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Keillor celebrates 35 years

Andra Suchy and Garrison Keillor sing "Side by Side" on Saturday during the 35th anniversary broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion" in Avon, Minn. Keillor's public radio variety show debuted July 6, 1974, with about a dozen people in the audience. (AP Photo/St. Cloud Times, Kimm Anderson)

Lake Wobegon welcomed Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" with open, if sunburned, arms Saturday as the live radio show, on its 35th anniversary, came back for the first time to where it was conceived.

Keillor, more casual than usual during his weekly show, wearing jeans, a red tie and a linen jacket, thanked Avon's 1,200 people for opening up their city on short notice to handle his slick production on Independence Day.

An Avon police officer directing traffic afterward said, "10,000 at least," when asked for a crowd estimate.

An Avon firefighter figured 7,000 to 8,000. Hordes sprawled across several acres, across the main drag, to see the live radio show that for 35 years has poked gentle, loving fun at this small region of Minnesota. It was his few years living near nearby Freeport, Minn., and Holdingford, Albany and Avon, Minn., in the late 1960s that hatched his vision of Lake Wobegon "where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking and all the children are above-average."

"This is as close to Lake Wobegon as you can get," Keillor told his chair-bearing audience.


Thousands came hours early, marking out a space with carry-on chairs and waited for the two-hour show to begin at 5 p.m., broadcast live over public radio to the nation and the world.

Two local World War II veterans, Ralph Lauer and Clarence Fischbach, were celebrated and shared stories of their combat experience. Their very names echoed characters in Keillor's Lake Wobegon: Clarence Bunson and the Krebsbach family, for instance.

Both a Catholic priest and a Lutheran pastor gave their benedictions.

Avon's historian, Jeannette Clancy, explained how Avon came to be on Middle Spunk Lake, founded by the Kepper family and how glad they were to finally get Keillor's show live and in the flesh.

The huge wooden bar that once dominated a Kepper establishment in town a century ago now dominates the Midtown Bar, where Marlene Ratke repaired after the show for a beer.

She grew up in Albany, Minn., and in 1982, moved next door to Avon. A true denizen of Lake Wobegon, she was one of nine children in a German Catholic family in Stearns County, which still is two-thirds German and Catholic.

Ratke said Keillor got it right and never offended townspeople by telling tales on the town.

'Hard times'

"It was hard times. You gotta laugh. We made jokes about ourselves," Ratke said inside the Midtown, while outside, a slow, solid stream of vehicles plugged Avon's main drag as the thousands of visitors patiently waited nearly an hour to get out of town after the show.

One SUV with Missouri plates was filled with four people -- one from San Francisco, one from Rochester, Minn., and one a native of Holdingford -- who drove all this way to see the show about and from their hometown on the Fourth of July.

Dale Raden lives two blocks from Lake Wobegon Park, Avon's civic space, where the show went on, smoothly and chock-full of local talent.

"I got there about 1:30 to 2:30, brought some sandwiches for my sister. Then, I took my bike home and came back for the last half-hour of the show, had a couple beers. It was great," Raden said, making clear he's never paid "Prairie Home Companion" much attention.

Ratke said she stood so far away in the crush, "I couldn't really hear it."

"But I came just to see him," she said of Keillor.

The huge turnout was gratifying, Ratke said.

"I'm so glad the people here gave him the respect to come out," she said.

Long after the radio show, near 9 p.m., Keillor set up inside the supper club in Avon he owns part of, Fisher's Club on the shore of Middle Spunk Lake. He took up the microphone again and sang a few tunes, accompanied by his piano player, Rich Dworsky and North Dakota's own Andra Suchy, who grew up in the Bismarck area and now sings on Keillor's show. Fans interrupted him in mid-song to get photos taken.

"This was a wonderful day," Keillor told the Herald between songs. He said he couldn't explain why it took him so long to bring his show to the place where it was born. But he was grateful for the welcome.

"They endured the direct sunlight, which is very hard for Lutherans and Catholics," he said. "I didn't see anyone collapse."

He wanted to thank all the locals who helped develop the Lake Wobegon Trail, for bikes, which is an example of "the beautiful in the ordinary," he said.

It was high times in Lake Wobegon.