A Prairie Homesick Companion

We saw A Prairie Home Companion yesterday. I loved it, but found it truly odd, rather like the radio show on which it is based. The movie seemed to be about nothing. It followed no particular path or plan. This is the mark of an Altman film, of course, but also shows a heavy influence of Garrison Keillor. It was like a two-hour “News from Lake Wobegon” monologue set to a screenplay: an aloof, meandering, and largely ad-libbed story told in Keillor’s grave, butterscotch voice. Just a slice of life. Nothing important. Nothing more to see here, folks. Move along now.

And that is precisely is why it was so good.

It was also an intensely personal experience for me — to the point of distraction. It made me strongly nostalgic for my adopted home. My North Star. My Minnesota.

I lived in Minneapolis for six years and worked at Minnesota Public Radio in downtown St. Paul, where the film was shot. (Keillor’s folks would want me to take great pains, I am sure, to make clear that Prairie Home Productions is a separate company from MPR, and that A Prairie Home Companion is distributed by American Public Media, also a separate company. Though they are all like in-laws at a family reunion potluck wondering whose ambrosia salad will go home untouched.)

Half the fun was seeing people and places I once saw daily. I knew that the movie would be like a photo album for me, but I did not want to be the annoying guy up front pointing out the bottles of Grain Belt Premium beer stacked up at the Fitzgerald Theater concession cubby (Who but a Minnesotan knows what this stuff is?) and that the interior of the Fitzgerald had been repainted for the movie and that the room with the box seats where Tommy Lee Jones sits is actually a production booth in real life.

The film takes place at the Fitzgerald, where the real show happens every week for most of the year. We used to have all-staff meetings and our holiday cabaret party there. In one of the final scenes, some of the men working backstage are theater staff in real life. I never knew their names, but I recognize them!

I annoyed Jeff right away by squealing quietly when the camera panned to Mickey’s Diner in the opening scene. Mickey’s looks like an old, stationary railroad dining car at W. 7th Street and St. Peter. A historic St. Paul landmark. Essentially a burger joint. But you don’t go there for the food. You go there because it’s Mickey’s.

A ridiculous movie called Jingle All the Way used exterior shots of the diner, but the interior, where Gov. Schwarzenegger and Sinbad get into a fist fight over a toy robot, is a lamentable fake. Keillor’s movie, however, authentic down to the Grain Belt, is the real chrome-plated deal.

“You’re not going to do that all through the whole movie, are you?” he said.

And truly, I wasn’t going to.

The radio show in real life is actually better than the radio show in the movie. The musical feel is the same, but there’s more humor and a number of radio sketches and fake commercials and such.

My connection to Garrison Keillor is minor at best. I met him when I worked on the A Prairie Home Companion Web site for a year at MPR. My first meeting with him was in his cluttered office. He was barefoot. I had just been given responsibility for the Web site representing his show. He wanted us to completely redesign the site, which was the largest, most visited, most visible and most beloved of all the sites that MPR produced.

No pressure.

Oh, and have it done in three weeks in time for the launch of the new season.

And we did. The home page, and the major architecture, anyway. The rest of it came in phases throughout the next year.

I met with him again to show him design sketches from our truly marvelous Web designer Ben. (I mean it. This guy is good.) It was at his house in a fashionable St. Paul neighborhood. We sat at his dining room table. I fell in love with his kitchen. And I couldn’t help but think, “I’m discussing Web site navigation with a genius.” But he’s so… normal and homey. So… Minnesotan.

As we were leaving, he gave me and the designer copies of his latest book at the time and a new CD compilation of Lake Wobegon stories. I didn’t dare ask for an autograph. It felt petty and ungrateful at the time. Unprofessional. And I didn’t want to seem impressed. I was a colleague first, a fan second.

I can remember back when he was working on a nebulous “screenplay.” Who knew what it was about? Didn’t matter. The man was always writing something. He is so busy and so prolific. I respect him immensely. A weekly radio show, a book or two, a screenplay, an op-ed, an essay, plus whatever we could squeeze out of him for the Web site. Sure, he has time for it all! I remember a blog I had set up for him, to use as a travel log while the show made stops around the country one summer, in which he noted a visit from Robert Altman, who attended the L.A. show. Hmm… Interesting… That Keillor sure gets around, don’t he?

And here we are with a full-blown movie.

Oh my god! Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are sitting in the seat at Mickey’s where I always sat! I had chili fries Right There!

(P.S. It’s also the same booth where Jeff spilled a whole Coke on his lap. Maybe that’s why he shushed me.)


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