Sound effects wiz Tom Keith simulates the sound of footsteps by clapping men's shoes together; one sole is covered with sandpaper. (Photo by Ed Richardson)

 

 

Ed. Note: In this age of fleeting amusements, it's nice to know that great radio broadcasting is still alive and well at National Public Radio and Public Radio International. One of the most successful public radio shows is, of course, Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. Aside from Mr. Keillor's wit and affinity for old-time music, a great attraction of PHC is its broadcasts from the road as it tours cities around the country. These particular shows provide a comforting sense of community with places you may never have even visited except via PHC. This story offers a look at how such broadcasts are put together as the PHC crew visits Knoxville, Tenn. Note: Since this article was written, Jason Keillor, Tiffany Hanssen, and Mike Danforth no longer work for the show.

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The first to arrive is the truck driver, who brings the 48-foot trailer loaded with tons of electronic equipment and the facade of a Victorian-style house equipped with a porch and screens and curtains in the windows. For a day or so the trailer is parked out at the Ryder Rental lot while the driver, whose name is Russ Ringsak, drives his cab downtown to look around.

He has a gray goatee, the trucker's long-distance hobble, and the hooded eyes of a joke teller. Everything he hears reminds him of one you haven't heard. Many of them off-color, some of them funny. Here's one he heard at a truckstop: A trucker points to a Northwest Airlines passenger jet in the sky. "Every time I stop," he says, "that damn plane passes me."

Slowly, Ringsak backs the big truck into the Civic Auditorium's subterranean loading dock. He drives well for an architect, which, once upon a time, he was; the Minnesotan gave it up years ago to try out life on the open road. Somewhere along the way, he got a job with the nationally popular public-radio show A Prairie Home Companion.

When the show goes on the road, as it does eight or 10 times a year, Ringsak arrives first to deliver the trailer to the theater, and to reconnoiter–to give his boss, whose name is Garrison Keillor, a sense of the place.

Unlike Keillor, Ringsak has been to Knoxville before. He recalls sneaking into the tail end of a John Prine show at the Bijou a few years ago. But there's a lot he needs to find out before the Saturday show. He buys some local books, among them a copy of Cormac McCarthy's Suttree, and holes up in his room at the Hilton to read and type notes and eat some barbecue ribs. Ringsak and Keillor have been working together for over a decade. They don't always get along–Ringsak is a proud Jesse Ventura supporter, and the acrimony between Keillor and Ventura is famous.

Nobody else arrives until Friday morning, the day before the show. The 80-degree sun is boiling the morning rain off the pavement: humidity made visible. Even inside the auditorium, it's affecting the Sharp copier they use to reproduce scripts. It's not Minnesota weather, but Christine Tschida says they've seen worse–in Miami, Savannah, Houston. A businesslike woman with short hair who's pleasant if you're doing what she wants you to do. When Garrison Keillor's not on stage, and sometimes even when he is, she's the boss.

This morning they had a hard time understanding the accents and manners of the Civic Auditorium staff, but by afternoon, they're working together. They've set up a command station of four laptop computers in a line, Houston-style, at stage right, and are busily doing script work for this show and some paperwork for next weekend's show at Wolftrap. Meanwhile, the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band sets up on center stage and goes through a rendition of the old standard, "After You're Gone," with Andy Stein's violin evoking Stephan Grapelli in the '30s. Tschida walks out and says, "Do you want to try 'Sophisticated Lady?'" There's some grumbling, but Tschida insists.

One musician protests. "I thought you were giving us a choice, but no!"

"It's the Minnesota choice," explains Tschida.

Close to the stage is another table with another laptop where an earnest-looking young man works away, facing the band. As the band practices, he seems intent about something on his screen. Only when you peer over his shoulder do you discover the problem he's considering so intently is a computer chess game. The man's name is Jason Keillor; he's stage manager for his dad's famous show. Jason is about as tall as Garrison, and nearly as low key. He plays piano pretty well, but when Ringsak suggests he might one day take over his dad's show, he balks. His interest is mainly in the technical aspect of things, he says.

Maybe because they don't have to do this as often as many road shows, it's a friendlier, less pretentious group than many stage crews. You can't help noticing that backstage at A Prairie Home Companion, you do smell the onions–but today the aroma originates in a pile of paper-wrapped Schlotzsky's Deli sandwiches. Assistant Producer Mike Danforth's a skinny guy with wild curly hair that a director would cast as a teenaged genius. He doesn't have any clue who you are and what you're doing back here, but gestures at you with a half a sandwich. "Hungry?" he says. "It's good!"

They're staying at the Hilton; several of them will get out to a bar or some of the downtown restaurants that are open on weekends. But most of the PHC crew's experience of Knoxville is this windowless backstage where they can't even tell the storm is over. ("Is it sunny out now?" asks Tschida, which sounds to Southern ears, like "Is it sunny oat no?") Somehow they like these cinderblock walls plastered with 35 years' worth of show posters, curios, autographs, a mannequin in a police uniform. Among them is a poster for an auditorium performance of Vincent Price as Oscar Wilde. They say it's one of the weirdest backstages they've seen. "It's so over the top," Hanssen says, "it's wonderful."

There's plenty to keep them here; in just 24 hours, they'll put on a show that has to work visibly for a paying audience of 2,600–and work audibly for a national audience of about three million.

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