 1840s when lumbermen plied their logs and the white clapboard home where Keillor once lived and where he wrote “quite a few stories sitting in the bay window of the kitchen.”
Marine Mayor Glen Mills says people tell him all the time how much his town reminds them of Lake Wobegon.
“Just listen to some of his talks, and you can tell there are great similarities,” Mills said. “People link them together. They say, ‘You must live in Lake Wobegon.’”
That’s enough for me. And maybe that’s the point.
“I find that if I leave out enough details in my stories, the listener will fill in the blanks,” Keillor wrote once. “All I do is say the words: cornfield and Mother and algebra and Chevy pickup and cold beer and Sunday morning and rhubarb and loneliness, and other people put pictures to them.”