Looking out into the audience inside Goshen College’s sold-out music center on a rainy Tuesday night here in the Maple City, the legendary Garrison Keillor brought a microphone to his mouth.
“I’m told there are Mennonites here tonight,” he said with a sly, slight smile, prompting a sustained burst of laughter. “I guess we’ll find out.”
Then, with no warning, Keillor raised his right hand like a symphony conductor, took a broad inhale, and began to sing “America The Beautiful.” The audience fell right into line, taking Keillor’s bait that led them to “On the Banks of the Wabash,” to “Shall We Gather at the River,” and to “Red River Valley.”
For about 10 minutes Keillor, a master storyteller and showman, led the audience in song, at times signaling for and getting, four-part harmony.
“Well,” he said at the end of the impromptu sing-along, “you sing as well as you ever have.”
The engaging sequence punctuated just how much command Keillor had over his adoring and informed audience this night.
Keillor, 71, is most famous for his internationally syndicated variety radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” which debuted in 1974 and airs locally on WVPE, a National Public Radio station in Elkhart. He wrote and stared in the movie version of “Prairie Home Companion” in 2006 and is a best-selling author.
It is Keillor’s radio variety show, undoubtedly, that brings his genius to the masses every Saturday night. It’s a toe-tapping, thought-provoking, sometimes gut-busting two hours that skillfully weaves the listening audience through song, story and down-home commentary rooted deeply in the golden age of America.
It was that same formula Keillor brought to Goshen Tuesday evening. Many of Keillor’s elaborate yet simple stories are set in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, Minn. They include characters we feel we know ourselves, including Aunt Evelyn, the hippie idealist Debbie Ditmer, the Lutheran priest Pastor Ingqvist, the drunken school janitor Mr. Sneed and Raul, the long lost lover nobody in Lake Wobegon ever knew about.
As the stories unfolded slowly Tuesday, one could sense the audience members slipping back into their own childhoods here in the Goshen area. It seemed clear by their faces that Keillor was taking them on a journey someplace special within themselves.
For much of the night Keillor paced leisurely in a wide circle around his un-used microphone stand in the middle of the stage. At times he appeared to bounce with his steps. Other times he seemed to be walking an imaginary tightrope with his arms extending out creating an illusion of maintaining balance. And sometimes he looked to be walking in slow motion, his soft, yet powerful voice, pulling him forward as he talked.
Keillor dressed the part of the modest, happy eccentric, wearing a dark pin-stripe suit, bright red tie that looked like Christmas wrapping paper and matched his red knee-high socks and red Saucony running shoes.
All the while, wrapped neatly in his stories from Lake Wobegon, Keillor wooed his welcoming audience with warm nuggets of folksy wisdom that managed to spark both laughter and thought.
“When you’re an English major,” Keillor explained, “you don’t casually burn bridges.”
“When you turn 40,” he informed, “you’re too old to die young.”
While talking about his first job as a sports writer for the Anoka Herald in Anoka, Minn. — he was just 16 at the time — Keillor fondly remembered earning $2 to cover a home football game and $2.50 to cover an away game. He spoke of Whitey and Russ, the Linotype operators with 80-proof breath who were his first readers and encouraged him in his writing efforts.
“Even now,” Keillor said, “It is still a joy to see your name printed in the newspaper. In print, yes, on a (computer) screen not so much.”
He recalled helping start the family’s old 1946 Ford coupe in the winter and standing on the front seat next to his dad before there were seatbelts.
Toward the end of the show, after stories about weddings that didn’t happen and funeral services gone awry, Keillor offered perhaps his most sincere contribution to a wonderful night.
“Our country today is in the midst of such anger that it just breaks your heart,” Keillor said. “… We are truly a blessed nation (and) gratitude is the cure for this country.”
And that’s where Keillor’s skill lies. His stories, his attitude, his efforts as a humorist have a way of making us grateful for each other, even with all of our differences, inconsistencies and imperfections.
“Cheerfulness is choice,” Keillor demanded toward the end of his soliloquy. “… You put it on in the morning. You can simply make up your mind one day to look on the bright side.”
A short time later Keillor complemented Goshen, specifically mentioning its “gorgeous downtown” and the wonderful group of people in the audience “who can sing in beautiful four-part harmony.”
And with that, Keillor raised his arm, took a deep breath and softly began to sing “Amazing Grace.” The audience, still under his spell after two hours, followed right along.
Michael Wanbaugh is managing editor of The Goshen News.