Garrison Keillor works the crowd, both in the theater and on the air. (Photo by Ed Richardson)



Continued from…

Saturday afternoon the crew is onstage again, a little tenser than the night before. Channel 8 shows up, attempts to set up their TV cameras right on stage, and can't remember the name of the guy they're supposed to interview. "Garrison somebody," they tell Hanssen. They don't get the interview.

Associate Producer Stevie Beck's here. This middle-aged Jewish daughter of Russian immigrants doesn't necessarily look like a country-music fan, but she loves the stuff and talks old-time music knowledgeably. She grew up in Texas, but whatever accent she might have had yielded to Minnesotan long ago. She lines up all the acts for Prairie Home Companion. She signed local favorites the Lantana Drifters and 99-year-old fiddler Bob Douglas, plus Nashville-based mandolinist Sam Bush.

They're all here, too, and make it through a full sound check. The skit performers—Tom Keith, the sound-effects wizard, and actors Tim Russell and Sue Scott—are onstage for the first time, with the scripts that Keillor has written by himself. These aren't committee-written scripts, like most sitcoms are. You might not know it reading the program, on which Keillor's listed only as "Executive Producer," or by listening to the credits, which list a series of phony names as the writers, but Keillor writes all of the skits, and usually by himself. His best line today may be in the Guy Noir script, where the detective asks a young beauty, "Where have you been all my life, gorgeous?" and she responds, "Well, for the first half of it, I wasn't born." Even in rehearsal, it brings guffaws.

It's after 4, and things are going well, considering. Then Keillor decides he wants to add something not contemplated in the program–an excerpt from James Agee's "Knoxville: Summer 1915." There may be 20,000 copies of the piece in Knoxville, but none of them are right here. The library's not open, and there's not a bookstore downtown. WUOT representatives attempt to locate a copy of Samuel Barber's libretto for his famous Agee-based composition back at UT. At length a friend turns up a battered paperback copy of A Death in the Family from a downtown office, and Tiffany Hanssen proceeds to type the entire passage, over 2,000 words. As showtime looms, and most of the cast, crew, and special guests dine on a buffet behind the stage, Hanssen and Danforth proofread her work aloud.

The actors are practicing their lines to the weird backstage walls. Assistant stage manager Alan Frechtman is pacing around with a walkie-talkie, worried about a dozen things. Danforth calls him Kvetchman, to which Frechtman replies by calling him Danfart. On the quieter side of the stage, the engineers prepare to launch the show to the world via satellite. The signal goes to St. Paul on telephone lines; it doesn't leave the atmosphere until it hits their satellite dish there. GK's here, but doesn't chat casually except with the musicians. Backstage he hardly makes eye contact. His staff speculates about whether he wants this or that in the script. He's right there, and they've known him for years, but they're reluctant to bug him with details at this point.

The audience, some of whom have been waiting outside in a rainstorm, begins to arrive. Dedications come in from the audience, and Ringsak's main job is to cull through them. "I look for laugh lines, for stuff that will bounce around the country," he says. He rejects anything with "cute lover names," anything that smacks of bragging about expensive vacations or possessions–"and if anybody even mentions a pet, I'll throw it out!"

Ringsak slinks out of Keillor's dressing room smirking. He has placed a gaudy Women's Basketball Hall of Fame souvenir basketball on Keillor's dresser. He figures Keillor will find a joke in it. As showtime looms, Keillor goes into his dressing room, where he brushes his hair, dons a red tie to go with his dark suit, and replaces his Birkenstocks with soft Italian black shoes. He walks out without the basketball, apparently without having noticed it. Two hours later, the basketball is still there.

The show starts with a 15-minute audience warm-up, in which Keillor, seemingly unaffected by the chaos around him, leads the crowd in a chorus of "America the Beautiful." The show's not nearly as set–or as ready–as the audience may assume.

While Keillor sings, Tschida and Hanssen are madly running the printer and copier in the wing, preparing the latest scripts for everybody. Some of their work's in vain, as it always is. Some pieces, like the new "Tomatoes" song the band had repeatedly rehearsed, won't get in; Keillor decides, apparently during the show, that he doesn't like the rhymes. A "wild card" Bertha's Kitty Boutique skit about an unfortunate cat named Meow Tse-Tung didn't make it in, either. Everybody has a sheet called "RUNDOWN- Knoxville 6/26/99," and it's marked FINAL, but it turns out to be only a suggestion.

A Prairie Home Companion is a seat-of-the-pants thing. After the show's underway, Keillor decides not to make 99-year-old fiddler Bob Douglas follow Guy Noir–to segue Douglas's performance with the Carter family medley, which had been pegged for the second half, instead. That does the job, though it leaves a four-minute hole in the second half. But the surprises of the first half aren't over yet.

A Sam Bush song Keillor had introduced with a Civil War story turns out not to be about the Civil War at all, but an extra song that wasn't on the Rundown at all. "We got our freightcars switched," Keillor says later, on the air. The crew thinks Bush has decided to add the song on his own, but Bush later says he'd been told to save the old Amazing Rhythm Aces Civil War piece for later.

It's turning out to be the wildest show of the year. Late in the first half, Jason Keillor mutters, "the rundown's out the window–we're improvising from here on out!" There's no obvious resentment among the crew, who seem to enjoy the thrill of it.

The show, after all, exists mainly in the capacious head of Jason Keillor's dad, and GK exhibits no nervousness at all. His calm in the middle of this storm seems to keep it all together as nothing else could. The crew's here to help broadcast the show live to three million people, but GK's the writer of all the skits, the principal performer, the band's conductor, and the whole crew's boss. Some of the show, especially the longest piece, the 20-minute monologue, has never been heard for approval or comment by anybody until everybody from Nova Scotia to Hawaii hears it on a million radios.

Ringsak has never heard any part of this show; nobody's really sure where he is in the daytime, but he never comes to rehearsals. All the skits and songs and monologues are new to him. From the wings, this man who's been carrying the show around in his truck for more than a decade beams as broadly as any newcomer in the audience. During the Ellen skit about a lost hippie love, that's somehow both poignant and ridiculous, Ringsak grins and shakes his head. "The guy's a damn genius, ain't he?" he says.

First Published July 1, 1999 • Metro Pulse

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