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Lake Wobegon Fans Lose Saturday Night Visits From Garrison Keillor

June 11, 1987

Undated (AP) _ Garrison Keillor is abandoning Lake Wobegon, ″the tiny town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve,″ leaving about 4 million people homeless after Saturday night.

″A Prairie Home Companion″ ends at the peak of its popularity. For a confessed shy person, who in recent years has been on the cover of Time, at the top of the best-seller list and courted by Hollywood producers, it had become far too popular.

″In order for you to gather this material and to have some sense of the life of this imaginary town, you have to be an ordinary person,″ the 44-year- old humorist told reporters in March, a month after he surprised his audience and the American Public Radio network by announcing his retirement.

″You have to have some semblance of anonymity, and I don’t have that anymore in St. Paul. And so I really can’t do the show here except as a caricature of itself. And I really don’t think I could do it elsewhere, so I choose to step out.″

″A Prairie Home Companion″ ends with two performances - a $150 a ticket benefit for the World Theater in St. Paul on Friday night and the regular show Saturday night - finishing a 13-year run on radio and 13 weeks on cable television’s Disney Channel.

There will be reruns of ″A Prairie Home Companion,″ but no more new tales from the Chatterbox Cafe, the Sidetrack Tap or the rectory of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility; no more secrets from the marriages of the Krebsbachs and the Bunsens or the aging, love-struck Senator K. Thorvaldson.

There will be no new jokes about Lutherans or Catholics or Norwegians, and none of them thinks it’s a cause for relief.

″We will miss him very, very much, because of this love for people he conveys, for us and well as for everyone else,″ said Liv Lyons, fraternal director for the Minneapolis-based Sons of Norway.

″Pastor Ingqvist was probably better known to Lutherans than the pastor of their own church,″ said the Rev. Bill Bockelman of Minneapolis, recently retired from the national office of the old American Lutheran Church.

Other writers have found humor in religion, ″but nobody does it better than this guy,″ said the Rev. Tom Garvey of St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church in St. Paul.

″But I like above all his gentle enjoying of people’s lives, and the way we deal with our dilemmas,″ Garvey said. ″I don’t think a person, after listening to Keillor, needs to be ashamed of human fraility anymore.″

Keillor’s characters were nourished on tuna hotdish and bound together by forbearance, forgiveness and the certainty that - in a town of 942 people - there was no place to hide.

″I suppose everybody’s home town is a little like Lake Wobegon, that’s why we like it so much,″ said Ms. Lyons.

But Lake Wobegon wasn’t like where most listeners lived. The big audiences were in the big cities, and so was Keillor. Though he grew up in Anoka, a town of 15,000 north of Minneapolis, he made his home in St. Paul.

Lake Wobegon people stayed put. There was a touch of smugness in a town where ″all the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the children are above average.″

People in Lake Wobegon didn’t write for The Atlantic and The New Yorker, didn’t marry an old high school sweetheart after a whirlwind romance and didn’t quit their jobs to move to Denmark. Keillor did all that. He abruptly ended a long relationship in 1985 to marry Ulla Skaerved, who had been a Danish exchange student in Anoka.

Among the few big farewell parties planned were a bash in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday night and a Prairie Home Social on the campus of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles that included a mock-up of Lake Wobegon on the athletic field.

″It’s not a wake, no,″ said Fiona Ritchie of WFAE-FM in Charlotte. ″It’s been a private thing for a lot of people, listening in their living room or their cars. This gives people a chance to celebrate with each other and show off how much they enjoy it.″

Ms. Ritchie is host of ″The Thistle & Shamrock,″ a program of Irish and Scottish music that follows ″A Prairie Home Companion″ on many public radio stations. She agreed to yield air time if Keillor’s farewell ran long.

KUSC-FM’s party lineup in Los Angeles includes the Butch Thompson trio, fiddler Johnny Gimble and dulcimer player Claudia Schmidt, all regulars from the radio show.

For $25 to $75 each, at least 2,000 people had signed up for the party, which included all they could eat.

″We had a long argument about whether we’d serve Jell-O with little marshmallows,″ said Susan Taylor, information director for KUSC. ″This being Los Angeles, we decided to serve ice cream.″

Long before the party, she added, the station could feel how some fans would miss the show.

″Every single ticket order is a personal conversation,″ she said. ″They tell us why they will miss Garrison Keillor and why they are looking forward to this event, so we have had 2,000 intimate conversations.″

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