Behind the Scenes at A Prairie Home Companion

We go backstage with the traveling radio roadshow at its 1999 appearance in Knoxville

The first to arrive is the truck driver, who brings the 48-foot trailer loaded with tons of electronic equipment and the facade of a Victorian-style house equipped with a porch and screens and curtains in the windows. For a day or so the trailer is parked out at the Ryder Rental lot while the driver, whose name is Russ Ringsak, drives his cab downtown to look around.

He has a gray goatee, the trucker's long-distance hobble, and the hooded eyes of a joke teller. Everything he hears reminds him of one you haven't heard. Many of them off-color, some of them funny. Here's one he heard at a truckstop: A trucker points to a Northwest Airlines passenger jet in the sky. "Every time I stop," he says, "that damn plane passes me."

Slowly, Ringsak backs the big truck into the Civic Auditorium's subterranean loading dock. He drives well for an architect, which, once upon a time, he was; the Minnesotan gave it up years ago to try out life on the open road. Somewhere along the way, he got a job with the nationally popular public-radio show A Prairie Home Companion.

When the show goes on the road, as it does eight or 10 times a year, Ringsak arrives first to deliver the trailer to the theater, and to reconnoiter–to give his boss, whose name is Garrison Keillor, a sense of the place.

Unlike Keillor, Ringsak has been to Knoxville before. He recalls sneaking into the tail end of a John Prine show at the Bijou a few years ago. But there's a lot he needs to find out before the Saturday show. He buys some local books, among them a copy of Cormac McCarthy's Suttree, and holes up in his room at the Hilton to read and type notes and eat some barbecue ribs. Ringsak and Keillor have been working together for over a decade. They don't always get along–Ringsak is a proud Jesse Ventura supporter, and the acrimony between Keillor and Ventura is famous.

Nobody else arrives until Friday morning, the day before the show. The 80-degree sun is boiling the morning rain off the pavement: humidity made visible. Even inside the auditorium, it's affecting the Sharp copier they use to reproduce scripts. It's not Minnesota weather, but Christine Tschida says they've seen worse–in Miami, Savannah, Houston. A businesslike woman with short hair who's pleasant if you're doing what she wants you to do. When Garrison Keillor's not on stage, and sometimes even when he is, she's the boss.

This morning they had a hard time understanding the accents and manners of the Civic Auditorium staff, but by afternoon, they're working together. They've set up a command station of four laptop computers in a line, Houston-style, at stage right, and are busily doing script work for this show and some paperwork for next weekend's show at Wolftrap. Meanwhile, the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band sets up on center stage and goes through a rendition of the old standard, "After You're Gone," with Andy Stein's violin evoking Stephan Grapelli in the '30s. Tschida walks out and says, "Do you want to try 'Sophisticated Lady?'" There's some grumbling, but Tschida insists.

One musician protests. "I thought you were giving us a choice, but no!"

"It's the Minnesota choice," explains Tschida.

Close to the stage is another table with another laptop where an earnest-looking young man works away, facing the band. As the band practices, he seems intent about something on his screen. Only when you peer over his shoulder do you discover the problem he's considering so intently is a computer chess game. The man's name is Jason Keillor; he's stage manager for his dad's famous show. Jason is about as tall as Garrison, and nearly as low key. He plays piano pretty well, but when Ringsak suggests he might one day take over his dad's show, he balks. His interest is mainly in the technical aspect of things, he says.

Maybe because they don't have to do this as often as many road shows, it's a friendlier, less pretentious group than many stage crews. You can't help noticing that backstage at A Prairie Home Companion, you do smell the onions–but today the aroma originates in a pile of paper-wrapped Schlotzsky's Deli sandwiches. Assistant Producer Mike Danforth's a skinny guy with wild curly hair that a director would cast as a teenaged genius. He doesn't have any clue who you are and what you're doing back here, but gestures at you with a half a sandwich. "Hungry?" he says. "It's good!"

They're staying at the Hilton; several of them will get out to a bar or some of the downtown restaurants that are open on weekends. But most of the PHC crew's experience of Knoxville is this windowless backstage where they can't even tell the storm is over. ("Is it sunny out now?" asks Tschida, which sounds to Southern ears, like "Is it sunny oat no?") Somehow they like these cinderblock walls plastered with 35 years' worth of show posters, curios, autographs, a mannequin in a police uniform. Among them is a poster for an auditorium performance of Vincent Price as Oscar Wilde. They say it's one of the weirdest backstages they've seen. "It's so over the top," Hanssen says, "it's wonderful."

There's plenty to keep them here; in just 24 hours, they'll put on a show that has to work visibly for a paying audience of 2,600–and work audibly for a national audience of about three million.

On The Town

Things are going wrong already. The three main actors, Tim Russell, Sue Scott, and Tom Keith, missed a connecting flight and are stuck in the Memphis airport. Today's supposed to be the day they run through the script at the Civic Auditorium to see what doesn't work. Instead, they're catching a cab to see Graceland.

