Writer and radio host Garrison Keillor walked out on the Holland Center stage Sunday afternoon and hummed a musical note to start his show. It was a cue to audience members.
They needed to tune up, because they were going to sing.
He led the crowd in "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" and "America the Beautiful," sometimes softly adding harmony. Then he tossed in a surprise: "I Saw Her Standing There" by the Beatles. And he ended with "Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Flow."
People seemed a little hesitant to join in at first, but the sound swelled as everyone got more comfortable.
It didn't take long, because the gangly, somewhat rumpled Keillor — longtime host of "A Prairie Home Companion" on public radio — is an expert at making you feel at home with his low-key, familiar style. Comfortable is his specialty.
The show, presented by Omaha Performing Arts, was a sellout, with nearly 2,000 people choosing to spend their Valentine's holiday with the humorist. He dressed for the occasion in a cream-colored sports jacket and slacks, a white shirt and Cupid-red tie, socks and shoes.
The program had lots of variety: short jokes and limericks set to music; his trademark storytelling; gentle humor about politics and other sometimes uncomfortable topics such as colonoscopies and dentistry; a couple of moving solos; and, in a nod to the theme of the day, some love sonnets.
What it didn't have was much Lake Wobegon, the fictional Minnesota town he made famous on public radio. He mentioned it in passing a couple of times, but his stories were from his own life, past and present — with some embellishments, I'm sure.
Without mentioning names, he used the current campaign landscape to deliver a message: Life is good.
Politicians, he told the crowd, try to convince constituents that we're on the edge of a cliff.
"But water runs, toilets flush, people still drive on the right side. Everything else is just gravy," he said, prompting loud applause.
He offered other examples of today's good life: ATM cash cards; soft butter; artisan bread; calculators on cellphones; GPS systems; Chinese takeout; and Amazon.com, all with explanations that caused bursts of laughter from the crowd.
You can order a dozen rolls of toilet paper from Amazon.com and it will come in 24 hours if you pay three times the product price for shipping, he said, and then you can track its progress across the country. He finds that comforting.
"If you can track toilet paper, surely there's a way to track terrorists," he said.
Keillor devoted the last portion of the show to memories of his parents, aunts and uncles and their influence. He sang a PG-rated sonnet to his wife and a poignant tribute to his dad with accompaniment from Richard Dworsky, the music director for his radio show.
And he offered some fond farewells, asking the crowd to join in several songs such as "Happy Trails" and Goodnight, Ladies." The goodbyes were not only for the day, but for the coming end of his tenure on the radio show. He's retiring in July.
"It was a wonderful run," he said, referring to his 42 years on "A Prairie Home Companion." "I'm so grateful. Thank you for that."
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