Out of the Axeman’s Reach

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Like many real life stories that are writ large on the big screen, the radio show “Prairie Home Companion” has a decidedly plainer face than the one portraying it on screen. But though it may be less glamorous, the future of Garrison Keillor’s show is far more secure than the version petering out in the film that opens nationwide today.

Part of what makes the real show so successful is its spare production values. The set, in the film and the weekly radio program, is essentially a modest house on a stage, with some microphones and podiums out in front of the porch. In the film, Mr. Keillor’s podium is solid wood; in reality it’s a metal music stand. No one on the celluloid stage wears headphones, the better to see Meryl Streep’s bouffant and Lindsay Lohan’s sleek blonde locks. The make-up artist played by Sue Scott – an oft-used cast member in the actual radio show – is another invention; the real show has no makeup artist, and why would it? On screen, Guy Noir has an office. The Old Trailhands have cowboy hats. Virginia Madsen has … well, the very fact that Virginia Madsen is around means this is no radio show.

Public radio and television may be constantly in jeopardy of losing federal funding – a House subcommittee voted Wednesday to cut $115 million from the public broadcasting budget – but “Prairie Home Companion” doesn’t have the same financial woes as many others in public radio. The show is paid for in large part by public radio affiliates who pay to broadcast the program. It is distributed by American Public Media to more than 500 stations throughout the country; the show airs twice a week on New York’s public radio station, WNYC. Other funding comes from corporate underwriting and ticket revenue from touring, where tickets sell for as much as $60.

In fact, “Prairie” is powerful enough to have actually rescued its own theater, where much of the film was shot. Then called the World Theater, the Saint Paul, Minn., building would have been demolished had not Mr. Keillor moved the program there in 1978. The show now tapes about a third of its programs in front of an audience at the renamed Fitzgerald Theater. It even owes its new name to Mr. Keillor, who led a movement in 1994 to rename the theater in honor of the 100th anniversary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birth.

The closing of “Prairie” on film, the incident on which the plot hinges, is prompted by a Texas company that decides to tear down its home theater. In real life, the show’s two years of dead air were dictated not by the Southern Baptist types who run the conglomerate in the film, but by a Lutheran: Mr. Keillor himself, who bowed out in 1987, saying, “The decision to close is mine – the sort of simple, painful decision that our parents taught us to make cheerfully. It is simply time to go.” But he returned in 1989, moving the show first to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then back to Minnesota.

Today, “Prairie” is hardly at the mercy of the real estate market, but it’s still a renter. The radio cast uses small dressing rooms in the basement of the Fitzgerald, and as others use the theater in their absence, they don’t leave any items behind. On Saturday, the Mrs. Minnesota-Wisconsin-Iowa pageant will be held there. If only Mr. Altman had kept his cameras around just a little longer.

The New York Sun

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