It was a festive day in Lake Wobegon on the Pacific. It was also a sad one.
"I'll miss him for a long, long time," said Judy Mills, 43, a self-described Garrison Keillor addict. "I consider him my friend, a good friend--the kind of friend you loved to let into your house every week. There'll be a little void in my life without him."
Mills was one of some 2,500 local Keillor devotees who gathered together last Saturday on the lawns of Loyola Marymount University to celebrate the final broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion" before Keillor, America's most famous shy person, retires with his family to Denmark.
They wore red suspenders, straw hats and "Powdermilk Biscuit" T-shirts, picnicked on chicken, potato salad, sauerkraut and sausages, and waxed nostalgic about what the man and his show has meant to them.
"There is so much seriousness in the world, it's fun to take some time to laugh at yourself," said Janine Johnson, whose husband, Dennis, grew up in Hendricks, Minn., a small town that, they said, resembles, right down to the Norwegian bachelor farmers, Keillor's mythical Lake Wobegon. "I can relate to everything Garrison says. He brings back memories of the first part of our marriage, and it helps me to understand my husband."
"I'm a shy person too," added Dennis Johnson, who now lives with his wife in Thousand Oaks.
Keillor fanatics trekked in from all over Southern California to attend the first "Prairie Home Social," which was organized as a fund-raiser for public radio station KUSC-FM (91.5). They paid from $25 to $75 each to help re-create the sleepy, small-town atmosphere of Lake Wobegon in Westchester and to watch Keillor's last show, live, via satellite, courtesy of the Disney Channel, on a 30-foot screen inside the school's gymnasium.
Most came simply to say thank you and goodby. "I've been listening for just the last five weeks," said Frances Gretzner, 27, who brought her 6-year-old son with her. "And I thought this party sounded like a good way to bring it all to an end."
"There's nothing like being with other people who love this program," said Nancy Munchheimer, who drove in from Santa Ana with her husband. "There's nothing like watching a show as part of a live audience." Inside the gymnasium the audience clapped their hands, thumped their feet and sang along with Keillor and his friends on the television screen. They laughed and roared and applauded as if they were watching the show live at the World Theater in St. Paul.
Halfway through the program, however, a few cranky children wailed from different corners of the building, and the audience began to squirm on the gymnasium's wooden benches. But when Keillor started into his final Lake Wobegon monologue, an unnatural hush fell over the gym. Even the whimpers of the small children seemed to dissolve in thin air.
Every person in the room hung on Keillor's every word, every pause, every smack of the lips. They had come hoping to glean some hidden message in his final story--some metaphorical summation of his feelings, his plans, his sorrow at leaving them all behind.
They grasped for some reassurance, something that said it would be OK--that Lake Wobegon would survive. That they themselves could somehow get along without him.
Harry Anderson, star of "Night Court" and the master of ceremonies for the event, perhaps summed it up best when he said: "Not only did he (Keillor) give us Lake Wobegon, he gave each of us a chance to make our own Lake Wobegon. There is nothing that lives so long as a figment of someone's imagination."
"You can get from here to where I'm going," Keillor said at the end of his monologue. "The water will carry us over the rocks so that we can see at last what is around the bend."
And then the big screen went blank, a few balloons fell from the ceiling, and tears welled in the eyes of some members of the audience.
Grinning, talking, making plans for dinner, the partygoers slowly walked to their cars, secure in the knowledge that Lake Wobegon would live on in their imaginations, even while stuck in a genuinely miserable L.A. traffic jam right there in the Loyola parking lot.
Besides, many of the local fans had said, they had stockpiled enough Garrison Keillor shows at home on videotape to see them through many a hot Los Angeles summer.