In the winter of 1976 Mark Twain came to Cincinnati’s Music Hall in the form of Hal Holbrooke’s one-man show. My then-girlfriend and medical school classmate, who knew my fascination with Twain also as my refuge from my insecurities about surviving medical school, arranged for us to usher that evening. Luck left us with two empty seats in the 10th row, close enough to see his whiskers twitch and the smoke of his pipe curl.
Holbrooke’s Twain shuffled onto a nearly empty stage toward an arm chair and a small table set on a rug to the left of center—as though he were entering his own living room, dressed in his signature white linen suit, in the twilight of his life. I fell in love that night with the spoken voice of Twain, so true to the voice I’d been hearing as I read—folksy, ambling, disarmingly easy, coming strong from his chest but tinted with the scratch of age and smoking, his pitch rising with excitement. He meandered from one musing to another like a lowland river, but he made every word count—slow talk hiding fast wit—so we listened close and laughed hard. Twain created the voice of the Midwest small town observer with a worldly wit, the compassionate and amused chronicler of the human comedy. And he had a sharp ear for how we talk. Holbrooke played both sides of his dialogues.
I loved that voice above other writers until Garrison Keillor stole my heart. It took a while, but over the past thirty years, how could Twain compete with Keillor’s prolific tales from Lake Wobegon, songwriting, radio drama, newspaper columns, speeches, and novels. In the year since he stopped hosting “Prairie Home Companion,” I have tried to listen to the show by the same name, but I don’t stay with it. I understand better now that over the years I was listening to that show for that voice. The rest was extra.
Last Friday night in our town (May 19) we had “An Evening with Garrison Keillor” at our largest theater, the Aronoff Center. It was hard to know what to expect—would he bring a crew of musicians? Would he ad lib or do old favorites from past radio shows? Would he talk politics and tell us things we don’t know about our home town? When I looked him up for a preview of the show, all I could find was the St Paul StarTribune’s obituary of his 17-year old grandson who had died earlier that week on Monday, May 15. The obituary, clearly written in the voice of his grandfather, said nothing about the circumstances of the death and it announced at the end that the visitation in St Paul would be held at 4 pm on Saturday, May 20. Could the grandfather really be here in Cincinnati entertaining strangers the night before?
The Aronoff, when the lights are on, is a colorful blend of terra cotta walls and cactus green seats and soft amber lighting. In contrast the stage last night looked stark as we waited for the lights to go down—one stool and a mike stand stood in a single spotlight on the enormous scuffed black stage floor with black curtains in the back. As the house lights dimmed, Keillor walked out from stage left in his light tan suit, fire engine red tie, and signature red socks and sneakers, looking deep in thought. The echo of Twain was unmistakable. He nearly stumbled, as though the floor were sticky or he wasn’t used to these new shoes. He took the cordless mike, rolled the stand behind him, and launched into an a capella ballad about love and trouble which he then blended into lines from a couple of familiar songs, beckoning us to sing along with him. When solo, his baritone voice was full, relaxed and resonant; when we joined him he sang at a lower volume, almost a whisper, and so did we, all 2700 of us, filling the hall with a muted, gentle chorus.
He sat on his stool, chatting as though we were potential chums, disarmingly easy, and he talked about being a misfit as a boy, awkward looking and not among the cool kids. He got up as if to prove it. As he moved about the stage, his gait was sometimes awkward and sometimes graceful, but always expressive. His large hands waved about like a conductor’s, expressive like an actor’s. He never stayed still for long. Right from the start he made every word count, so we listened. He kept the house quiet.
He complained about the way his 17-year old daughter and his 31-year old niece and her boyfriend butcher the English language and use their devices to avoid communication. “I’m not complaining,” he said. “It’s just a fact of life I have to live with.” He talked about being 74 and the intimacies of having his prostate examined by a female urologist. He mentioned a teenage fan of his radio show who met him in an airport and recited a limerick he’d learned on his show—after all his efforts to write novels and poetry and songs, what this kid had learned from him was a baudy six line limerick.
He told us about being punished by his parents for stealing when he was eight. They sent him to his grandparents farm in Lake Wobegon where he helped Uncle Jim bring the hay in from the fields and store it in the hayloft, until he fell through the trap door onto a cow and into the slop, where a bull with a ring through its wet nose nudged him out to where his uncle could pick him up and take him into the house—an experience he vowed to never forget, the beginning of learning to be a writer by remembering the details of life.
After an hour of talk he sauntered into the audience for what he called a “standing intermission.” He moved up the aisle about 12 rows and invited us to sing a few lines of a few more songs with him: Oh Susannah, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Way Down Upon the Swanee River, Silent Night, John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, and others—he played pastor, choirmaster, and fireside singalong director.
He quoted Twain and Shakespeare and mocked TS Eliot’s J Alfred Prufrock. He talked of sharing a fraternity with Bob Dylan at the University of Minnesota. He recited a few of his love poems, both young and recent, and told us a long tale about a first love at age 12 and her recent funeral in Lake Wobegon. He delivered all this with the apparent spontaneity of inspired conversation, talking in his ambling manner but with a quick and restless wit that moved fast to the next line while we were still laughing at the last one.
This performance went on for two and a half hours, uninterrupted, with no props and no back up band and no notes or script. Naked talent. He never lost his audience, never seemed to tire or falter, one voice holding 2700 attentions for over two hours. Is there anyone else who can write novels and radio drama, do stand up comedy, spin thirty years of tales about an imaginary town, sing gospel baritone in a quartet and solo, lead a chorus of strangers in folk songs, and hold an audience mesmerized by his voice alone for over two hours at age 74?
Twain could be proud of the kid up river who has captured the voice of the heartland. And Keillor came to our town last night to deliver that voice in spite of the death this week of his grandson. He never mentioned it. In show business, that’s courage.