For 40 years, Garrison Keillor has broadcast his trademark stories on the Prairie Home Companion radio show. The storyteller will perform at the Eccles
For 40 years, Garrison Keillor has broadcast his trademark stories on the Prairie Home Companion radio show. The storyteller will perform at the Eccles Center on April 3. (Photo by Velenchenko)
When Garrison Keillor kicked off his trademark radio show A Prairie Home Companion on July 6, 1974, at the Janet Wallace Auditorium in Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., little did he know he would still be airing new broadcasts 40 years later.

"I didn't intend to keep doing it this long," Keillor told The Park Record during a telephone interview from his office in Minnesota. "My ambition, going way back to when I was in high school, was to be a brilliant and disturbed creative artist — a poet, probably — and to die young so I would become immortal.

"I wanted to be like Buddy Holly," Keillor said. "He crashed in his plane when I was in high school and that made a big impression on me. It also made a big impression on the cornfield where he landed, but we worshiped him after that and in some way still do."

After four decades, many people have come to worship Keillor, who will appear at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, April 3, but, if truth were known, the storyteller never thought he had the chops to earn that right.

"An early death was my idea, because I wasn't sure I was talented enough to be a genius like Buddy Holly," Keillor said. "I couldn't see it myself, but others thought I was [a genius] because I was quiet and didn't make eye contact.

"Nowadays they would say high-functioning end of the autism spectrum," he said. "But in any case, I got to the age of 32, which was too old to die young, and started this radio show."

The show was something Keillor felt he needed to do because at that time he had a wife and a small child. The catch, however, was to be cheerful during the broadcast.

"I made a living out of things just by being cheerful, even though half the time I don't feel like it," Keillor said. "I found you can create an imaginary person and gradually over the years become."

Keillor has been putting some ideas together for the Park City appearance, which he said will not consist of the same things he has done when he's performed at Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City in the past.

Pianist Richard Dworsky will accompany iconic radio host Garrison Keillor when he performs in Park City next week. (Photo courtesy of Prairie Home
Pianist Richard Dworsky will accompany iconic radio host Garrison Keillor when he performs in Park City next week. (Photo courtesy of Prairie Home Companion)

"It's very different," he promised. "Red Butte was outdoors and people sat in the rain, as I recall. They had on all these beautifully colored ponchos and tarps, so it was really a colorful audience. There is no chance of that in the Eccles Performing Arts Center."

Keillor will bring his pianist Richard Dworsky to add some highlights to his stories.

"There will be a little music and I'll probably sing a few sonnets and I'll probably do some songs I wrote with Chopin," Keillor said. "Um. He wasn't aware of it, but I picked up a theme of one of his etudes."

There will also be some other stories where Dworsky will show his knack for improvising and underscoring.

"Richard's very good at that," Keillor said. "I may tell a guide-noir, private-eye story, and maybe something about Lefty the Cowboy, whom I play on the radio."

Keillor will also give the audience some advice.

"I am 71 and on the way to 72, and I think it behooves a person of this age to dispense wisdom," he said. "You ought to know something by the time you get to this age. You shouldn't be as confused as you were in, say, your 40s and 50s.

"It probably won't take long — I don't know, six or seven minutes — and it will be some things that I've learned in my life," Keillor said. "Things like tall people cannot count on short people to take care of things that we might bump our heads on. We have to do this ourselves. And we shouldn't make fun of crazy people, because we may be one of them, and the same goes for Democrats."

Keillor also wants to talk about his experiences growing up fundamentalist.

"I want to talk about this very happy childhood of mine, which I didn't know was happy while I was living it," he said. "It was a very strict fundamentalist sect I grew up in, but it was made up of very kind people. They thought they were supposed to be judgmental, but they couldn't do it to people who they knew and loved.

"So they were judgmental in the abstract, but in real life they were gentle and generous," Keillor pointed out. "So they lead contradictory lives, which I think is a beautiful thing."

That still fascinates Keillor to this day.

"To be consistent seems to be violent in some way, but to have strong beliefs and then violate them yourself, seems to be brave," he said. "I know it doesn't sound right, but I would like to push this thesis on people."

Keillor may also talk about his parents.

"They were children of the depression and because they grew up in troubled times, they believed in cheerfulness and didn't complain," he said. "The reason is that everyone had problems. Everyone was short on money and everyone was forced to economize and make due. They did and did it cheerfully.

"I admire my parents, looking back," Keillor said. "I did fight them hard at that time, but I realize that in doing A Prairie Home Companion that I have adopted their philosophy of cheerfulness. That's what this radio show is all about."

In May, Keillor will publish "Keillor Reader," a collection of stories and essays that he has written throughout his career.

"The publisher wanted to do a retrospective and I resisted because I'm not done, yet," he said. "They asked if not this then what? I couldn't come up with the 'then what,' so I conceded.

"I still don't know how I feel about it," Keillor said. "It's going to be issued May 3. I should really take a look at it before it comes out."

While "Keillor Reader" really isn't a memoir, it does feature some memoir-like essays. "I've also written some head notes that are kind of 'memoiristic' for each section of the book," he said. "But I do think I have a little memoir that is still up ahead of me."

The Park City Institute will present Garrison Keillor at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., on Thursday, April 3, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $69 and available by calling 435-655-3114 or by visiting www.ecclescenter.org.