Garrison Keillor won't be leaving "A Prairie Home Companion" for another four months, but Saturday's show had all the ingredients of a retirement party, with the sold-out crowd falling just short of serenading their folk hero with "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."
Up until the afternoon rehearsal, the staff and crew were unsure how much Keillor would acknowledge that the broadcast would be his last from the Fitzgerald Theater, his home base for more than 35 years. Turns out the boss was in a sentimental mood.
The versatile Vern Sutton, a guest on the very first "PHC," joined him on a personalized version of "Old Shep" with the loyal dog persuading his reluctant owner to pursue a career in radio — and then subsequently informing him when it was time to call it quits. In one sketch, Keillor imagined a trip to Mickey's Diner being interrupted by the director of the Beloved Old Broadcasters Home, where the temperature has been turned up to 79 and new roomie Bob Dylan has started to mistake the closet for the bathroom.
Keillor reworked a 1978 original into a tribute to the Fitz, dropping in nods to the late sound-effects man Tom Keith and guitarist Chet Atkins, whose appearance in 1982 helped make the show welcome grounds for other acts with international reputations. He also tipped his hat to the city of St. Paul in a marching song that celebrated a place where you could shoot off a cannonball at noon and not worry about hitting a Republican. (The digs at the Grand Ole Party ran throughout the night, most courtesy of Tim Russell who does a killer Donald Trump impression.)
In his ode to St. Paul, Keillor pitied a character that looked for answers in New York City and Paris, an obvious nod to his own wanderlust ways.
The live broadcast concluded with Van Morrison's "Irish Heartbeat," a song guest vocalist Taj Mahal crushed, despite just learning it a couple of hours before show time. The line, "Don't rush away from your own ones" had to make die-hard fans wonder: Is Keillor really ready to say goodbye?
Last week, he announced plans for a mid-May show in Minneapolis, and there are rumors that he might squeeze in some kind of street party in St. Paul before his bow in Los Angeles on July 1. Chris Thile is scheduled to take over in the fall.
The question of Keillor having second thoughts hung heavy in the air during the 10-minute encore, which did not air on public radio. While the crowd stayed on their feet, Keillor led his guests, including Robin and Linda Williams, Peter Ostroushko and Dean Magraw, into one "farewell" song after another, including "Goodnight, Irene" and "Happy Trails."
The medley also included "Red River Valley," the folk ballad in which a cowboy begs his true love to "not hasten to bid me adieu."