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Lake Woebegon: the little town that time forgot; where women are strong, the men good-looking, and the children above average.


Lake Wobegon--a mythical small town, set in the Minnesota prairie heartlands, that millions of otherwise practical-minded Americans believe to be absolutely real. Saturday evenings, as dinner is cooking in the kitchens, these believers--listeners served by the 260-station American Public Radio network (including Hawaii and Alaska)--huddle by their radios to hear the latest news from Lake Wobegon on "A Prairie Home Companion."

After the broadcast, they might devote the evening to reading Lake Wobegon Days (Viking Penguin, 1985), the No. 1-best-selling chronicle of the town's history that was, along with its author, Garrison Keillor, the subject of a Time cover story.

As in the case of Paul Bunyan, Minnesota's previous mythical export (Mary Tyler Moore aside), Lake Wobegon and its residents have taken on life by the sheer fct of their vivid place in our imaginations--quite an accomplishment for a community that, as Lake Wobegon Days tells it, had a less-than-auspicious beginning:

". . .Lake Wobegon is mostly poor sandy soil, and every spring the earth heaves up a new crop of rocks. Piles of rock ten feet high in the corners of fields, picked by generations of us, monuments to our industry. Our ancestors chose the place, tired from their long journey, sad for having left the motherland behind, and this place reminded them of there, so they settled here, forgetting that they had left there because the land wasn't so good. So the new life turned out to be a lot like the old, except the winters are worse."

Lake Wobegon is, as that excerpt underscores, not a Shangri-La. Its populace, largely Norwegian Lutherans (led by Pastor Ingqvist of Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church) and German Catholics (tended by Father Emil of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Church), are of hearty, seemingly serious stock. Life is a thrifty business for them.

And yet they have a simplicity and warmth, not to mention an unpredictable wayward streak. How else could The Sidetrack Tap ("the dim little tavern on Main Street where it's safe to be foolish") and the Fearmonger's Shoppe ("serving all your phobia needs since 1954--when it comes to safety, don't expect to save money") both be doing such roaring business?

At times, Keillor's Lake Wobegon resembles the Russian village of Chelm--the setting of Fiddler on the roof--where fools, peddlers, and rabbis continued the eternal debate over the nature of God while their wives complained, their children played, and their roofs leaked. Lake Wobegons--similarly isolated, similarly filled with faith--surmount the difficulties (often hilariously self-created) of their lives through an awkward, endearing loyalty to the values of their ancestors: honesty, industry, church. In so doing, they have escaped from the world of "literature" or "entertainment" to become familiar figures--friends--presented on a live (not a pretaped) radio program.

Keillor, the creator of the Lake Wobegon world, addressed the issue of the reality of Lake Wobegon in a recent piece entitled "Eleven Questions Most Often Asked About 'A Prairie Home Companion,' and Eleven Answers Not Given Previously":

"No, there is no town in Minnesota named Lake Wobegon that I could show you; at least I'm not aware of one. But I would also have a hard time showing you the Ninth Federal Reserve District, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, the Big Ten, or the upper middle class. Most people deal very comfortably with abstractions much more far-fetched than Lake Wobegon--the Moral Majority, secular humanists, Hollywood, etc.

"Compared to any of those, Lake Wobegon is as real as my hands on this typewriter and sometimes more real than flat. I once dreamed that I drove over a hill in central Minnesota and found it [Lake Wobegon]. In the dream, they weren't particularly happy to see me, but they managed to be fairly polite. I was invited to someone's house for supper, and then I woke up."

The dream of finding Lake Wobegon, due to the success of both the radio show and the book, has become a nationwide obsession and haven. Keillor had longed to create a live radio show since doing a piece for the New Yorker on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. The first live "A Prairie Home Companion" broadcast--aired solely to a Minnesota audience--took place in a small college auditorium on July 6, 1974. There was an audience of 12 in the 400-seat hall, and the total gate ($1 for adults, 50[ for children) was less than $8. By 1980, the first nationwide American Public Radio broadcasts were carried by only 30 stations.

Since then, nearly everyone has been to Lake Wobegon at least once. Each week, 4 million or more listeners spend two hours in "the little town that time forgot, that decades cannot improve, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." The demographics of "Home Companion" regulars comprise an ad executive's heaven: young and old, male and female, urban and rural, yuppie and counterculture--not to mention the legion of "shy" people of all persuasions for whom Keillor is an inspiration to come out of their shells.

