The Return of Garrison Keillor
Without a mention of sexual harassment charges, he performed in Milwaukee to adoring fans.
Garrison Keillor wandered comfortably among the audience before his show last Thursday at Colectivo Coffee’s Back Room on Milwaukee’s East Side, chatting up fans, asking about their lives, telling them about his. Elbow room was limited. By my count, more than 300 people turned out to hear the one-time prince of public radio spin his tales of predicament, perseverance, lust and love.
I was most familiar with Keillor while living in Minneapolis, where I worked as a reporter at the Star Tribune newspaper. Keillor at the time was in his prime, bursting with poems and songs and stories set in the fictional Lake Wobegon, recreating the small-town Minnesota milieu every week on his radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
His masterful storytelling, delivered in a dulcet baritone, captured the imagination of a generation of public radio listeners. A one-man composite of humorist, author, bard and balladeer, he was seen by some as a modern-day Mark Twain.
Keillor was forced off the stage in late 2017 after accusations surfaced that he had sexually harassed women he worked with. Minnesota Public Radio, producer of “A Prairie Home Companion,” cut all ties to Keillor following an investigation.
In his denial of the allegations, Keillor was short on contrition. “I think it would be a waste of time to engage in the he said/they said game,” he stated after being fired. “There are facts here that need to be respected. I’ll be able to tell my side of the story at length, in my own words, in due course, and that’s sufficient for me.”
But his side of the story has yet to come. Keillor says he is now writing a memoir. Meanwhile, in the past few months, Keillor has quietly stepped back into the spotlight, playing small venues in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has been friendly turf over the years. He has performed often in Milwaukee and Madison and once owned a log-house hideaway on 11 acres along the St. Croix River in western Wisconsin.
I button-holed Keillor at the East Side cafe as we stood in line to order tea. The single-digit temperature outside seemed made-to-order for the thick-blooded Minnesotan. Standing nearly six and a half feet tall, dressed in a light gray suit that matched a full head of graying hair (replete with the signature tuft hanging over his forehead), Keillor was hard to miss. As we waited, customers floated by, starstruck but careful not to intrude or interrupt, solid Lake Wobegon traits.
We shared thoughts about family, about writing, about the state of the newspaper industry. And we silently danced around the issue of sexual misconduct. He didn’t offer, and I didn’t push, thinking maybe he would address it in some way in his performance.
Instead, we talked politics. I asked Keillor, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, about another native Minnesotan, Amy Klobuchar, whose star was on the rise. (I’d worked with Klobuchar’s father in the Star Tribune’s newsroom.) “I’m not impressed by Amy as a presidential candidate,” Keillor decided. “But she’s a good senator. I think she’s a good senator.”
He was less charitable toward Bernie Sanders, marking him as an out-of-date throwback who hasn’t changed since his early activist days in Vermont. Keillor’s concerned, he said, that Sanders’ supercharged army of supporters will abstain from voting next November if their revolutionary hero isn’t the chosen Democratic candidate, handing Donald Trump a victory. Keillor said he was taking a second look at Michael Bloomberg‘s campaign.
As show time neared, ticket holders jostled their way to their seats – fans middle aged to elderly, wrapped in Patagonia puffer parkas, Smartwool sweaters, and Vibram-soled hiking boots – an NPR crowd, a congregation of baby boomers like myself, brush-glazed in a slight sheen of entitlement and giddy conceit.
My son once called Keillor the whitest man in America. I can see why, judging by the inhabitants of his mythical Lake Woebegon, and the nature of his audiences. I can’t say I saw one non-white face in the room.
The small performance hall was configured in two sections of chairs, the sections facing each other across a single aisle. Instead of taking the stage, Keillor would slowly walk the aisle, back and forth, microphone in hand, an easy arm’s length from his fans.
And in this format, the people in the audience facing me became part of the show, enthusiastically reunited with an old friend they had missed. For close to 90 minutes, they laughed, screamed, clapped and beamed at every waggish line he delivered.
Keillor began the show by leading the audience in an anthem, “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee),” reverential and patriotic to the bone: Let freedom ring – indeed! Following the song, Keillor issued a quick rebuke of Donald Trump, cutting himself short and returning to his mantra of cheerfulness.
Unraveling a string of biographical folktales, he turned youthful misadventures and embarrassments into whimsical lessons of conduct and character: of clumsily making out with a young woman in the back seat of a car when he was 17; of being swept downstream while skinny-dipping in the Mississippi River and miraculously reuniting with a distraught young woman who thought he had drowned; of stealing money from his mother’s purse to buy a cheeseburger at a luncheonette, only to be found out by his father, who, against his wife’s insistence, kindly spared the rod in disciplining the boy.
Woven around the stories, Keillor led a number of sing-alongs: “You Are My Sunshine,” “Falling in Love With You,” by Elvis, “I Saw Her Standing There,” by the Beatles – sentimental favorites, all. Changing pace, he recited poems and sonnets he learned in his college days. Adding spice to the mix, he reeled off a short collection of limericks, some of them silly, most of them raunchy.
Breaking character, he paused to reflect on his three marriages: His first ended because he had married too young, he said. His second, to a Danish woman, ended because he had married too foreign. He’s now married to a woman he knew in high school; by chance they were reacquainted at a concert in New York. “She’s a violinist. I’m a Calvinist,” he deadpanned.
And so went the soft redemption of Garrison Keillor among a room of ungrudging admirers. No remorse, no atonement, not a mention of the accusations that drove him out of public radio.
The accusations have not been erased. But as with some others accused of sexual harassment during the rise of the #MeToo movement, the controversy surrounding Keillor’s improprieties has receded. After two years in an artistic exile, he is slowly getting back in the ring, playing solo, pared-down shows, one small venue at a time – apparently not to clear his name, but to win back the devotion of a forgiving fan base, loyal and monolithic. And interestingly, the majority of fans at this event were women.
Keillor played Madison’s Barrymore Theatre last Friday, an appearance that had been cancelled in 2017 following news of the accusations. He’ll return to Minneapolis for shows on Tuesday and Wednesday, February 18-19 at a downtown nightclub. A booking at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater – home to “A Prairie Home Companion” for decades – was cancelled last year due to a Keillor backlash.
He is scheduled to perform in Mankato, Minn., in April. There’s talk of a show in Las Vegas. And in March, fans will embark with Keillor and a full slate of performers on the eight-day Prairie Home Companion Caribbean Cruise. With cabins ranging from $2,000 to $8,000, the cruise sold out in less than 24 hours. Yep, Garrison Keillor is back.
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