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Lifestyle

July 6, 2014

40 years with 'Prairie Home'

Keillor takes an unsentimental journey down memory lane

Don’t expect the master of ceremonies to get emotional as “A Prairie Home Companion” celebrates its 40th anniversary.

“I avoid getting choked up. It’s not in good taste,” said Garrison Keillor, humming and snapping his fingers last morning as he strolled the Macalester College campus in St. Paul, site of the radio show’s first live broadcast in 1974.

“You never want the audience to be concerned. I coughed during a show in Washington, D.C., recently. People listening at home probably thought, ‘Geez, is this old guy going to croak?’?”

This weekend he returned to Macalester for a three-day festival marking the anniversary with a three-hour live broadcast, a giant singalong, creation of a Lake Wobegon-style “Living Flag” and other hoopla.

A Minnesota institution that reaches 4 million listeners, “Prairie Home” has been made into a movie, parodied on “The Simpsons,” graced the cover of Time and earned its creator a Peabody Award. But four decades ago, only a dozen or so people were left in the audience after several people walked out on that first broadcast at Macalester’s Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center.

“It was too fancy for us,” Keillor said, watching custodians clean carpets in the remodeled auditorium, which will play a part in the big bash. “It was a beautiful little concert hall built for classical music, and we were just this little country music show.”

Not anymore. Last Wednesday, crews worked against the clock to finish building a giant erector set of a stage for the main event yesterday, while Keillor bantered with producers and staff. He’s always taken a nonchalant approach to all the fuss, right down to his uniform of a wrinkled suit jacket, dark pants — possibly stained with the remnants of breakfast — and black shoes held together by their laces.

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