Families come together to listen: If they live in separate cities, they call each other after the shows to talk about the latest gossip overhead at the Chatterbox Cafe, "where the coffeepot is always on, which is why it tastes that way." In small Midwest towns you can see farmers in official Lake Wobegon "Whippets" baseball caps. Chic apartments in New York's SoHo district are adorned by posters celebrating Keillor and Powdermilk Biscuits--"biscuit mix in the big blue box or biscuits already baked in the big brown bag with the dark stains that indicate freshness. Heavens, they're tasty and expeditious]"

Although "Home Companion" is not regularly broadcast outside the United States with the exception of a weekly airing in Australia (there have been limited airings--to enthusiastic response--in Sweden), the show's weekly fan-mail bag of 1,000 letters (not including the extra hundred straightforward ticket requests) confirms that its listenership is distinctly international. Cassettes of the show--both those produced for sale by Minnesota Public Radio and those bootlegged by home-taping listeners--pass hands throughout the world. Consider this recent letter from a Lutheran missionary in Madagascar (who had not had "home leave" for three years):

"Your program is immensely popular with ALC [American Lutheran Church] missionaries over here, and I think you should know that. Missing America does play a large part in our lives, and your blend of nostalgia and humor is very therapeutic. Relatives no longer wonder about what to get missionaries for Christmas; they simply tape a bunch of 'Home Companion' shows. . . It used to be that when a person from our headquarters in Minneapolis would make a trip out here, he would be filled with requests to carry medicines. Now he carries 'PHC' tapes] (Which, for us, are a kind of medicine.)"

A young American girl, homesick in December during her year abroad for studies in France, met a Frenchman who had spent time in the States and had brought back cassettes of the show upon his return. In her letter to Keillor she wrote: "I listened to your telling of the Christmas Story, and I laughed a good bit and cried some, too. . . So thank you for my Christmas present: You gave it completely and unselfishly, to as many people as you could, not needing any thanks. And if that's not what Christmas is all about, I don't what is."

Although those closely involved in the production of "Home Companion" are grateful for the intensive listener response, they can only guess at which qualities of the program make it so successful. Lynne Cruise, the director of the show, works with Keillor and the musical performers in setting the structure for each episode; she also oversees all technical arrangements. After a number of years with "Home Companion," surely she should know just what makes great radio.

She laughs at the statement. "We're still working on an answer to that. If we ever did get it right, we'd probably quit. But radio is a remarkable medium. It communicates directly to listeners--you're with them--as opposed to video, in which you are an onlooker staring at a screen.

"The hardest part of the technical aspect of the broadcast is to achieve a quality that will make the persons at home full participants. When that happens, they do have a visual component to the show--they're imagining as we go along, and everyone imagines differently, which makes it very personal. Videos provide the visual component," she says.

Cruise emphasizes that both the live and the audio audiences play an important part in creating the mood and the feel of "Home Companion" broadcasts. "We have entirely separate audio mixes for the at-home and the in-house audiences," she says. "The person at home is in a small room, an entirely different environment and feeling. We use a technique called 'panned mono' to create a three-dimensional sound-at a seemingly genuine distance from a performance stage--with depth, like the live audience hears."

Ilene Zatal, a volunteer staff member who has been with the show for more than five years, has as her special assignment the handling of the voluminous listener mail. Zatal, who makes her living as a consultant to hospice programs, takes great pleasure in fashioning personal written responses to the hundreds of letters Keillor himself cannot review.

"At times it can be emotionally overwhelming that listeners, complete strangers before they write, can produce letters that share so much, with so much warmth and caring," Zatal says. "Their egos are usually not heavily involved. They don't write to tel us how they could do the show better. They're giving a piece of themselves. That's what opening the letters is like--discovering pieces of lives.

"Every kind of person writes. I'm surprised at the number of handwritten letters from men--they haven't been dictated to a corporate secretary. For many people, the show seems to remind them of a childhood they may not have had but would have liked to have had. Garrison is always emphasizing that the primary thrust of the show is not nostalgic--to take you back there--but it does, regardless.

"People often write to say how a show reminds them of some important moral lesson they once learned--by applying it and saving the day in a difficult situation. A number of people wrote to describe instances when they turned away from something because it didn't just affect themselveS, but others as well."

The home base for "A Prairie Home Companion" is the recently renovated World Theater in downtown Saint Paul. A one-time movie palace in the '30s, the World had fallen--before its occupancy by Keillor and crew--onto hard times as an inner-city derelict, abandoned by audiences preferring suburban cinema outlets. (Keillor headlined a live broadcast marking the reopening of the World Theater on April 26.)

Now the World Theater--from which the very real Lake Wobegon takes to the airwaves each week--has taken on new luster. One New York listener wrote after a trip to Saint Paul:

"WE're so faithful that last spring, on a brief visit to our daughter in The Other Twin City, we drove by the front of the World Theater as if it were a fanous cathedral]"
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Sutin, Lawrence
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1986
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