Garrison Keillor ended four decades of hosting “A Prairie Home Companion” with his trademark Midwestern reserve combined with frivolity at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday.
“I’m from Minnesota, where we’re stoic,” he explained to castmates Tim Russell, Sue Scott and Fred Newman when pressed to express his true feelings about departing the weekly show after 42 years on public radio.
“It feels like something ends and something else is about to happen,” Keillor added.
The 73-year-old Keillor, who has faced serious health problems in recent months, offered a decidedly bittersweet edge for the capacity crowd. He used his best-known segment, “News From Lake Wobegon” to bring up issues of mortality.
The monologue covered gravesites, cremation and Father Emil of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Roman Catholic Church berating young women for going to Chicago and getting pregnant. “Radio has the permanence of a sand castle,” he observed.
Keillor also explained his love for limericks, noting that when he first heard the notorious verse that begins, “There was a young man from Nantucket” at age 12, he could not stop laughing. And he noted that a boy of that age recently repeated back to him a similarly off-color limerick that he’d heard from Keillor.
“They may not remember me but the jokes are immortal,” he said before concluding with his traditional, “That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
A crowd of 18,000 fans were enthralled by the performance, much of which was occupied by sometimes doleful musical duets with five of his favorite singing partners from previous shows — Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo.
The show opened with “Stories We Could Tell” and included “Marching to Zion,” “Friendship,” “Let It Be Me,” “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Brownie and Pete,” “Oklahoma,” a parody of fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and a tribute to the names of his public school teachers including Anderson, Faust, Story and Hockstetter.
The final show included the popular features “The Lives of the Cowboys” with Tim Russell as tough guy Dusty and Keillor as the sensitive Lefty along with ads for the fictional Catchup Advisory Board, Guy’s Shoes and Powdermilk Biscuits with its trademark claim that, “They give shy people the strength to get out and do what must be done. Heavens, they’re tasty and expeditious!”
There was also a new bogus ad for “Chuck Foss Facial Chiseling” for older men in Hollywood and Keillor describing a circus act that he’ll perform with a chicken, a chimpanzee and a chihuahua. He eschewed the “Guy Noir, Private Eye” segment and the Bebop-A-Reebop Rhubarb Pie ad.
Keillor offered material tailored for the local audience, including “In Hollywood, the unemployment rate at any given moment is 65 percent.”
“A Prairie Home Companion” draws three million listeners in the U.S. Keillor’s final show airs Saturday night. Most of it will be taken from the Friday night show along with a segment taped earlier Friday when President Barack Obama called Keillor.
“I’m going to miss him more than I’m going to miss me,” Keillor said during the show.
The show concluded with Keillor singing snippets from “Good Night Ladies,” “Good Night Irene,” “Happy Trails to You,” the Doxology, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” before ending with several choruses of “Amen.” Keillor will serve as executive producer on the new “A Prairie Home Companion,” which will be hosted by mandolin player Chris Thile in the fall.
Keillor created the show in 1974. It is produced by Prairie Home Productions and distributed by American Public Media, mostly to public radio stations.
Attendees at the final show received a printed note that began, “Dear Friends, I come from serious taciturn people and grew up in a separatist religious sect that believed that every word and deed should be for the glory of God, and here I am winding up 42 years of talking my head off, much of it silliness, and portraying a private eye and a cowboy.”
Keillor also said he always believed that the show fell short.
“And now, as retirement nears, it’s a revelation to be accosted by people who want to say: Your show has meant a lot of me. Some of them have been tuned in for most of their lives. It’s very sweet. Also confusing, since I was never a big fan of the show myself. I enjoyed doing the show — it was the only social life I had — but the show was never as good as I wanted it to be and that’s just a fact.”
He revealed part of his plans in the missive.
“I’m 73, in good shape for a writer, working on a memoir and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, writing a weekly column for the Washington Post, planning to take brisk walks and start reading books again and rediscover the pleasures of the weekend. Meanwhile, I am grateful beyond grateful for the people I’ve met along the way, Richard Dworsky, Tim and Sue and Fred, the ladies I’m singing with Sara and Sarah and Aoife and Heather and Suzanne Weil who was the first person to ever put me on stage. She is here tonight and it is all her fault, every bit of it.”
The fictional end of the show was portrayed in Robert Altman’s final film, released in 2006 by New Line and starring Keillor as himself along with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly and Lindsay Lohan. The film opened SXSW and took in $20 million at the U.S. box office.