My Prairie Home Companions
My father died. I have some things to say about that, but I am not ready to write much about it yet. Instead...
Some months ago, I and some of my fellow University of Iowa Hawkeyes realized we were coming up on our 20th anniversary as residents of the Big Apple. We decided to have a nice dinner in celebration. It was so much fun. We go way, way back together, and even though we had occasionally drifted apart over the years, we always seemed to find each other again. You know that thing you have with old friends? The way you can reconnect immediately even when you haven't seen each other for a while? That's what the 7 of us have.
So we've kind of made these get-togethers into a monthly thing.
Somewhere along the way, I noticed that Garrison Keillor would be bringing "A Prairie Home Companion" to New York City for a series of live broadcasts in the month of December, and so I proposed to my fellow Hawkeyes that we organize a field trip. It seemed appropriate, since all of us had met for the first time somewhere in the middle of America's Great Plains.
Some were fans of the show, some were not familiar with it, but the promise of a big dinner after the show persuaded everyone to buy into my idea.
I love radio -- for all the usual "I love radio" reasons: theater of the mind, and all that. And, of course, "A Prairie Home Companion" has been a favorite for a long time... partly because it speaks to my latent Midwestern sensibilities, partly because of Keillor's wit, partly because of the music, but mostly just because it's... radio.
So last night we find ourselves settled in our seats in New York City's Town Hall, on 43rd just off Time Square. Keillor is at the microphone center stage. "We've got about 15 seconds", he says. The lights dim and the familiar network intro comes on...
"From American Public Media..."
I lean over to my friends sitting next to me and whisper: "We are on the air!"
The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band strikes up the familiar opening song...
Oh, hear that old piano,
From down the avenue...
...and we're off for two full hours of live broadcast radio.
I loved every minute of it. It wasn't the best Guy Noir episode. The news from Lake Woebegone was for the most part charming as usual but trailed off a bit into aimlessness. The lady sitting in front of us, so excited to be there that, as my friend said, "She was ready to pee her pants", whispered desperately to her companion, "He didn't say '...and that's the news from Lake Woebegone, where all the women are..."
It's true, he didn't say it. But, oh well. For some of us (even latently) Midwestern types, unfamiliarity breeds contempt, but we quickly recover.
Watching the production unfold onstage was a blast. All sorts of stage conventions were violated... the host carelessly facing upstage on occasion as he spoke to the band or carried on a monologue. Stage-hands and technicians moving about the crowded space, setting props and rearranging microphones in full view of the audience while downstage an audio skit proceeded on its way.
But all the commotion and misdirection worked, of course, because it was a constant reminder that this was radio. ("We are on the air!"). Near the end, while Keillor and one of the other entertainers were singing a silly song, he was waving a piece of paper in the air behind his back. A technician came out from stage-right, took the paper, scanned it briefly, then showed it around to the other performers on stage. While the song continued, chairs were moved, performers that had been settled on stage got up and left, others came in with their instruments and settled in.
Clearly the end of the show was being sculpted on-the-fly. Time constraints? A burst of inspiration on Keillor's part? A decision that the next scheduled bit sucked and he suddenly wanted it cut? Who the hell knows? The answer has been lost somewhere in the Annals of Radio.
Afterwards, we struggled a bit to find a restaurant with a free table big enough to accommodate all of us. The Broadway shows had already raised their 8:00 o'clock curtains so we figured it would be a cinch, but we'd neglected to take into account that it was Christmas-time in Times Square. Every joint was packed with holiday shoppers and sightseers. By the third restaurant we'd been seated, though, so a crisis was averted.
After our drinks had come, my friend Sandy held out an envelope toward me. I blinked at it, then looked up at her.
"We figured you could use it."
I took the envelope, opened it -- inside was an impressively expensive gift certificate to an "urban spa". Facials. Green Tea Acid Peels. Massage. Body Treatments.
I actually said (yes, I actually said it): "Thanks, you guys. I'm really... I'm really touched."
On account of I was, you see. Is why I said it.
We are such poor, fragile creatures. We so desperately need our prairie home companions, even when for some inexplicable reason we can't say so even to ourselves. It's taken me a great many years to see that simple truth about people. I'm grateful I've lived long enough to get a little less stupid.
And so that, for now, is the news from my particular Lake Woebegone, where all my griefs are probably about average, I guess, considering the normal course of human events. My losses are maybe a little more immediate at the moment, but it's not as if everybody else doesn't have their own out there in the wings, waiting impatiently to make their unwelcome appearance.
So my advice, if I may, is to keep your prairie home companions nearby. You are going to need them someday, possibly a lot more than you think you need them now.