If anyone has ever listened to A Prairie Home Companion, they will know that one of Garrison Keillor’s favorite topics is winter itself. His stories, set in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, frequently involve the brutal cold in which Keillor spent his formative years. Last Thursday, UCLAlive drew this heartland native to the perpetual summer of Los Angeles. He peered at all of us Angelinos over his glasses and hastily told us that back home it had just snowed four inches in an hour. Then he said he wanted to tell us about winter, because nobody here is ever going to see it.
And so we all settled in. All of us including celebs like Emilio Estevez and his writer wife Sonja Madevski settled in on Thursday to watch the familiar host. Keillor, all alone on the big stage of Royce Hall with nothing but a stool and a microphone, lulled us down, away from blazing LA days into an evening of intimate calm, his fluid voice conjuring up scenes of simple meals, snow falling quietly on small town streets, and buying fish from market.
Without A Hitch
Keillor is one of those rare geniuses who not only performed his full two hours entirely from memory without a single glitch in his storytelling, but who can take a hall full of hundreds of So-Calers and make them feel as if they too are living in the sub zero March of St. Paul, Minnesota. He tells ridiculous stories of small children in 40 pounds of winter layers who can only make it to their bus stop in a white out by hanging onto a clothes line. He describes the magic of peeing outside and watching it tinkle onto the ice like coins on pavement. In seconds we understand Keillor’s stone-faced father, as, growing up, he and his siblings could see their breath in the house because his father was “a low thermostat man.” In these descriptions we are able to focus on the humanity in Keillor’s characters, even if their lives are so completely different from ours in this sun drenched city. It is this ability to humanize small town stories so that everyone can relate, which makes Keillor such a beloved entity of American Culture. He is more than a genius storyteller and comedian, he is a uniter, through his stories we gain closeness with other Americans who might seem, without him, so greatly removed.
Born in 1942 in Anoka, Minnesota, Keillor began his career in radio as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. He went to work for Minnesota Public Radio in 1969 and his first broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion aired in St. Paul in 1974. Since then the show has exploded onto public radio across the country. In 2006 it was made into the motion picture, A Prairie Home Companion, which featured an A-list cast of stars such as Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reily and Tommy Lee Jones. Keillor is also the author of an impressive 12 books, his latest, Pontoon, released in 2007. A true star himself, he has received numerous awards for his program, including a Grammy Award for his recording of Lake Woebegon Days. He’s performed with the nation’s best orchestras and toured across the country with his own, one-man show and on tour broadcasts of A Prairie Home Companion.
Putting A Face on the Voice
For the majority of us, however, Keillor’s voice is most familiar coming through our radio on Saturday nights after dinner. In fact, one of the most striking things about watching him perform in the flesh, was having to connect an unfamiliar face with a voice I already knew so well. Suddenly, in front of me, there was a visual to go along with the voice, a new body, a new set of facial expressions. A man with red socks and red sneakers had taken over the faceless storyteller and my brain had trouble putting it all together. Imagine being introduced to a stranger and then hearing the voice of your college roommate come out of their mouth, or someone equally as familiar – it wouldn’t be right. Sometimes, to ground myself, I had to actually close my eyes and picture myself back in my living room listening to my stereo. Then I would be able to get back into the story, which Keillor, of course, doesn’t make hard at all.
In fact, making things easy to listen to is what Keillor does best. Slipping easily from seriousness to fantastical stories of naked men parasailing through the air and gigantic floating ducks, you never want his winding, tangential plots to end. Indeed, watching him perform alone on stage as one might perform stand-up, I realized how much of a comedian Keillor truly is. And he definitely knows how to work the crowd in front of him, poking fun at us from the start. One of his biggest laughs of the night came from a description of a character in Lake Woebegon who had gone to Los Angeles and made a fortune in “veterinary aroma therapy.”
A True Poet
Upon zooming out, however, one realizes how highly emotional his content is. In each one of his vignettes Keillor would slip in among his comedy a bit of truth about humanity or life that was so doused in lightness and humor even the biggest skeptic could digest it. While making fun of us for living in a world of perpetual summer, he told us that we had to learn to “savor the warm moments of life,” something that the chilled people in Minnesota know inherently. In all seriousness he says things like, “We are all searching for reality,” but he says this in the context of a fantastical and hilarious story about a sixteen-foot snake living in somebody’s crawl space. By making profundity so accessible, Keillor is able to penetrate us deeply. And that, I believe, is why we come away from his stories so surprisingly touched, and why we keep coming
back for more.
Upcoming Events at UCLAlive!
So, if you get a chance to see Keillor in person, definitely go ahead and put a face to the voice. If you missed him this time though, don’t worry because UCLAlive has a tremendous line up this season. Being a trained classical musician I was stunned to open up my program on Thursday and see that some of the best living musicians in the world are performing at Royce Hall next weekend. UCLAlive also has world-class talent lined up for the rest of the Spring and I am excited to go back to see many of them. Check out this Spring’s line up at www.uclalive.org.
As Keillor says, “Art is the purest gift, the purest gift there could possibly be.” So, by all means, take advantage of such gifts that UCLAlive brings to our area. After hearing such beautiful stories about the simple life in wintry towns and snowy wildernesses, I realize that here in LA we could always use a little more purity.