Garrison Keillor

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1,861 words.)