A TV station and four or five newspaper reporters and photographers are the only audience for the musical rehearsals. Everyone wants to talk to Keillor, but PHC marketing director Tiffany Hanssen–tall, thin, gorgeous, with short, dark hair, she seems like an especially businesslike sprite–is discouraging about the possibility of that happening at all. He'll be busy right up to showtime, she says. She says the stage works well for the show. "It's larger than our stage at the Fitz," she says, referring to the Fitzgerald, the show's home base in St. Paul.

Led by pianist Rich Dworsky, the band cranks into a liberal version of Louis Armstrong's "Struttin' With Some Barbecue."

They've been practicing for a couple of hours when, around 5:30, quietly, from nowhere, appears Garrison Keillor himself. He walks gracefully and lightly, with a long stride that reminds you of Bob Hope's, and stands in front of the band, looking over some papers.

His look surprises you almost as much as it did the first time you ever saw a picture of him. A couple of inches past 6 feet tall, with a prominent cranium, a big jaw, caterpillar eyebrows, and a rubbery face that could have belonged to a woodland wizard imagined in a children's book, he's a guy you'd look at twice even if he weren't famous.

Over his button-down shirt he's wearing a thin, yellowish jacket-like garment, faded jeans that are a good inch too short, and leather sandals. His glasses are propped on his very short hair, which he hasn't bothered to comb today. Some of the musicians worry that Keillor has been cutting his own hair lately.

Listening to the music and looking at his papers, his face storms with strange expressions, either of displeasure or concentration. For a while his features come together into the middle of his face, as if pulled in by a drawstring. Then, looking at his paper alone, he raises his eyebrows and bares his teeth.

"I'm thinking of a Carter family medley," he says. "'Hello, Stranger,' 'Dixie Darling'–just the chorus–and 'Keep On the Sunny Side.'" He gives it a listen, squints again, and responds with a whole list of precise suggestions having to do with order and key and instrumentation.

His mind is on the music and nothing else. The crew calls him "GK." A staff member warns you that he doesn't always return casual greetings, even from longtime friends. They say Keillor's preoccupations are off-putting only to those who don't know him well.

"Maybe that 'Wildwood Flower,' going out of it," he says. Slowly he seems to relax, first stomping his left foot to the music, then singing in his distinctive voice, dancing around a little. They run through it again. "It's getting a little worse," he says, and the musicians laugh. "I taped what's been done already," says a technician. "Destroy that tape," says GK.

They run through a new version of the novelty song "Tomatoes," which rhymes, from Knoxville to Memphis / Please let me emphas- /ize... Then he swings into a version of "One Night With You," the Elvis tune he seems to like. He smiles and even laughs, a different personality from the guy who walked in.

After the rehearsal, he makes an exception for a local media personality, Colvin Idol, who wants to interview him for public TV. Keillor seems fascinated with his name. "Idol?" he says. "As in those things we're commanded to stay away from?"

They sit in the theater and Keillor tells Idol that Knoxville makes him think of the cities he saw in children's picture books, with the green hills and steeples and the river running through it.

About an hour later he and the crew materialize at the brewpub on Gay Street, sitting at a big table in the most public part of the restaurant. Keillor somehow arrives unnoticed and, with his back to the crowd, goes unrecognized. It's a round table, but Keillor somehow forms the head of it. His guests are deferential. Several of them are Knicks fans, watching the championship game on the television above Keillor's head. Keillor doesn't pretend to be a fan, and when he talks, he has their full attention. His conversation is easy but minimal, made up more of one-line asides than stories. The presidential race comes up, and he speculates that Al Gore might stand a better chance if he spiced up his image with some earrings, "one per lobe," he says, "and a ponytail–just a small one." It's a joke that will somehow make it into the Guy Noir script the following night.

They have a leisurely meal, with dessert: banana pie and ice cream and a hot fudge sundae, passed around the table so everyone can take a bite. They say it's a tradition. For well over an hour they've been sitting together, chatting about music and movies and politics, indulging Ringsak's jokes. Keillor picks up the tab, says an abrupt goodnight and instantly he's up and gone out the front door, alone, with his producer trotting behind him.

On The Air

Saturday afternoon the crew is onstage again, a little tenser than the night before. Channel 8 shows up, attempts to set up their TV cameras right on stage, and can't remember the name of the guy they're supposed to interview. "Garrison somebody," they tell Hanssen. They don't get the interview.

Associate Producer Stevie Beck's here. This middle-aged Jewish daughter of Russian immigrants doesn't necessarily look like a country-music fan, but she loves the stuff and talks old-time music knowledgeably. She grew up in Texas, but whatever accent she might have had yielded to Minnesotan long ago. She lines up all the acts for Prairie Home Companion. She signed local favorites the Lantana Drifters and 99-year-old fiddler Bob Douglas, plus Nashville-based mandolinist Sam Bush.

They're all here, too, and make it through a full sound check. The skit performers—Tom Keith, the sound-effects wizard, and actors Tim Russell and Sue Scott—are onstage for the first time, with the scripts that Keillor has written by himself. These aren't committee-written scripts, like most sitcoms are. You might not know it reading the program, on which Keillor's listed only as "Executive Producer," or by listening to the credits, which list a series of phony names as the writers, but Keillor writes all of the skits, and usually by himself. His best line today may be in the Guy Noir script, where the detective asks a young beauty, "Where have you been all my life, gorgeous?" and she responds, "Well, for the first half of it, I wasn't born." Even in rehearsal, it brings guffaws.

