Last night, I spent the evening at the Hollywood Bowl, for Garrison Keillor's final show as host of A Prairie Home Companion after 42 years. As I wrote here yesterday, I first saw PHC when it was just a local show in St. Paul, Minnesota, when I went to visit my brother who had been writing me about it. This was probably at least three years before it became a national weekly program. So, it was quite a moving experience to be there for the last show.
Keillor came onstage 10 minutes before the show started, talked a bit and performed a couple of songs. One was a funny, original song, "Ah, the Stories I Will Tell," that touched a bit on him leaving, and had a verse --
I never got fired
Because I'm the boss.
And I have no regrets
Due to memory loss.
Today, the present becomes the past
And four decades went by so fast.
And then a duet with Christine DiGiallonardo, "If Not for You." He also answered the question why they were doing the last show on Friday night rather than in their regular Saturday two-hour timeslot from 5-7 PM. "A few years back we did our show here at the Hollywood Bowl at our regular time -- and some of you were there and have finally recovered. (Which got a big laugh.) As he explained it, to do a show with a 5 PM start Central time, that meant having to begin in Los Angeles at 3 PM. And the sun in Los Angeles at that time in July was not even remotely conducive to the program. "You don't do outdoor matinees here." And so, that's why they did it the night before.
He also noted that the audience there at the Bowl will hear almost all of the show -- but they prerecorded one segment which will get edited into the broadcast. That seemed odd...until it turned out the reason. President Obama called. So, that's what will be included.
Interestingly, that pre-show song that dealt with him leaving was one of the more up-front references to it the entire night. There were some minor comments and songs with leaving as their subtext, but not much that was directly about him leaving. Really only two pointed segments. One was a sketch near the end when the cast members brought up that this was "your final show -- how do you feel?" And he kept having to explain that in Minnesota you don't discuss your feelings. This lead into what he planned to do after leaving, and it turns out that his dream was always the circus. (He described an act he had he mind, with a monkey and some other animals, noting that after writing a new show every week for 40 years, it would be nice to do the same act over and over again.)
The other was the News from Lake Wobegon monologue. It wasn't directly about him leaving, but that was the clear subtext. Talking about how when he wandered through Lake Wobegon the other way and looked at things, what it made him think of. (Nice that one of the references as to Father Emil, the longtime pastor who got written out of the show years ago.) And then the story shifted into talking about legacies, and that there really aren't such things.
But that was really as blunt as it got. Mostly it was a straightforward, fairly typical show, not a valedictory. Only at one point, when Christine DiGiallonardo joined him on stage, was anything said directly, and that's when she said, "I am going to miss you," and seemed like she was about to choke up. There were also some songs that clearly seemed to touch on the subject of leaving, and a lovely number that Keillor sang that had a verse --
My life, it didn't count for nothing
When I look around it seems so small
...But I can make it seem better for a while.
I said it was a "fairly" typical show. Only "fairly" because Keillor performed a good deal more than usual. The monologue, sketches, some solo songs and such, but also a lot of duets. A lot of them. The guest cast was five women -- DiGiallonardo, Sarah Jarosz, Heather Masse (pronounced Massey), Aoiffe (pronounced Eee-fa) O'Donovan, and Sara Watkins, Most of their performances were duets with the host. They only had probably 3-4 standalone numbers all night.
And it was a long night, making the few solo numbers by others all the more pronounced. The show is two hours, but on Friday night it lasted three hours! I have no idea if they'll edit it down for broadcast, or if (being the final show) they'll air all three hours. Cutting out an hour of material seems awfully much. So, given that it's a special event, it may well run for all three hours. It's also possible that they won't include the encore, and will trim about 15 other minutes, and the show will run for 2-1/2 hours. But I wouldn't be surprised if they leave it at three hours -- and it would be appropriate to let the radio audience hear the full thing.
A very funny sketch also touched on him leaving, but only as part of the set-up. It was one of his "Life of the Cowboy" Western adventures, telling about Lefty who used to have a radio show, "Bunkhouse Buddies," that he did out on this here prairie, with his pal Dusty. As the years passed, though, he couldn't remember why it was he left.
Dusty: You never smiled.
Lefty: But it was radio.
Dusty: Your voice was depressing. The listeners could tell.
But the sketch actually evolved into something totally different, about all of Dusty's women duet partners quitting the show, one by one, for their own reasons. It has an extremely funny ending, with Sara Watkins playing the editor of a Western poetry magazine.
There was also a sweet, new song that Keillor said he wrote just the day before, which was a tribute to his many teachers growing up. And a lovely song that Heather Masse sang, with the line, "I'm going to miss you every time we say goodbye."
I liked that Keillor had several notable references to the past. One was singing an old song he had written years before that he always loved, about a couple of horses on his uncle's farm. Another was singing a song by Greg Brown, who had been a regular on the show for many years during the program's early years.
As the show neared the end, he sang a duet with new, funny lyrics to Bob Dylan's song, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."
I can't tell you, though, how he ended the show. That's because the moment he said, "That's our show for tonight," the audience began cheering for about three minutes, loudly and standing, over whatever he was saying. I'm sure you'll hear it on the radio, because he was talking into the microphone -- but in the Hollywood Bowl audience, it was inaudible. The only sound was roars and applause, on and on. And it wasn't only the audience applauding him -- so was the cast.
Then, a final song and it was over.
He did return for an encore, though unlike last week he walked on stage alone, without the cast. So, it was clear that this would be it. Yet it went on for 10-15 minutes, as he sang a medley of basically "goodbye" songs. Things like "Goodnight, Ladies," "Goodnight, Irene," "Happy Trails," a hymn, an English madrigal, some other things, and then ending with the rousing gospel number, "Amen."
And to final cheers, he waved and walked off.
And his 42-year run of A Prairie Home Companion was over.
It was a joy to be there. And wistful, as well.
You can listen to the final show streaming today here on the Prairie Home website at 5 PM Central time. (That's of course 6 PM in the East, and 3 PM on the West Coast.) The site also lists what radio stations carry the show, so you can find out the local time it will be airing for you.
And that's the news...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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