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From the prairie, this just in

Garrison Keillor takes a break from stumping for his new movie, A Prairie Home Companion, to bring his Midwestern sensibility to the bay area.

By STEVE PERSALL
Published May 18, 2006


Garrison Keillor is a world away from bucolic Lake Wobegon, Minn., sitting in the Scribner building where the novels of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were published, his telephone conversation competing with the din of Manhattan traffic.

The 63-year-old author, humorist, syndicated columnist and host of National Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion could give Howard Stern a clean fight for the title of King of All Media. His resume lengthens to include actor and screenwriter for Robert Altman's film version of his popular radio show, which opens nationwide June 9.

Unlike Stern, he isn't entirely comfortable with the attention such versatility brings. Promoting a film is especially new to Keillor, who nonetheless remains as dryly unflappable as his radio and print persona.

"It's very different from anything I've ever been involved in; a very boom-or-bust business where a movie's success in the first week means everything," Keillor says in his rich Midwestern baritone. "It all comes down to one roll of the dice, it seems. That really goes contrary to the psychology of creation, which is more over the long term.

"Of course, I know nothing about this art form so I'm on pretty solid ground."

Keillor was nearing the end of a daylong gantlet of interviews, likely facing more inquisitive reporters than during any of his previous endeavors. Keillor is equally curious about them, perhaps collecting ideas for a future radio skit or essay.

"I find it noteworthy and very civil that the same people who will review your movie are asking you questions," he says. "The jury is sitting and having coffee with the accused before the trial starts.

"In book publishing it's very different. People who review books wouldn't necessarily interview the author. Reviewing books is done from a great height, from Mount Olympus, and you hand down opinions on stone tablets. This way promoting films is rather nice."

A Prairie Home Companion is a rather nice film, too. Keillor spent more than a decade honing the script, shaping 32 years of relatively formless, homespun radio entertainment into two hours of cinema. He reimagined it as the show's last broadcast before corporate types ring down the curtain, with familiar radio characters portrayed by the kind of ensemble dream cast perhaps only Altman can attract.

Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin play the singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, while Kevin Kline perfectly embodies Keillor's alter ego, detective Guy Noir. The singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty are there, portrayed with gusto by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. At the center of Altman's film is the host, known only as G.K. Yet with Keillor in the role, even telling tall tales seems autobiographical enough.

"Altman embraced the actors and the actors brought it off," Keillor says, offering an example: "The Johnson girls are performers who have failed and failed again, but they're not failures. They have a great dignity.

"When they stand on stage and talk about singing to Mama to make her smile, you know it is part of their routine, but they really believe it. The cliche that's spoken for effect also affects the person speaking it, because it's true. Altman captures that beautifully."

Perhaps Keillor will discuss the movie tonight in Tampa, in one of his frequent live solo appearances. Eleven books, countless essays and poems and 32 years of live radio provide plenty of material to choose from.

"I do a number of stories pieced together," he says. "I may bring a piano player and do a couple songs. It's all kind of up in the air.

"I expect that one story I'll do is a story I'm trying to make into a screenplay. It's about a memorial service for an aunt that takes place in Lake Woebegon, with a pontoon boat and 22 Lutheran pastors. I like telling that story in front of an audience to get a better grip on it for writing into a screenplay.

"It's easy to do a show by yourself; that's just for fun. The radio show is always good, bracing hard work. It's like potato-picking except you don't have to bend over."

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com.