Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1059
Gary Edward Keillor was born August 7, 1942, in Anoka, Minnesota, the son of John Philip and Grace Ruth Denham Keillor. His father was a railway mail clerk and carpenter. Keillor attended the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, where he worked as a staff announcer for the campus station, KUOM radio, from 1963 to 1968. This job began a long career in radio, during which he took the more formal Garrison Keillor as his professional name. He married Mary C. Guntzel on September 11, 1965, and they had a son, Jason.
Keillor received a B.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1966 and briefly sought a writing job in New York. He had hoped to join the staff of The New Yorker, a magazine he had admired since boyhood. He was not at that time successful, so he continued in broadcasting. In 1971, he began working as an announcer and producer with Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. In 1974, he launched the highly successful weekly program A Prairie Home Companion, for which he served as host and principal writer. He was divorced in May, 1976.
A Prairie Home Companion, inspired by the Grand Ole Opry radio program, was broadcast live before a theater audience on Saturday nights. The program initially ran for more than a decade. It was carried by more than two hundred public radio stations and was televised during the 1987 season. It was a variety show made up of an eclectic musical component, comic sketches (written or cowritten by Keillor), and the host’s weekly monologue about the goings-on in his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Keillor’s leisurely monologues drew heavily upon his small-town upbringing, although he has always insisted that Lake Wobegon is a romantic creation, not a caricature of his actual hometown.
Keillor grew up in a Fundamentalist sect called the Plymouth Brethren, whose strictures made other Fundamentalist denominations appear rather “loose.” The monologues often treated the American practice of Christianity humorously but also gently and affectionately. A Prairie Home Companion was interspersed with commercials for fictitious businesses and products: Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, the Chatterbox Cafe, Bob’s Bank, the Sidetrack Tap, Scottie’s Cough Syrup for Dogs, and—most popular of all—Powdermilk Biscuits.
Although never perhaps reaching the mass audience available to commercial radio, the show was a phenomenal popular success for public broadcasting. It was a critical success, receiving the George Foster Peabody Broadcasting Award in 1980 and the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1985. On December 29, 1985, Keillor married Ulla Skaerved, a social worker and a native of Denmark. Together they had four children.
During the initial run of A Prairie Home Companion, Keillor, who had contributed to The New Yorker and other magazines for several years, published three books: G. K. the DJ (1977); Happy to Be Here (1982), followed by an expanded edition in 1983; and Lake Wobegon Days (1985). The success of these—especially the latter, which was a huge best-seller—helped to broaden his listening audience. The growing popularity of the show eventually prompted a special on public television, which was followed by a regular spot on the schedule of the Disney Channel.
In 1987, Keillor announced that he was ending the show so that he could move with his wife and family to her native country. There, having freed himself from the weekly grind of producing and performing, he would devote himself to his writing. A Prairie Home Companion had been based in and around St. Paul during its entire tenure on the air, and the last regularly scheduled show in its first incarnation was broadcast from that city on June 13, 1987.
Keillor soon brought out two more books: Leaving Home (1987) and We Are Still Married (1989). He did move to Copenhagen but lived there for only a few months before returning to the United States. He and his family took up residence in New York City, where he became formally associated with The New Yorker. He also returned to radio, which he admitted to missing more than he had anticipated. He performed at the National Convention of the Democratic Party at Atlanta, Georgia, in 1988, presaging a more overtly political element in his writing. He also began a series of annual “farewell performances” of A Prairie Home Companion. The first was broadcast and telecast from New York City in 1988, the second from Dallas, Texas, 1989. In the autumn of 1989, he launched a new show on public radio; it originated in New York City and had a different title—The American Radio Company—and cast, as well as an altered format. In 1990, he toured with a two-man show, featuring himself and guitarist Chet Atkins, a frequent guest on the old A Prairie Home Companion. However, Keillor’s fans soon wanted A Prairie Home Companion back on their radios, and Keillor was forced in 1993 to bring Lake Wobegon back to his listeners every week. Both Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion returned to St. Paul, Minnesota. The revived show continues and remains popular into the twenty-first century.
During the 1990’s, Keillor continued to produce collections of humorous sketches and short stories: The Book of Guys (1993) and Truckstop, and Other Lake Wobegon Stories (1995). WLT: A Radio Romance (1991), Wobegon Boy (1998), Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 (2001), and Love Me (2003) are more truly novelistic in form than were his earlier book-length works. He wrote three books for children: Cat, You Better Come Home (1995), The Old Man Who Loved Cheese (1996), and The Sandy Bottom Orchestra (1996), the last of which he cowrote with his third wife, violinist Jenny Lind Nilsson.
