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JACK WEATHERLY — What might’ve been recalled as Keillor takes farewell tour

JACK WEATHERLY

JACK WEATHERLY

The timing couldn’t have been worse, so I pursued it.

Inspiration often has no logic.

I penned a column as an open-letter to Garrison Keillor, host of The Prairie Home Companion for now more than 40 years.

That’s a pretty good career, in terms of longevity. I should know.

Keillor was still in the throes of a mid-life crisis back in the ‘90s. He and his second wife, a Dane, decided to move to Denmark.

Trouble was, Danes didn’t get Midwestern jokes.

So he returned to the USA, New York City. Not exactly Midwestern but at least American.

He had left Minnesota after he felt that some reporters had gotten too nosy with his private life. So he left the North Woods.

He swore off interviews.

At the time, I was editor of The Star-Herald in Kosciusko.

My wife and I had long before incorporated his show into our Saturday evening programing.

I decided to invite him to do his show in Kosciusko.

I had an irony-clad argument: It was fate, a perfect fit.

For starters, his mythical Lake Wobegon and Kosciusko are small towns. Mascots for both high schools are the Whippets.

Lake Wobegon’s newspaper was the Herald Star, a mirror-reverse of The Star-Herald if you forget the hyphen. And so on.

I faxed it to his people the day after publishing, Wednesday.

If not an interview, how about an invitation?

Somehow I just knew he would respond. I could get that way in those days.

A made a trip to the office on Sunday, and there it was. The thin facsimile paper printout was rolled up like a scroll on the machine, a literary twist from a famous writer.

Keillor thanked me for the gesture. It was more than a one-sentence reply. It was gracious, charming and, of course, witty.

Keillor said that it’s hard enough for a kid to learn to spell Mississippi, but throw in Kosciusko, and I must’ve felt like a genius.

He couldn’t make strategic plans for his show, he said, but he would turn it over to his producer.

A kind but empty gesture? No, not really. The city chamber started getting inquiries from his show, asking about restaurants and lodging and the like.

Talk of it caused quite a stir in the little town.

We had the 4,000-seat Attala County Coliseum, sufficient for a show that doesn’t play huge venues.

Bribes couldn’t hurt. A local sports clothing maker turned out an extra-extra-large varsity jacket with Whippets across the back for the 6-6 Keillor.

There was other good help offered and given.

And not-so-good help given. Like a cynical letter to his outfit from a crazed local lawyer who fancied himself an artist, and wit to boot. If there’s something Keillor doesn’t like it’s cynicism.

Finally, we lost out to Birmingham, which is hard for a small place to compete with.

But it was nice to entertain the possibility for a few weeks.

Now Keillor, 73, is on his farewell tour. After nearly 43 years, he will step down as host of the show, which will go on with a new host — but without his mellifluous baritone voice, his Lake Wobegon tales, one half of the team of Dusty and Lefty in a skit called “Tales of the Cowboys,” and the private detective Guy Noir.

And his towering presence as one of America’s great humorists. Mark Twain without the snarkiness.

Saturday was the last show he’ll ever do from The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

That show – which debuted in 1925 and is still on the air and also now on the Internet – was the subject of a profile Keillor did for The New Yorker in 1973.

It was the perfect framework for Prairie Home Companion, which suggests the same homespun quality as the Opry, with American music, and on-stage “commercials” such as for Powdermilk Biscuits, Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery and Bertha’s Kitty Boutique.

Yes, Prairie Home will keep going after Garrison says “good night, everybody” for the last time.

It seems now that Kosciusko was way ahead of the game in not landing the big guy.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

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