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Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2005 03:00 pm

Guy Noir meets El Presidente

And finds himself compared to the Prairie Troubador

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Garrison Keillor
PHOTO BY JAMES F. QUINN / KRT
It was a strange, serendipitous Springfield moment, an unlikely conjunction of comets and pinto beans. But it happened last Tuesday afternoon, just as the downtown parking garages relieved themselves and the September sun dipped below the capitol minarets. Garrison Keillor — bestselling author, national columnist, and rhapsodic host of A Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac, sat in a sage suit outside El Presidente, contemplating our city and his just-completed tour of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Kate Hawkes, owner of the Trout Lily Café, spotted Guy Noir and his entourage at the corner café and pointed me toward an uncommon opportunity. I took the cue, crossed the street, and introduced myself as a PHC fan to Keillor, who lifted his 6-foot-5 frame from his chair and shook hands warmly, then engaged me in a short conversation. “Are you from Springfield?” he asked, and, hearing my affirmation, proceeded to quiz me about the capital city and its tourist sites. Keillor sported an admission sticker from the Presidential Museum on his lapel, so I asked what he thought of the city’s $150 million theme park. “I thought the history was a little thin,” he said, noting that he saw a “few good books” for sale in the gift shop. “Has the museum been good for tourism?” he wanted to know. After politely hearing my response, the Man from Lake Wobegon sang the praises of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, which, he said, is one of the handsomest historic sites he’s visited in his travels. “It would be a great site for a chautauqua, perhaps even a radio show,” Keillor said in his sonorous voice, his well-oiled wheels perhaps already 10 miles down the road to making that event a reality. Because local NPR affiliate WUIS (91.9 FM) carries Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, I asked him about the fallout from his recent bout with radio censorship. On Aug. 1, 2005, Lexington, Ky., public-radio station WUKY (91.3 FM) canceled broadcasts of the program for its use of “inappropriate language” — namely, the reading of poems that included the words “breast” and “getting high.” Keillor said that the flap was “curious and insignificant” and that the program is back on the air in Lexington, albeit in a new time slot. WUKY station manager Tom Godell cancelled The Writer’s Almanac in anticipation of listener complaints and FCC fines, but protests from supporters of the broadcast brought the program back two weeks later. The FCC never raised an eyebrow, though other radio programs such as Fresh Air have drawn criticism, and not only in Kentucky. Because the author had recently published a new anthology of American poetry (Good Poems for Hard Times, Penguin, 2005), the conversation turned to Vachel Lindsay, the nationally known Springfield poet who failed to make Keillor’s cut. “Lindsay isn’t read much these days — his ‘General William Booth’ is hard for modern audiences to read,” he said. I suggested that he and Lindsay had much in common, given that Lindsay was the first American poet to make his living as a performer and that his “higher vaudeville” programs had themes similar to those of A Prairie Home Companion. Keillor seemed interested, so I directed him to Lindsay’s home in the hope that on this or his next visit to Springfield he would stop in for a chat with Jenny Battles. Just then, Justin Blandford — site superintendent for the Old State Capitol Complex and Vachel Lindsay Home State Historic Site — stepped up to say hello and carry on the cordial conversation. My exit couldn’t have been scripted any better, so I shook hands, said goodbye, and wandered into the wings, smiling at a lamppost.
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