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Gary Borders: Public radio legend Garrison Keillor's timing is impeccable

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When “A Prairie Home Companion” first went on the air, Richard Nixon was a month away from being run out of the Oval Office. “Annie’s Song” by John Denver topped the pop charts. The Ford Pinto and the Plymouth Valiant were the best-selling cars in America, and the median price of a home in America was $37,400. It was July 1974, and Garrison Keillor and his troupe took the stage for about a dozen people in the audience in Saint Paul, Minn.

Today, the show is heard by four million listeners each week on more than 600 public radio stations, as well as abroad. Under the heading, “Garrison Keillor sure owns a lot of words!” there is a list of registered trademarks and service marks. Fans of the show will recognize these:

·           Be well, do good work and keep in touch.

·           Catchup Advisory Board.

·           Lake Wobegon.

·           Powder Milk Biscuits.

·           Where the women are strong, the men are good looking and all of the children are above average.

At 72, Keillor is still working steadily. Recently, he brought “A Prairie Home Companion” to an appreciative audience in Goshen, Indiana. By the next night, he was on the stage of the Belcher Center at LeTourneau University in Longview, accompanied by his longtime pianist Rich Dworsky. Red River Radio sponsored his appearance.

Keillor is 6-feet-four inches tall, and carries the posture of a man used to ducking under doorways. He walked out onto the stage a few moments after Dworksy sat down at the grand piano. Keillor wore a dark suit, a bright red tie, and red canvas tennis shoes accented by red socks. His famously bushy eyebrows have turned white, but he still commands a stage. His only cue was a sheet of paper adhered to the floor of the stage at which he occasionally glanced. He paced around, sat on a stool, paced some more.

For nearly two hours, Keillor sang, told jokes, recited long passages of poetry, led the audience in a couple of hymns and delivered a long monologue on enduring the unpleasantness of a colonoscopy, assisted by a nurse who was a high school classmate. She then got to see a side of him that he did not expect to reveal. Having recently endured the same procedure, I could empathize. Judging from the age of the crowd, nearly everyone there could as well.

Keillor’s memory for songs, jokes and doggerel is amazing. Without cue cards, a teleprompter or anything but that sheet of paper on the floor he went nonstop. His delivery and sense of timing is matchless. Since my memory is so bad I often forget what I wrote about last week, I went online to find a few of the jokes he told

• One morning, the devil came to church

In a bust of smoke and flame.

He ran up and down the aisle.

He said “Beelzebub is my name.

I am evil incarnate,

The object of all your fears!”

The old man said, “You don’t scare me at all,

Been married to your sister for 48 years.”

• “Darling, you’ve always been with me.

On life’s long bumpy ride.

Through sickness, hair loss, bankruptcy,

You’ve been here by my side.

My heart attack and the house burning down.

That night the lightning struck.

And liver cancer — now suddenly,

I’m starting to think you’re bad luck.”

He concluded his performance by leading the audience in singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” prefacing it by saying, “I know I’m in Texas, but this is all one nation” to scattered applause. Regardless of one’s Southern roots or preferences, it is a lovely piece of Americana.

And it was a lovely evening as well.

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.
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