It's after 4, and things are going well, considering. Then Keillor decides he wants to add something not contemplated in the program–an excerpt from James Agee's "Knoxville: Summer 1915." There may be 20,000 copies of the piece in Knoxville, but none of them are right here. The library's not open, and there's not a bookstore downtown. WUOT representatives attempt to locate a copy of Samuel Barber's libretto for his famous Agee-based composition back at UT. At length a friend turns up a battered paperback copy of A Death in the Family from a downtown office, and Tiffany Hanssen proceeds to type the entire passage, over 2,000 words. As showtime looms, and most of the cast, crew, and special guests dine on a buffet behind the stage, Hanssen and Danforth proofread her work aloud.

The actors are practicing their lines to the weird backstage walls. Assistant stage manager Alan Frechtman is pacing around with a walkie-talkie, worried about a dozen things. Danforth calls him Kvetchman, to which Frechtman replies by calling him Danfart. On the quieter side of the stage, the engineers prepare to launch the show to the world via satellite. The signal goes to St. Paul on telephone lines; it doesn't leave the atmosphere until it hits their satellite dish there. GK's here, but doesn't chat casually except with the musicians. Backstage he hardly makes eye contact. His staff speculates about whether he wants this or that in the script. He's right there, and they've known him for years, but they're reluctant to bug him with details at this point.

The audience, some of whom have been waiting outside in a rainstorm, begins to arrive. Dedications come in from the audience, and Ringsak's main job is to cull through them. "I look for laugh lines, for stuff that will bounce around the country," he says. He rejects anything with "cute lover names," anything that smacks of bragging about expensive vacations or possessions–"and if anybody even mentions a pet, I'll throw it out!"

Ringsak slinks out of Keillor's dressing room smirking. He has placed a gaudy Women's Basketball Hall of Fame souvenir basketball on Keillor's dresser. He figures Keillor will find a joke in it. As showtime looms, Keillor goes into his dressing room, where he brushes his hair, dons a red tie to go with his dark suit, and replaces his Birkenstocks with soft Italian black shoes. He walks out without the basketball, apparently without having noticed it. Two hours later, the basketball is still there.

The show starts with a 15-minute audience warm-up, in which Keillor, seemingly unaffected by the chaos around him, leads the crowd in a chorus of "America the Beautiful." The show's not nearly as set–or as ready–as the audience may assume.

While Keillor sings, Tschida and Hanssen are madly running the printer and copier in the wing, preparing the latest scripts for everybody. Some of their work's in vain, as it always is. Some pieces, like the new "Tomatoes" song the band had repeatedly rehearsed, won't get in; Keillor decides, apparently during the show, that he doesn't like the rhymes. A "wild card" Bertha's Kitty Boutique skit about an unfortunate cat named Meow Tse-Tung didn't make it in, either. Everybody has a sheet called "RUNDOWN- Knoxville 6/26/99," and it's marked FINAL, but it turns out to be only a suggestion.

A Prairie Home Companion is a seat-of-the-pants thing. After the show's underway, Keillor decides not to make 99-year-old fiddler Bob Douglas follow Guy Noir–to segue Douglas's performance with the Carter family medley, which had been pegged for the second half, instead. That does the job, though it leaves a four-minute hole in the second half. But the surprises of the first half aren't over yet.

A Sam Bush song Keillor had introduced with a Civil War story turns out not to be about the Civil War at all, but an extra song that wasn't on the Rundown at all. "We got our freightcars switched," Keillor says later, on the air. The crew thinks Bush has decided to add the song on his own, but Bush later says he'd been told to save the old Amazing Rhythm Aces Civil War piece for later.

It's turning out to be the wildest show of the year. Late in the first half, Jason Keillor mutters, "the rundown's out the window–we're improvising from here on out!" There's no obvious resentment among the crew, who seem to enjoy the thrill of it.

The show, after all, exists mainly in the capacious head of Jason Keillor's dad, and GK exhibits no nervousness at all. His calm in the middle of this storm seems to keep it all together as nothing else could. The crew's here to help broadcast the show live to three million people, but GK's the writer of all the skits, the principal performer, the band's conductor, and the whole crew's boss. Some of the show, especially the longest piece, the 20-minute monologue, has never been heard for approval or comment by anybody until everybody from Nova Scotia to Hawaii hears it on a million radios.

Ringsak has never heard any part of this show; nobody's really sure where he is in the daytime, but he never comes to rehearsals. All the skits and songs and monologues are new to him. From the wings, this man who's been carrying the show around in his truck for more than a decade beams as broadly as any newcomer in the audience. During the Ellen skit about a lost hippie love, that's somehow both poignant and ridiculous, Ringsak grins and shakes his head. "The guy's a damn genius, ain't he?" he says.

© 1999 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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