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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Garrison Keillor’s Radio Days

Lake Wobegon comes to Milwaukee

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  Sue Scott remembers it well. As a veteran performer on “A Prairie Home Companion,” she was preparing for the start of another live radio broadcast (Saturdays from 5 to 7 p.m. and Sundays noon to 2 p.m. on WUWM 89.7 FM). But this time something was wrong—specifically, the script. Everybody on stage, including host Garrison Keillor, had the wrong script.

  “Garrison is live on the air and he’s literally hugging [performer] Tim Russell, writing lines in the margin of Tim’s script as Tim is speaking,” she recalls. “Garrison’s got his black Sharpie out—he must have stock in those Sharpies since we have cases backstage—and there’s no time to bring out a new script. We’re in front of a live audience, and 5 million listeners, and Tim didn’t skip a beat. It was obviously important that Garrison wanted those lines.”

  Russell also remembers the moment. “The classic for me is the one time that Garrison put both arms around me in the middle of a ‘Catchup Advisory Board’ sketch. He held the paper with his left hand, while he edited with his right … as I was reading it live. [Film director] Robert Altman liked the moment so much that he had a blowup of the picture taken at that moment on the Prairie Home Companion movie production office wall, as a reminder of the charm of old-fashioned live radio.”

Cast of Characters

  Russell and Scott, along with the rest of the cast of performers, musicians and all the wonderfully eccentric characters they create, are part of the live radio variety show “A PrairieHome Companion,” typically staged at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn. Currently on tour, the showmakes its way to Milwaukee on May 10. “A PrairieHome Companion,” created and hosted by Keillor, put his fictitious hometown of LakeWobegon on the map. Listeners have come to know and love the area known as “the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve … where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average."

  Fictitious though it may be, LakeWobegon and its local characters come alive to the show’s legion of listeners. Week after week, fans close their eyes and allow their imaginations to run free while Keillor and company perform satirical skits like “Guy Noir, Private Eye,” which pokes fun at detective radio dramas, or one of the show’s best-loved segments, Keillor’s “News from LakeWobegon.”

  The “News” typically starts with the same opening lines: "Well, it's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, Minn., my hometown, out on the edge of the prairie." Funnyman/sound effects guy Fred Newman once used the familiar refrain to surprise Keillor and make the audience erupt with laughter.

  “One time, Garrison is in his cabin stranded in the snow. So, he says, ‘It’s been a quiet week in LakeWobegon…’ and then he turns on the radio and hears this imposter imitating him. So Garrison turns to me and there’s this long inhale,” Newman recounts. “So I imitate the inhale and the audience went crazy over it. Later, after the show, Garrison asked me, ‘What was so funny?’He just does it [without knowing] and that makes it all the more funny.”

  Newman grew up listening to storytellers in Georgia and says that his role on the show is “basically about listening.” He likens “Prairie Home Companion” to “a big piece of jazz, where the show is always changing based on where the audience is.”

  Fellow performer Scott agrees. “It’s constantly evolving, kind of like a nonstop weekend,” Scott says. “It’s an opening and closing night all in one.”

  Off stage, Scott may be heard muttering to herself, preparing her character’s voices, while nearby an opera singer runs the octaves and a mandolin player strums. And then there’s Keillor, black Sharpie poised in midair, the pen’s cap firmly planted in his mouth, as he makes changes just before the show begins.

  “It’s a cacophony of sound,” Scott adds. “And it all works.”

WUWM 89.7 FM presents a live broadcast performance of “A Prairie Home Companion” with special guest Leon Redbone on Saturday, May 10, beginning at 4:45 p.m. at the Milwaukee Theatre, 500 W. Kilbourn Ave. For more information, call 908-6001 or visit www.milwaukeetheatre.org.

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