Despite being born into a Christian fundamentalist sect that looked down its nose on entertainment, satirical author and radio host Garrison Keillor developed into one of America's most beloved and misunderstood comic forces. His folksy, tongue-in-cheek demeanor barely masked a biting comic undertone, making him at once identifiable to regular Midwestern folks and a scourge to those his humor hit hardest - namely, conservative Republicans. Keillor was best known for his long-running radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," a Saturday evening program that featured an unusual array of sketches, p ms, live music and a 20-minute monologue with news from the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, a place "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." Thanks to his show, Keillor became a best-selling author, regular columnist and essayist for large newspapers and magazines. He was even given the opportunity by director Robert Altman to star in a film version of the radio show, starring some of Hollywood's most respected actors. Not bad for a Midwestern boy who grew up without so much as a television.
Keillor was born in Anoka, MN into the Plymouth Brethren, an evangelical Christian sect that practiced a strict code of theological morality that excluded any and all forms of entertainment. Nonetheless, Keillor grew up with the desire to become a writer. His upbringing - despite being cloistered - was a happy one, though he eventually left the sect when he was young. He attended Anoka High School from 1957-60, before moving on to the University of Minnesota in 1960. He dropped out in 1962 in order to work for a local newspaper, but he maintained ties to the university by working at their radio station. In 1965, he met and married Mary Guntzel, with whom he had his first child, Jason, only to be divorced later in 1976. Meanwhile, Keillor harbored ambitions to both write and perform on radio, so after finally leaving the University of Minnesota after eight years - he was on the verge of leaving whether he wanted to or not - he became a disc jockey for a classical music station. It was during this last stint that Keillor first developed his folksy stories about the town of Lake Wobegon.
His ambition to be a professional writer was fulfilled in 1970 when he published the first of his many stories in The New Yorker, this one called "Local Family Keeps Son Happy," a comic piece about a quiet 16-year-old boy whose parents bring home a prostitute in order so he can overcome his shyness. As the magazine published more of Keillor's stories, he was able to earn a decent living, giving him the option of quitting radio - which he did in 1973. But while on assignment for The New Yorker at the Grand Ole Opry, Keillor was inspired to put together his own radio show. In 1974, he began live broadcasts of "A Prairie Home Companion" from the Janet Wallace Auditorium at Macalester College in St. Paul, fulfilling another life-long ambition. After a few years, the show moved to its permanent location at The World Theater-later renovated and renamed the Fitzgerald Theater. Meanwhile, Minnesota Public Radio began distributing the show nationally in 1980. A couple of years later, he published his first collection of Lake Wobegon stories, Happy to Be Here, which became an instant best-seller.
After 13 years of doing "A Prairie Home Companion," Keillor decided he had had enough and closed shop on June 13, 1987. Reports cited a series of privacy disputes, with the local press being a prime factor. Also motivating Keillor was his second wife, Ulla Skaerved, an exchange student from Denmark whom he met in the early 1960s and reconnected with at a reunion years later. They married in 1985 and moved to Denmark in 1987 after Keillor left his show. That same year, he published another series of Lake Wobegon stories, Leaving Home. His stint in Copenhagen didn't last long, however - Keillor and his wife moved back the United States, taking up residence in New York City where he returned to radio with "The American Radio Company of the Air" (renamed "Garrison Keillor's American Radio Company" during its second season) which broadcasted from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Keillor released two more books as the 1980s closed and next decade began: another Wobegon collection called We Are Still Married and his first crack at fiction, WLT: A Radio Romance.
Keillor churned out more non-fiction and fiction novels as the years piled on. In 1988, he won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word of a Non-Musical Album for a recorded version of his 1985 collection, Lake Wobegon Days. Meanwhile, he resigned from The New Yorker in 1992 due to the hiring of Tina Brown as editor, a person whose celebrity-style journalism Keillor thought would hurt the intellectual tradition of the magazine. That same year, Keillor brought his radio program back to Minnesota and rechristened it "A Prairie Home Companion" in 1993 - a move propelled by his divorce from Skaerved. He later married violinist Jenny Lind Nilsson, with whom he wrote the children's book, The Sandy Bottom Orchestra in 1996. More novels followed, including Wobegon Boy in 1997, Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 in 2001, Love Me in 2003, Homegrown Democrat in 2004 and Good P ms for Hard Times in 2005.
Throughout his career, Keillor held onto the ambition of someday conquering dramatic writing, even though he admitted to being no good at it. Nonetheless, he approached director Robert Altman with the idea of making a movie based on the characters of Lake Wobegon. Altman and his wife Katherine, a long-time Keillor fan, saw a live taping of the radio show and decided to make a movie about the drama both backstage and onstage instead. The result was "A Prairie Home Companion" (2006), starring a slew of old and new Altman stable actors, including Lilly Tomlin, Meryl Streep, John C. Reilly, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen and Keillor, as well, himself. Though lacking much of a plot - typical for an Altman film - "A Prairie Home Companion" depicted the long-running variety program as coming to an end, with fans filing into the Fitzgerald Theater not knowing the WLT radio station had been sold to a Texas conglomerate and the show they've come to see to would be the last. Backstage, cast and crew scramble for one last hurrah, including a county fair country duet, a singer who finally gets her big break only to forget the words to her own song, and a private eye down on his luck who works as a backstage doorkeeper. The real-life radio show, however, remained alive and well, attracting over 4 million listeners nationwide.
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Published his first <i>New Yorker</i> short story, "Local Family Keeps Son Happy"
Became inspired to create "A Prairie Home Companion" while on assignment for <i>The New Yorker</i> at the Grand Ole Opry
Began live broadcasts of "A Prairie Home Companion" from the Janet Wallace Auditorium at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota
"A Prairie Home Companion" moved to The World Theater
Minnesota Public Radio began distributing "A Prairie Home Companion" locally
Published his best-selling first collection of Lake Wobegon stories, <i>Happy to Be Here</i>
Published a second collection, <i>Lake Wobegon Days</i>
Closed up shop on "A Prairie Home Companion"
Published another series of Lake Wobegon stories, <i>Leaving Home</i>
After two years in Denmark, returned to the United States, taking up residence in New York City and returning to radio with "The American Radio Company of the Air"
Released another short story collection, <i>We Are Still Married</i>
Took his first stab at fiction with <i>WLT: A Radio Romance</i>
Resigned from <i>The New Yorker</i> due to his disagreeing over the hiring of the magazine's new editor, Tina Brown
Brought "A Prairie Home Companion" back to the air following his divorce from Ulla Skaerved; also began hosting "The Writer's Almanac" for American Public Media
Wrote the children's book <i>The Sandy Bottom Orchestra</i> with second wife, Jenny Lind Nilsson
Published <i>Wobegon Boy</i>
Published the short story collection <i>Lake Wobegon Summer 1956</i>
Had a prolific period of creative output with the books <i>Love Me</i> (2003), <i>Homegrown Democrat</i> (2004), and <i>Good Poems for Hard Times</i> (2005)
Teamed up with director Robert Altman for a film adaptation of "A Prairie Home Companion," which starred Lilly Tomlin, Meryl Streep, John C. Reilly, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, and Keillor as himself
In November, Keillor was fired from Minnesota Public Radio following allegations of sexual misconduct with a co-worker. The station also ceased distribution of "A Prairie Home Companion" and "The Writer's Almanac"