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A proper goodbye

Garrison Keillor sings a song during his final broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Saturday. After stepping down as host this summer, Keillor will become the show’s executive producer. John Autey/Pioneer Press

Dominic P. Papatola

Special to the Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL - Garrison Keillor’s last night hosting “A Prairie Home Companion” at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater was an evening of music and poetry, topical humor and reminiscences, elegies and old friends.

For two hours of live radio, Keillor presided over a show that featured equal measures of gratitude, nostalgia and benediction.

Tenor Vern Sutton — who appeared on the first “Prairie Home” on July 6, 1974, on the campus of Macalester College — made a return appearance to help Keillor with home-made musical odes to downtown

St. Paul, to the Fitzgerald Theater itself, and to sound-effects man Tom Keith, folk singer Kate Wolf and other deceased members of the radio show’s extended family of artists.

Peter Ostroushko, whose association with the show also harks back to that first year, was on hand as well, working the violin and mandolin with guitarist Dean Magraw. Folk duo and regular guests Robin and Linda Williams — along with the show’s house band, led by Rich Dworsky — made up the musical spine of the show.

Blues great and “Prairie Home” favorite Taj Mahal played a handful of tunes and helped lead the company in Van Morrison’s “Irish Heartbeat,” a tune that will become the answer to the trivia question: What was the last song played during Keillor’s last time on the Fitzgerald stage?

The 73-year-old Keillor won’t step away from the microphone until this summer, so Saturday night’s broadcast was far from the last show featuring its creator, curator and chief creative force.

It’s not even the last local performance: Keillor announced last week that he will host a “Prairie Home” broadcast May 21 from the State Theatre in downtown

Minneapolis. And of course, if things go

the way Keillor and distributor American Public Media hope, new host Chris Thile will pick up the mantle this fall and carry one of public radio’s most popular shows well into a fifth decade at the Fitzgerald and venues beyond.

Still, Keillor, his cast of radio actors and his band were saying a sort-of farewell to a place some of them have called home since the late 1970s.

The host, in his signature white suit with red tie and sneakers, wryly noted the “historic occasion of my last show at the Fitzgerald Theater.” The company delivered sketches that offered listeners an auditory glimpse of the “Beloved Old Broadcasters’ Home,” where a Keillor-esque character encountered a WCCO radio agriculture reporter, a story-time lady and Bob Dylan (voiced by company member Tim Scott).

The “News from Lake Wobegon” had a wistful air, beginning with a rumination on the spring thaw but ending with Keillor’s adaptation of a poem by A. E. Housman about bygone youth and the passage of time. Keillor delivered much of his final Fitzgerald monologue from the lip of the theater’s stage, tolerant of the periodic flash of cellphone cameras.

But Keillor and company provided plenty of light moments as well, taking a handful of swipes at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (who, during an ad for the fictitious American Coffee Council derided decaf as “loser coffee” and pledged to “make coffee great again”).

In the end, there were no final words, just a musical benediction that brought the entire company back to the stage for an off-air encore. The sold-out audience rose for a standing ovation, then joined in an old-timey sing-along to tunes like “Happy Trails” and “Goodnight, Irene,” ending — appropriately — with a good, old-fashioned Lutheran “Amen.”

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