The singing started about a half hour before the show and it continued for well over an hour after the show.
In between was the usual entertainment that fills the weekly two-hour stretch that is A Prairie Home Companion. Most of the usual skits and bits played out, The News from Lake Wobegon (of course), Guy Noir, the mother-to-son phone conversation and of course the music, lots of music. Heather Masse, a frequent guest on A Prairie Home Companion, was one of the guests and she came out with longtime host Garrison Keillor to sing to the crowd before the show.
They sang patriotic songs as they walked on the beautiful grass under the trees at Tanglewood, mingling with the casually dressed crowd outside the Koussevitzky Music Shed on a beautiful Saturday night in the Berkshires. Keillor, as always, was humorous, especially so when he pointed out that there couldn't be many Baptists out on the lawn based on their beverage of choice that complimented food spreads on portable tables or on blankets.
It was a big crowd that came out for the show, Keillor's penultimate live performance as host of his creation and obviously his last at Tanglewood. He retires this weekend with one final show at the Hollywood Bowl and a new host, Chris Thile, takes over this fall. In between we'll look back, remember favorite shows, favorite bits and be thankful to hear the words.
Speaking of words, ushers handed out programs with words printed in black and white on a single folded sheet of paper to patrons filing through the Tanglewood gates a few hours before the show. Inside the cover was "A Note from the Host." It read:
As I shuffle toward retirement in July, I look back with some astonishment at four decades of messing around with radio, I who come from serious taciturn people and grew up in a separatist religious sect that believed that every word and deed should be to the glory of God. It was not supposed to turn out like this. I am a loner. I like to sit in a small room with the shades pulled and write. That was the plan back before I got tangled up with Minnesota Public Radio and A Prairie Home Companion. I lived in a farmhouse in rural Minnesota and wrote stories and was okay with that.
Then, through a series of coincidences, I lucked onto this show, for which I had no aptitude to speak of, sort of like a kid in Port-au-Prince who's never seen ice becoming captain of the Haitian Olympic hockey team. I was never in theater, never sang in public, but I had grown up at the end of the radio era so I had some ideas about how it might sound. I was a plodder, but persistent.
The show launched in 1974, went national in 1980, enjoyed a period of unwarranted success, and somewhere in the late '90s started to be worth its salt. It's the only team I ever played on. And now, as retirement nears, it's a revelation to be accosted by people who want to say: Your show has meant a lot to me. Some of them have been tuned in for most of their lives. They take my hand, I put an arm around their waist, we lean against each other for a selfie - strangers who turn out to be friends - it's very sweet. Also confusing, since I never was a fan of the show myself.
I'm 73, in good shape for a writer. I'm writing a memoir, believe it or not, and am working on a Lake Wobegon screenplay. I write a weekly column for the Washington Post and other papers. I plan to take brisk walks and to read books again. I plan to visit my cousins and reminisce about our aunts and uncles. I want to see more operas and do more with The Writer's Almanac. There are grandsons to wrangle with. And then too, I am married to a woman who is smart and funny and very good company. After twenty years, we still have a lot to talk about. I look forward to renewing the acquaintance.
I'll admit to feeling a little emotional reading it the first time. And getting a little choked up as the show started, Keillor singing "I hear that old piano..." as the band led by Richard Dworsky played along. Same story walking out after the show, thinking, "there will never be anything like this again."
I guess that's what it means to be an American original.
Thanks for the memories GK.