Keillor still busy as he nears 75, but contemplates retirement

“A Prairie Home Companion” creator and former host Garrison Keillor said he had not listened to the new show since his replacement took over.
“A Prairie Home Companion” creator and former host Garrison Keillor said he had not listened to the new show since his replacement took over. The Associated Press

Garrison Keillor is not spending his time in retirement baking Powdermilk Biscuits or drinking coffee down at the Chatterbox Cafe now that he’s hung up his microphone as host of his popular public radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.”

He turns 75 on Monday and boards a bus the next day for a 28-city “Prairie Home Love & Comedy Tour — 2017,” which he vows will be his last.

“I don’t think you should go out onstage after the age of 76,” Keillor told The Associated Press during a recent interview at his St. Paul office. “You don’t want to fall down out there and then all of these people, you know, there’s a sudden intake of breath. And men in white jackets come in from the wings and put an oxygen mask on you.”

“You don’t want that to happen. It’s too much entertainment for the dollar,” he adds. “An entertainer is supposed to go away and have a quiet dotage, and you know, lose your marbles in private and not do this out where people can see you.”

Keillor started his Saturday-evening radio variety show featuring tales of his fictional Minnesota hometown of Lake Wobegon in 1974. He went out with a final show at the Hollywood Bowl in July 2016 and turned the show over to mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile, who starts his second season as “Prairie Home” host on Oct. 7.

Keillor admits he misses being on the air and says he hasn’t listened to “Prairie Home” since Thile took over.

“I keep my distance because I was given tremendous freedom when I did the show and it took a while for me to even get a grasp of what was involved. Made a lot of mistakes in the course of all those years. So the new people really should be given the same freedom and allowed to make their own mistakes,” he said.

“I would miss it too much, I think. I really would feel a big loss, I think, if I listened to it,” he said. “I really have to turn my back. When the bishop steps down, the bishop is supposed to leave town. You’re not supposed to, you know, keep going back to the church.”

Wearing his signature red tennis shoes without socks and his gray hair freshly cut as he prepares to hit the road, Keillor talks about his projects, which include finishing a screenplay about Lake Wobegon. The plot involves a New York weatherman coming back to town for his father’s funeral. It’s based on a character from Keillor’s 1997 novel, “Wobegon Boy.”

Keillor hopes the movie will be filmed in Minnesota.

Humorist Calvin Trillin, who has appeared on “Prairie Home” about a half-dozen times, said the stories Keillor told in his weekly monologue, “The News From Lake Wobegon,” are timeless tales that anyone can identify with.

“I think he’s captured something there,” Trillin told the AP. “I always say Garrison, I think, is some sort of genius, and just what sort of genius is something we’re still working on.”

Keillor said he’s about 100,000 words into a memoir about growing up in Minnesota. He’s also started writing a weekly syndicated newspaper column. While Donald Trump has given the avowed Democrat some material — a recent column opened by referring to Trump as “a vulgar, unstable yo-yo with an attention-deficit problem,” the humorist said writing about the new president “keeps going along in the same road, and it gets wearisome. Because it doesn’t really add up to anything. It’s all distraction.”

Keillor has survived heart surgery, a minor stroke and seizures, and recently had surgery on his left eye for cataracts and glaucoma. A former chain-smoker, he gave up cigarettes and alcohol years ago, and muses about how modern medicine has given him a second chance.

“You have all of these miracles,” he said. “It’s an enormous luxury.”