Shakespeare Club learns about Keillor

The 10th meeting of the Shakespeare Club’s 2020-2021 year was held on Dec. 17. Members elected officers for the Club’s upcoming year: Dr. Leanna McMahon, President; Mrs. Barbara Albert, Vice-President; Ms. Amy Near, Treasurer; Mrs. Karin Seager Cockram, Secretary. New officers begin their term at the June 2021 picnic.

The Club’s area of study this year is “Humor and Humorists.” President Mary Croxton presented her paper on Garrison Keillor, entitled “The Man on the Radio with Red Shoes,” which is summarized as follows:

Garrison Keillor is far more than a storyteller. He is also an American author, voice actor and radio personality. Most importantly for our purposes he is a humorist.

Gary Edward Keillor adopted the name “Garrison” at the age of 13 to separate his personal life from his professional writing. I think he knew what he wanted to do. He was born in 1942 in Anoka, Minnesota, a town on the Mississippi River. He earned a B.A. in English from the University of Minnesota in 1966. While he was at the University of Minnesota Keillor worked as an announcer at the campus radio station KUOM and also wrote for and edited the student publication the Ivory Tower. In 1969 he began writing for The New Yorker. His first story for The New Yorker was a fiction called “Local Family Keeps Son Happy.”

In 1974, while working on an article in The New Yorker about the Grand Old Opry, he was inspired to create a live variety show for radio.

The result was the award-winning “A Prairie Home Companion” with live musicians and brilliant sound effects. It was a live show broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio from on stage at the World Theater in downtown St. Paul. Over the years Keillor appeared in a tuxedo, red suspenders, and red jogging sneakers.

“A Prairie Home Companion” debuted as an old-style variety show on July 6, 1974; it featured guest musicians and a cadre cast doing musical numbers and comic skits replete with elaborate live sound effects. Keillor regularly took the radio show company on the road to broadcast from popular venues around the United States; the touring production typically featured local celebrities and skits incorporating local color. Chautauqua Institution has hosted Garrison Keillor on many occasions. Keillor brought his show to Scotland in 2000, broadcast by the BBC. Some of his ancestors are Scottish and there will more about this later in the paper.

The show was punctuated by spoof commercial spots such as the Ketchup Advisory Board, the Professional Organization of English members (POEM), Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery (“if you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it.”) Powder-milk Biscuits is my favorite.

“Made from whole wheat raised in the rich bottomlands of the Lake Wobegon river valley by Norwegian bachelor farmers; so you know they’re not only good for you, but pure…mostly. Buy them ready-made in the big blue box with the picture of the biscuit on the cover, or in the brown bag with the dark stains that indicate freshness. Whole wheat that gives the shy person the strength to get up and do what needs to be done. Heavens, they’re tasty and expeditious.” The advertisements were punctuated by great music from the musicians on the broadcast.

Keillor considers himself a loner and prefers not to make eye contact with people. He also considers himself to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. He spoke about his experiences as an autistic person in his keynote address at the 19th Annual Minnesota Autism Conference in 2014.

Keillor’s father was a carpenter and postal worker. His mother Grace Ruth Denham was a registered nurse and worked in a nearby hospital. Her obituary said she loved singing hymns, something I think she passed on to her son. The family belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, an Evangelical Christian movement. Keillor had three brothers and two sisters. He makes references to his siblings in the stories I’ve read and heard; like he and his brothers throwing tomatoes at their neighbor’s property. Tomatoes are a theme for many of the stories that he spins. Most of his stories really tell the story of his youth and being a young man. Most of Keillor’s humor is observational humor and sometimes topical. A columnist wrote that Keillor was “very clearly a genius. His range and stamina alone are incredible after 30 years, he rarely repeats himself – and has the genuine wisdom of a Cosby or Mark Twain.” A radio show in Boston likened Keillor and his “down-comforter voice” to “a hypnotist, ‘You are getting sleepy now,” while noting that Keillor does play to listeners’ intelligence.

Keillor has many accomplishments. He wrote a screenplay for the 2006 movie A Prairie Home Companion, directed by Robert Altman. He also appeared in the movie. He wrote bestselling novels, once sang two songs to the U.S. Supreme Court. He wrote for The New Yorker, and regularly contributes to The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. In addition to” A Prairie Home Companion,” which lasted forty years and 750 shows, Keillor also hosts the Writer’s Almanac, a daily Poetry program distributed by Public Radio International. It is no surprise that he does voice overs. He has a very distinctive North-Central Accent. I believe he sings bass and loves to sing in harmony. He was the voice of Walt Whitman and other historical figures in Ken Burns’ documentary series The Civil War. (Your voice must be good to be chosen by Ken Burns.) He also narrated “River of Dreams” a documentary at the National Mississippi River Mus

It can be said that Garrison Keillor should be credited with reviving the virtually lost art of live radio entertainment in America. Prairie Home Companion’s crew of radio actors and musicians spin stories and song into an American Experience. Stories of Lake Wobegon are mostly nostalgic, bringing back memories of a simpler time. Lake Wobegon tales are about the luxury of rhubarb pie, the perils of prophecy, Florian and Myrtle’s thrifty vacation and tales of the church Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. This is part of the attraction for many of us. Somehow these stories are familiar to most of us.

Garrison Keillor’s life is not full of controversies, but he has had his share of them.

Most notably is his termination from Minnesota Public Radio in 2017 because of “allegations of his inappropriate behavior with an individual who worked with him.”

Due to the allegations of inappropriate behavior, Keillors’s segment in the PBS series Finding Your Roots was replaced. In case you are wondering, his father was half-Canadian with English ancestry and his maternal grandparents were Scottish emigrants from Glasgow.

The Fredonia Shakespeare Club was established in 1985.


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