Keillor’s political opinions had grown more obvious over time, but he had never pressed them overtly until the publication of Me: By Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente, Governor of Minnesota, as told to Garrison Keillor (1999) and Homegrown Democrat: A Few Plain Thoughts from the Heart of America (2004). The former reflected an ongoing feud between the writer and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, a former professional wrestler and the governor of his home state from 1999 to 2002. The latter offered encouragement to his fellow Democrats during a period that he believed to be dominated by conservative politics. Keillor ventured into yet another genre when he edited Good Poems (2002) and Good Poems for Hard Times (2005).
Keillor lives in St. Paul with his wife and their daughter. He teaches at the University of Minnesota and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 147
The titles of four of Keillor’s first books and the order of their publication serve as a summary statement of the first part of his career. In Happy to Be Here, a major comedic talent appears on the literary scene. Lake Wobegon Days showcases his powers of invention and his impressive prose style in a sustained narrative. Leaving Home announces that the author’s Lake Wobegon period is coming an end. In We Are Still Married, Keillor’s center of consciousness is no longer located in the Midwest. It can now be found in New York City. Perhaps the title is both a plea and a pledge to the readers who loved Lake Wobegon so much. Indeed, they loved it so much that, in time, the author returned to Minnesota and brought, as Wobegon Boy and Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 reveal, his old subject matter with him.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655
Garrison Keillor’s roots in small-town Minnesota provided him with the particular brand of midwestern humor that brought him fame and on which he continued to capitalize even after relocating to New York City. Born Gary Edward Keillor, he was the third of six children in the family of John P. Keillor, a railway mail clerk and carpenter, and Grace Denham Keillor. When he was in the eighth grade, he adopted the pen name “Garrison” in place of his given names because, he said, he believed that it sounded “more formidable.” He grew up just north of Minneapolis, Minnesota, south of the small town of Anoka in what has since become Brooklyn Park. After his 1960 graduation from Anoka High School, he enrolled in the University of Minnesota, authored a regular column, published stories in the student magazine The Ivory Tower, which he later edited, and was student announcer for KUOM, the university radio station. He received a B.A. in English and journalism in 1966, went to New York in an unsuccessful attempt to land a job as a writer, returned to work on a master’s degree in English, and then took a job with KSJR-FM in Collegeville, the first station in the Minnesota Public Radio network.
Keillor spent fourteen years on and off, from 1968 to 1982, as a disc jockey in St. Paul, Minnesota. His earliest program, The Prairie Home Morning Show, eventually included anecdotes about a mythical Midwestern place that he called Lake Wobegon, situated in the similarly mythical Mist County. One of the hallmarks of the program was inclusion of advertisements from bogus sponsors: Powdermilk Biscuits, Jack’s Auto Repair, Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, among others. Besides broadcasting, Keillor was busy writing. He sold his first story, “Local Family Keeps Son Happy,” to The New Yorker in 1970, then moved with his wife and small son to a farm near Freeport, Minnesota. He was divorced in 1976.
Modeled after the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, Keillor’s first live segment of A Prairie Home Companion aired on July 6, 1974. The monologues, advertisements, and musical entertainment were highlights of the program. Eleven years later, one of the show’s monologues concerned a twenty-fifth high school class reunion in which the narrator, Keillor, rekindles an acquaintance with a foreign exchange student that blossoms into a romance. The monologue was biographical in the sense that, at his own class reunion at Anoka High School, Keillor established a real-life relationship with Ulla Skaerved, Danish exchange student twenty-five years earlier, and they were married on December 29, 1985, in Denmark.
A Prairie Home Companion continued in weekly radio broadcasts for thirteen years, culminating in a farewell performance on June 13, 1987. During these years, Keillor anthologized his monologues in recordings and in books. Perhaps a disenchantment with his celebrity status and an irritation with newspaper reporters in St. Paul, who printed what Keillor believed to be private information about himself, resulted in Keillor and his new wife relocating to Denmark for a short while, then settling in New York City. There, he continued to write for The New Yorker and host a weekly radio broadcast entitled American Radio Company of the Air.
In the mid-1990’s, Garrison Keillor resumed live broadcasts of A Prairie Home Companion, but for his return to radio he began touring the United States and no longer limited himself to performing his shows in Minnesota. He still continued to tell witty stories about the residents of the fictional town of Wobegon, Minnesota. In 1999, Garrison Keillor wrote a fictional autobiography of a resident of Wobegon and a witty satire of Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota. The similarities between the fictional governor named Jimmy Valente and Jesse Ventura are so striking that Keillor felt the need to state that readers should not assume that his book, a satire of the state of American politics in the late twentieth century, has anything to do with Jesse Ventura.
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