Where the tales are above average

'Prairie' host Garrison Keillor wows locals during cruise tour stop

Posted: Monday, July 17, 2006

A Juneau appearance that might have been billed as a night of music and mirth from the star of "A Prairie Home Companion" inspired even more alliteration from one fan Sunday.

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"It all seems magical to me," said Anne Fuller after watching Garrison Keillor rehearse songs with the rest of the Hopeful Gospel Quartet for a sound check in Centennial Hall on Sunday night. The longtime volunteer for KTOO, and a fan of Keillor's National Public Radio program since she moved from the Bush to civilization in 1982, said it was the humor displayed between the songs that impressed her.

Keillor, who arrived with gospel quartet members Linda Williams, Robin Williams and Carol Elizabeth Jones, along with pianist Rich Dworsky, on the cruise ship Zaandam for 912 hours in port, stood backstage as the group worked out the order of the songs for the benefit appearance for about 300 KTOO listeners who won the chance to buy tickets in a lottery.

KTOO station manager Jeff Brown said Keillor offered to do a show for 200 people, but said 300 was acceptable. Brown didn't know how much money was raised but said it was a great thing for him to do on his vacation. "It's a good way for Garrison to give back to his fans."

As for the mirth, Keillor said minutes before going on he didn't have his monologue - "The News from Lake Wobegon" - worked out. The stories from the fictitious Minnesota community, with good Lutherans and a "Sons of Canute Hall" end with the reminder that "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average."

"I have an idea," he said. Watching the floatplanes taking off and landing on the Gastineau Channel inspired him, he added.

"It's an odd vacation," he said of his trip to Alaska's capital. He is cruising the Inside Passage with about 1,200 "Prairie Home Companion" listeners.

"I like cruises, except I hate the entertainment," he said. The best part about this cruise is the music, Keillor said. "We have a daily choir practice. We have a couple hundred people singing for 45 minutes. A lot of them are people who don't go to church or who are defeated by organists. Organists manage to kill congregational singing whenever they can."

Later he would tell the audience that going on a cruise "is a hedonistic experience I was not brought up to enjoy."

He has been to Juneau before, but never on a cruise, he said. He did a broadcast in Juneau 20 years ago. He didn't say he preferred cruising, pointing out that coming in by airplane can be a thrill.

"The (Juneau) airport is one of the most exciting airports in America, especially when it's overcast, which it usually is," Keillor said. "It feels like the last 10 minutes of your life. I can see why people are so happy to live here. It means you survived your flight."

The people who came to the show were prepared to laugh at their community. Before singing "Under the Boardwalk" with the Hopefuls in honor of downtown, Keillor they were all "supplied with T-shirts and jewelry. If you need jewelry, you don't have to go far in Juneau."

Keillor recalled his "Prairie Home Companion" broadcast from Juneau in July 1986 that he couldn't end his monologue.

"If you see any of my friends, I wish you would tell them I canoed up here," he said. Cruise ships "enable lazy people to see wilderness while traveling in luxury, which should make us feel guiltier than it does. We're working on it."

He called the proposed head tax on cruise passengers that will go before voters this year a "$50 admission" and said he's in favor of it. "I'm a Democrat. I believe in taxing and regulating."

Before promising to bring "A Prairie Home Companion" back to Juneau, and promising his monologue would be shorter, Keillor sat down and marveled at how the floatplanes in the channel can take off and land in such a small space. It reminded him of his Aunt Evelyn, a Lutheran quilter who wanted her remains deposited in Lake Wobegon.

The story went on to include a naked parasailer, 24 Lutheran ministers appearing to walk on water and even balloon animals, a reference to a gift from Brown before the show.

"I wish it was longer," said Amanda King after the show, where her 712-month-old daughter, Mary Jane King, sat on Keillor's lap for a panoramic picture of people who shared the evening. Describing herself as a daughter of a Lutheran quilter, she said she was hoping for more political commentary, but the music was better in person than it is on the radio.

Ed Page said it was wonderful to see Keillor in person and wasn't surprised to find him so comfortable mingling with the group. "He seems that way on the radio, a genuine person. He could move to Juneau and fit right in."

Page already tells people that in Juneau the men are good looking, the women are strong and the children are above average.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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