At age 68, Garrison Keillor last year told a national magazine he was planning to leave “A Prairie Home Companion” in 2013.
But a few months later, he changed his mind. That means his visit to the Fox Theatre May 12 for a live version of his popular radio show heard locally on 90.1/WABE-FM won’t be his farewell to Atlanta after all.
“Since I said that, I thought about it some more and realized I didn’t want to do that after all,” Keillor said in a phone interview from his home in St. Paul, Minn. last month, in his dulcet Midwestern cadence well known to his millions of fans. “You don’t want to walk down that slippery slope too soon because if you do, other things may happen.”
But noting others who worked well into their 80s and even 90s such as the late Andy Rooney and Mike Wallace, he said he doesn’t think he’ll be doing the show that long. “I understand the drive, but you get to a certain point, you start to call into question your own reputation.”
At this stage in his life, Keillor believes he can still do better work. “That’s really the motivation,” he said. “If I thought we had reached our high point in the 1990s, I’d quit in a moment. But I don’t.”
Not that mortality isn’t hovering over him. “Time is running out,” he mused. “I’m going to be 70 in August. I’m very aware of time tapping me on the shoulder. I no longer read long novels. I don’t watch television anymore. I avoid painful social events. I’ve economized. And that’s so I can write the two or three or four more books I have in me. You want to get everything down that you have to give. Then you can take it easy and go sit around and have coffee with your friends in the morning.”
His latest book “Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny,” which came out May 1, is a parody of hard-boiled detective writing, along the lines of Mickey Spillane and Elmore Leonard. The character Guy Noir is a regular on “Prairie Home Companion.” “I enjoy getting him into serious trouble, then get him out,” he said. “The story starts on the 12th floor of the Acme building. He has a pistol aimed at his chest. The hammer is cocked. And it goes from there.”
Keillor also does 90-minute one-man shows, just him with a microphone and a wooden stool. He recently did one in Athens. “It’s sort of a character-building exercise,” he said. “I tell stories and try to twine them together, maybe recite a few poems if the audience is in the mood, maybe sing a song or two. It’s improv. You take your chances. It’s a way to stay in mental shape and stay in touch with your audience.”
Could “A Prairie Home Companion,” which came to life in 1974, live on without him? “Oh, sure,” he said. “Whether it will or not, I don’t know. But it certainly could. I could teach someone how to do this.”
In classic Keillor self-deprecating style, he added, “I could find someone twice as appealing and teach them what they need to know in a week and a half.”
But for now, he remains the “Prairie Home Companion” host and primary storyteller. And while his disdain for the Chatty Cathys at Chastain Park Amphitheatre is now legendary, he has nothing but praise for the Fox: “I admire all that Mayan and Egyptian decor. And it’s easier to be indoors. It’s easier for the radio audience. We like the sound to be as clean as possible and not have the sirens and airplanes in the distance.”
IF YOU GO
“Prairie Home Companion Live”
5:45 p.m. May 12, 2012. $37 to $77 before fees.
Fabulous Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta.
For tickets, 1-800-745-3000, www.foxtheatre.org or the theater box office if you want reduced fees.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk