Let the laughs roll in
On Thursday night, Steele County residents packed into the Little Theatre of Owatonna to see a live performance of famed Minnesota humorist, author, voice actor, and radio personality Garrison Keillor. There was a meet and greet with Keillor at the historic Dunnell House in Owatonna prior to the event.
During the performance, Keillor regaled the audience with bits of local Minnesota history, humorous limericks, and stories from his own childhood. The proceeds from the event went to the Steele County Historical Society.
At the start Keillor led the audience in several hymns and patriotic songs, setting the mood for what would be a fun night filled with laughter, limericks, and local history. “You are going to have to do the singing, and it’s in this key here,” he said, leading the audience in a rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”
“I was a poet, and I wanted to write dark poems about what was wrong in society,” Keillor recalled of when he was first starting out as young writer. Soon after his teacher at the University of Minnesota, poet John Berryman, killed himself by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. Keillor realized that his calling lied in poems and writing of a different nature.
“This was a turning point in my life,” Keillor explained. “When you’ve been pretending to be depressed because you thought this was a sign of intelligence and now you realize that everything you pretended was fake.”
He went on to say that since he was not at the point of jumping off a bridge, he decided to go in the direction he was going. “That’s what led me into radio,” Keillor explained. He remembered his first radio program at St. John’s University in 1969.
It was an early morning broadcast which he used to spread humor and cheer. “At six o’clock in the morning, people do not need to hear about your disappointments in life, they do not need to hear your critique of society. They need to be happy,” he said. “I discovered in radio that there are ways to make people happy.”
From there Keillor recounted many stories of his past, including moments from his childhood which stand out all these years later to those which led to his development as a person, and a writer. There was the story about him having to stay after school and read aloud because he was nearsighted and the teacher thought he couldn’t read well.
There was also the story about him singing in his grandparents’ barn –his mother used to send him there as punishment, although Keillor said that he actually enjoyed it –and as he was singing, he fell down through the loft and into the cow pen, where he landed on a Holstein and found himself covered in a pile of dung and facing a bull. His uncle ran in with a two-by-four and saved the young Keillor.
“Everyone claimed that I was never the same after hitting my head that day,” he joked to the audience. “But how would you know, you wouldn’t, or at least you would be the last person to know.” It was stories like this which got the audience rolling with laughter.
Keillor also included anecdotes of a more heartwarming nature, such as the time his father found him at a luncheonette after he’d swiped some coins from the family coin jar and was looking to go to downtown Minneapolis. His father was supposed to paddle him, but the two of them sat on the fender of his old Ford sedan and talked.
Ever the wordsmith, Keillor also recited several limericks to the audience, including one or two of a rather licentious nature. Among these were several from his childhood, particularly one which he recited for his speech teacher.
It was a night of laughter for all those in attendance, and an interesting glimpse of the formative years of one of Minnesota’s most renown living writers. Keillor ended the show with a rendition of “America the Beautiful” with the audience.
“All history is local and it starts with stories,” Keillor said in an interview prior to the event. “The county historical society is, to me, part of the real grass-roots world that is threatened by the world of social media, video, Facebook, Amazon, the world you can participate in without leaving your bedroom.”