Those who say, “You can’t go home again,” have probably never enjoyed A Prairie Home Companion, and its weekly PBS radio journeys to host Garrison Keillor’s fabled hometown of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, a fictional Minnesotan small town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” A now legendary American author, radio personality, humorist and storyteller, Keillor began his Prairie Home Companion show in the 1970’s with its first folksy radio broadcast before a live audience in 1974. It has been a popular PBS Radio staple ever since, and is frequently presented on Saturday afternoons or evenings in various markets that include the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, in addition to its wide distribution here in the United States. Recently that path of fame landed Mr. Keillor on the stage of Houston’s Jones Hall under the auspices of the Houston Symphony, but without the orchestra. Dressed in a basic dark suit (with low-slung trousers revealing a bit of a paunch), he sported a bright red tie and matching tennis shoes. His bushy eyebrows called to mind another curmudgeon, the late Andy Rooney of “60 Minutes” fame. There would follow a two-hour, non-stop monologue from this amazing raconteur. There would be no intermission as he stood alone on the stage delivering his seemingly endless tales of the amusing characters and fictional world he has created for radio listeners through the years. The one-night-only event was a cheerful way to close out the first month of this New Year.
There may have been some in the audience who were taken by surprise if they missed the notation on the Symphony tickets that read, *NOTE: This is not a performance of “A Prairie Home Companion” and the orchestra does not appear on this program. Mr. Keillor will be giving a spoken word performance.” That having been said, the performance would be a remarkable one, though perhaps a bit overlong and occasionally in need of acoustics better suited to a soft-spoken monologue than to a symphony orchestra.
Not every word of Keillor’s considerable wit would be easily heard, but nothing could diminish his astonishing ability to spin countless amusing stories without ever appearing to take a breath. Audience member, Niles Anand, visiting from Australia, had an insightful observation when he remarked, “This guy is like Will Rogers without the rope tricks.”
The performance began with Keillor reflecting on his high school days in Minnesota when he and his classmates were required to commit to memory various Shakespearean sonnets. He then moved on to his own original “Seven Love Sonnets” beginning with the rich acapella of, “Lord, Please Be There,” that seemed reminiscent of a Gregorian chant as it tenderly reflected on deceased family ancestors that Keillor would hope to see again in the sweet by-and-by. For samples of the merriment that followed consider these:
There are fond memories of growing up in the bitter winters of Minnesota where “the icicles are like minuteman missiles,” sins are forgiven because its cold, and helping his unappreciative dad get the car started on icy mornings was rewarded with being told to walk to school. There are legends of Babe Ruth’s one-time visit to Lake Wobegon when he hit a never-to-be-found homerun. We hear about the pilot who fell from his plane, but luckily landed safely on a giant duck decoy floating in the lake. Then there’s the humorous childhood memory of a cherished, but alcoholic, uncle. “Drunks had so much more time for children. He was kind to me.” The Scandinavian roots of the population are properly memorialized in the town’s statue of The Unknown Norwegian. The townsfolk are described as believing “in every word of scripture, including the commas and semi-colons.” Tipping his hat to the gun control politics of the day we learn of a new weapon designed by Hillary Clinton with a curved barrel feature that causes the shooter to actually wound himself in the shoulder. For more political fun with the fast-approaching first caucus of this election year, he mused about the possibility of “building a wall around Iowa.” Keillor moved on to tell us about his Uncle Jack who loved to be present when emergency responders were assembled for some calamity. The star then went on to lament that Jack missed the responders by 15 minutes when they arrived shortly after his death. Keillor also shares his evolution as an author saying, “I always wanted to be a writer, and I knew that writers had to be smokers and alcoholics (except for Edith Wharton).”
At the time of his 2012 appearance with the New York Philharmonic, Keillor described his performance as, “…a personal narrative of 70 years of music in a man’s head…” It should be mentioned that whenever he burst into song, the rich warmth of his voice carried beautifully in the symphony hall. For the latter portions of the program he was beautifully accompanied on piano with incidental music from his longtime associate, composer, and arranger, Richard Dworsky. It is worth noting that notwithstanding a minor stroke in 2009, the robust 73 year-old Mr. Keillor proudly declares how he enjoys “watching joggers trying to obtain longevity, which I achieved by doing nothing.” I’m sure many in the audience shared my gratitude for the long life that fate has awarded this talented showman.
HOUSTON SYMPHONY’S next concert in the BBVA Compass Series will be this weekend, February 5th (8p.m.), 6th (8p.m.), and 7th (2:30 p.m.) 2016, featuring a screening of Hollywood’s musical classic, Singin’ in the Rain. This big screen presentation will be accompanied by the live orchestra (led by Principal POPS Conductor Designate, Steven Reineke) as it simultaneously performs the brilliant score of that memorable film starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. For tickets and information about this and other upcoming performances, call The Patron Services Center at (713) 224-7575, or visit the website at www.houstonsymphony.org.