What I learned living in Garrison Keillor's house
Garrison Keillor and I stood on a rainy Seattle sidewalk waiting for the valet to bring my car around so I could drive him back to his hotel. Garrison hummed to himself.
A homeless man approached, offering to sing a song for a dollar.
“No need,” Garrison said. He reached into his pocket, giving the man a twenty. Halfway up the block, the man turned back.
“Hey, has anyone ever told you that you look like Garrison Keillor?”
“Everyone has to look like somebody,” Garrison replied.
“Hey!” the man said. “You even sound like Garrison Keillor!”
That soft baritone is the most distinctive in public radio. For more than 35 years, Garrison Keillor has written, hosted and produced A Prairie Home Companion, a Midwestern-themed show centered on humor, radio drama, music and stories from Garrison’s invented town Lake Wobegon. The last show is this Saturday.
I’ve known Garrison for nearly a decade now, a friendship that grew out of an unlikely agreement – that he would take me, a Seattle radio producer he barely knew, into his home, and out on the road, and teach me the secrets of what makes the show work.
On my apartment wall an inscription hangs as a memento to the first time we met. A daily reminder of what kindness people are capable of.
The inscription reads, “To Katy Sewall – A big time radio producer on the coast. – Garrison Keillor.”
It was written in 2007 when Garrison was a guest on Weekday with Steve Scher, a daily morning show I was producing for KUOW Public Radio in Seattle. Off the air, we walked down the hall together, him in his trademark red shoes and socks, to the makeshift call center full of pledge drive volunteers. He planned to poke his head in and give them a thrill beyond us local hosts.
“Someday, I want to do a live radio show in front of an audience,” I told him, after waxing poetic about the Golden Age of Radio.
“We should talk,” he said, looking straight ahead rather than down at the top of my head, even with his trademark stoop, his 6 feet 4 inches towering over my 5-1. “I made a lot of mistakes you could avoid.”
“I would love that,” I said. But time was short and we didn’t say much more. There is never long between flights for Garrison.
When Garrison returned a year later, I was ready. Again, he was a guest on Weekday, improvising songs and telling stories, like a bulb that turned on with the on-air light. Then, when the light went dark, he was back to being unreadable and quiet.
As he stood up from the microphone to put on his jacket, I handed him a letter, expecting him to read it long after the jet wheels retracted. Instead he opened it immediately, urging me to explain what it said as he read along.
“It’s a proposal,” I stammered. “Uhh, that I come work with you. Learn what you know.” I had included my contact information.
“It’s a good idea,” he said, with a surprising lack of well-done-kid condescension. He tucked the letter into the inside pocket of his coat.
I never heard from him.
That December, Radiolab at WNYC took me up on a similar offer, and I moved to New York for a month. We worked long hours, grabbing lunch at a cattle-line salad bar up the street, racing back to brainstorming meetings that were catching fire.
Inspiring days tumbling into depressing nights, I took the C line to my hastily rented, miserable apartment on the upper-west side. Beginning season two of 30 Rock on Netflix, I knew I needed to get outside. At least out of my head. And there, one night, was Garrison. A newspaper listing for a reading that night, downtown.
I boarded the subway, weaved up the sidewalk, and pushed through the adoring bookstore crowd to the back. Garrison stood at a podium, a stack of poems from his book "77 Love Sonnets" in his hand, his voice like a familiar bedtime story, that slight whistle with each S:
“How simple life is. We buy a fish. We are fed.
We sit close to each other, we talk and then we go to bed.”
Later he would improvise musical notes and turn this poem into song on A Prairie Home Companion. Later still, he would mail me a copy of his book where it originated. This time, the inscription read, “To Katy – love and summer – Garrison.”
But that night, my face was just another in a crowd, and as I waited for his fans to clear, I hoped he would at least have a dim recollection of seeing me somewhere, sometime before.
I visited the downstairs bathroom twice before approaching him, gathering nerve by nose blowing, hair smoothing and hand washing.
By the time the crowd of coffee drinkers finally parted, I approached. I had to know: “Do you remember me?”
He threw up his hands in greeting. “I lost your letter! Tell me again how to reach you.”
“I will write,” he promised once my information was again written down, tucked inside his jacket pocket.
And this time, he did. Or rather, his assistant did. “We’d like you to come in March,” the note read, listing the cities we’d tour during my tenure. And then the only words I can quote verbatim all these years later, appearing hastily mid-sentence: “…of course, you’ll be living with Garrison, and…”
Of course, I’d be living with Garrison?!
Raised in Brainerd, Minnesota, I understand Midwestern hospitality, but the casual “of course” still feels shocking seven years later.
I handed my boss the email proposal (Um... I realize I just got back from Radiolab, but…), but he stopped me mid-plea.
“Living with Garrison! That’s like living with a modern day Mark Twain! You have to go!”
One month later, I stood in front of the big white house on the hill overlooking St. Paul. Garrison’s wife Jenny had the door open before I made it up the walk.
“You’ll be staying in the apartment on the third floor,” she said leading the way. “But don’t disappear up there. If we never see you, it will be creepy. Come down for breakfast at least.”
Garrison was out of town when I arrived – he was often gone midweek performing readings and solo shows – but Jenny and their daughter Maia were mixing up a big salad. We ate in the fading winter sun that languished across the dining room floor.
Garrison’s office was off the dining room. The smallest room in the house, wood paneled, with three bookshelves rising up behind a wide-wooden desk piled with letters, CDs, pens and books. Across from the desk in the corner, a blond-leather lounge chair beneath a photo of a white rural church. My spot.
