Back in July of 1974 when Garrison Keillor hosted his first-ever broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion,” which successfully ran for a whopping 42 years. While the popular show may have left the airwaves in 2016, the noted storyteller continues to go strong at the age of 79.
Since the final broadcast, Keillor has written his memoir, “That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life”; released two more of his now-dozen novels; and he contributes to the daily podcast, “The Writer’s Almanac,” which offers poetry and historical interest pieces. He also pens a weekly column available online at Substack, and he performs a live show complete with stand-up, storytelling, audience song, and poetry.
On Oct. 20, that show, Garrison Keillor Tonight, will be coming to The Birchmere.
“I’m going to talk about Lake Wobegon, which has changed a great deal since I talked it about it every week on the radio,” he explains about the fictional town that was the setting for his famed radio show. “I kept it pretty much the same over the long period of time, and no one ever died, so I want to talk about the town as it is today. I go back there now for funerals.”
He’s very aware that at 79, he’s hit the age where a lot of peers he went through grade school with are “fading away” and “expiring.”
“I know it doesn’t seem like a humorous topic, but it is actually,” Keillor says. “I’m having a great time being 79, though it’s hard to explain why. The pandemic was really hard on a lot of people I know, but for a writer, it was wonderful. I stayed at home with my wife and we had a lovely time.”
His show will also talk about the pleasures of being old, as he tries to urge people to live longer and get the most out of their lives.
“I don’t want people to be afraid of it,” Keillor says. “It’s a great time of life, I wish I had gotten to it earlier. It’s a time you can see your whole life really clearly and see how extremely fortunate you were.”
That’s certainly how he feels about his own life, admitting he was a poor student, terrible at shop class, and was sent up to speech class where the early skills of his broadcasting career started to take shape. Still, he’s surprised at how things happened for him.
“I don’t think it’s a gift; I come from very quiet people and loose talk was not encouraged,” Keillor says. “I did have an interesting life and I loved radio, and I happened to do a show where you stand in front of an audience — the rarest thing of all. And when you stand in front of an audience, you need to find something to do for them, and this is what I could do.”
He also loved books, so he became a writer, and he’s been entertaining readers through his books, magazine articles and essays for decades.
In one of his latest writings, entitled, “Not My Problem,” Keillor humorously talks about how while people are worried about the supply chain challenges and getting more stuff, his main concern is trying to rid himself of the things he’s accumulated over the years. For instance, he has enough dinner plates to host a party for 18 and his closet has eight suits, yet he hasn’t gotten dressed up in ages and the thought of hosting a dinner party for that many in his apartment is ludicrous.
“If you can write a book, then you can stand up in front of a small amount of people at the Birchmere and talk,” Keillor says.
He hasn’t been on stage much since the pandemic, appearing in front of audiences about 6-8 times over the past 19 months, including one under a tent. In one of those recent shows, Keillor experienced a heckler for the first time in his career.
“It was such a wonderful thing to have someone speak up from the audience and poke fun at you,” he says. “It gives you something to work from. You don’t have that in radio. No one would ever talk at a live radio show. But all standup comedians love hecklers and this was wonderful. It was something entirely new for me after 40 years of doing this.”
Both of Keillor’s grandfathers died at the age of 73, from what he describes as “dying from hard work,” and he credits the fact that he’s avoided work as being the reason for his longevity in life.
“I have seen people retire and run out of steam in their 50s and 60s and I never did, because it was always fun doing a radio show every week, so it was always enjoyable and I never had to work for a living; it was wonderful good luck,” Keillor says.
Catch Garrison Keillor at the Birchmere at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 20. Singer Debi Smith serves as the opening act. Tickets are $45. For more information, visit www.birchmere.com.
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