Many late nights I sat in that chair, reading sketches and talking about radio with Garrison. I made suggestions as he asked. I researched the details of towns we were to visit. (“Discover why someone passing just through Appleton, Wisconsin, having never been there, would decide to stay,” was one request.) I booked guests, vetted fill-in radio actors, and even acted as lead producer for a live show in New York. In turn, he taught me the secrets that brought the show to life.
Secrets like Holly Harden.
Every week on Prairie Home, Garrison tells the news of Lake Wobegon; a small Minnesotan town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Wikipedia labels it a fictional town, while strangely adding: “said to be the boyhood home of Garrison Keillor.”
As an adult, Garrison has lived in New York and St. Paul – neither place small. How do you bring a small town to life every week without living in one?
One thing he did was call in help. Holly Harden. A writer who lives in a small town, a Lake Wobegon-type town of ice fishing, loon calls and Midwestern values. Each week she sent concrete details of life there, allowing Garrison to set his tales in proper time.
From her notes in early June 2016:
“The cottonwood fuzz is floating about now, blowing everywhere like a light springtime snow, drifting against the curbs.”
“There’s a solar farm going up a mile out of town and it’s causing a lot of controversy.”
“Vacation Bible School starts next week. Seventeen kids are enrolled and the teachers are doing some decorating.”
“The school secretary is at her wit’s end. Parents are calling about grades. The supply room is out of paper clips. The lost and found box is overflowing. Someone threw up in the teacher’s bathroom. There is a tornado drill scheduled for Monday morning. One of the cooks is out with whatever chest thing is going around. It’s a kind of chaos, a hot mess.”
Once you’ve seen them, you can recognize Holly’s insights, and see how Garrison builds a forest from her acorns, the humdrum of everyday life becoming a real-imaginary town many listeners have mentally inhabited for decades.
Garrison never rehearsed the Lake Wobegon stories on stage prior to the live performance as he would a song or Guy Noir sketch. He’d talk them out in his head, or while ironing his shirt backstage. Sometimes he would try out a story to test the audience reaction before putting it in a book.
Because Lake Wobegon stories were never spoken before a live broadcast, the crew and performers didn’t know what to expect. How long would the story be? What would it be about? Where was it going?
Everything on A Prairie Home Companion was perfectly timed. The stage manager, Albert Webster, made sure that musical guests were quietly moved on-stage as a dramatic sketch concluded. Garrison could pivot from acting to introducing a song with no lag time.
But then there would be Lake Wobegon – the unknown story. How do they know when to be ready? The answer is a signal so subtle I doubt the audience ever noticed it. When the story was ending, Garrison turned his hand palm-side up and looked at his fingernails. Seeing that signal, the staff, which often sat back to listen, would spring back into action.
The radio clock ruled in real time. Show running long? Cut a song. Delete a poem. Lose a sketch; save it for next week. Want to do a sketch that runs six minutes when it needs to be four? Have an acting company that can adapt. Garrison often announced “I’m going to make some cuts,” as the acting company walked out on stage, then proceeded to jump from one line to another that originally appeared two pages later.
Garrison believed that what could happen within the show was fluid. A clear overall vision makes experimentation possible. But he also warned me: “Arrogance is the place of the young when it comes to radio. You think everyone cares about everything you make. When you get older, you realize that’s not true. This is a profession where you’ll never really know how you are doing. If you need that kind of feedback, you are in the wrong place.”
My 13 years in radio have proved this true. Radio listeners rarely send feedback or kudos. If they are amused they don’t write. Mildly disgusted. Same thing. Only when they really love or really hate what you do will they approach the keyboard. Radio hosts live in our mental life, not in our correspondence.
In Garrison’s case, he lived on the stage too. A Prairie Home Companion was originally performed in front of an audience because of the comedy. The audience was a practical addition because they would laugh. Garrison never actually dreamed of being a man of the stage. Still doesn’t, he told me, steadfast in his belief that someone could one day be trained to take his place.
Now as a new host is groomed, and Garrison’s time as host ends, it is still hard for public radio listeners to imagine Prairie Home without him. They are not wrong. In its current form, Garrison drives the show. He is the writer. He produces from the stage.
“The host shouldn’t have that much control,” he told me once.
In the month I lived with Garrison and his family, I learned little things too. That he had a hard time finding red socks in stores. That he wrote late into the night and started again at dawn. That he always wore his red shoes, even at home. That a sign reading “Rhubarb” hangs over the kitchen door. That his lively daughter sits dead quiet when watching her father perform.
That the audience’s energy when the show goes live is like lightning in the air.
And bigger lessons too. We thrive on ritual and surprise when it comes to entertainment. Humor lies in the simple things we all have in common. That a beautiful singer is key.
When Garrison Keillor signs off for the last time and we feel that pang of regret, like an old friend moving away, I am comforted in knowing Garrison will relish the last show and then happily move on. During his last Seattle layover just a few months ago, I could feel his anticipation for what the future holds.
He is a man full of ideas. A person who works late into the night. A person with new projects waiting immediately off stage.
Even in April 2009, as he drove me to the airport after my month with Prairie Home, I could feel his anticipation.
“Seeing the symphony, the opera, theater, the anticipation when the lights go down — it never gets dull,” he said. “There’s also the relief that you’re not the one on stage. That it’s not your responsibility.”
As he pulled up to the curb, my internship officially ended. I thanked him, promising to write a letter describing all I learned, and more important to him, my critique of the show from my outside perspective.
“One more thing,” I said, bending down to peer in the car window. “Why did you let me do this?”
“You were the only one who ever asked me,” he said, before waving and driving away.