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It's a Rush for Fans to Visit 'A Prairie Home Companion'

Radio * People brave extreme weather to line up early for choice seats to Garrison Keillor's live variety show.


ST. PAUL, Minn. — As early as 11 a.m. they start coming, clad in parkas and other winter wear. By midafternoon, more than 200 people are gathered in the autumn chill, forming a line that wraps around the Fitzgerald Theater. They sit, snuggled in blankets, in lawn chairs or on the cold, gray sidewalk.

"They are like ice fishermen, they thrive on adversity," said Garrison Keillor, host of "A Prairie Home Companion," the live radio show these dedicated souls in the rush line are waiting to see. During any given season, some fans wait more than five hours in extreme weather, just for a chance to buy a rush ticket--with odds not unlike ice fishing.

Now in its 26th year, author Keillor's variety show, heard by 2.7 million listeners worldwide, is one of the hottest tickets in town. Radiophiles tune in every weekend to hear "Prairie Home's" mix of music, comedy serials such as "Guy Noir, Private Eye" and Keillor's wandering monologue about small-town life in the "News From Lake Wobegon."

But because Minnesota Public Radio members have first crack at tickets, which abruptly sell out, nonmembers are left out in the cold--literally. And you thought Minnesota Vikings tickets were hard to get.

But then again, Vikings tickets don't allow you to sit on the field. Those with "Prairie Home" rush tickets are seated on stage, and in the front row, right in the thick of the action. The rush line was adopted in 1994, to allow out-of-towners and non-MPR members a chance to see the show from exclusive seats.

This Saturday morning, sisters Betty and Peggy Marshall have claimed the pole position. The sisters, both in their late 50s, took a detour on Amtrak to see the show on their way to Seattle. They started the line just before 11 a.m. and have six hours to wait before curtain time.

"It's something we've heard over the course of many years. My sister and I tune in when we're together; it's sort of a nostalgic thing," said Betty, who now runs a hotel and art gallery in the Dominican Republic. She met her sister in Tennessee, where the two grew up, before striking out on their cross-country vacation.

"The charm of the show is the down-to-earth, quirky type of humor [Keillor] has. It's wholesome and sort of connects you with a different time and place."

Carl Hines, a Minneapolis native waiting in line with his wife, Mary, added: "It's like going back in time a little bit, to a simpler life--like we wish life would be."

Through snow, rain, sleet and blizzards, these die-hard fans from near and far brave weather that would send most postal carriers packing, just for a chance to see the show. It's also not uncommon to see people camped out in tents the night before the performance.

"It's a lovely phenomenon. I just don't want them to suffer," Keillor said. "I was practically in tears one time, seeing people huddled on that sidewalk with snow falling."

During that particular incident, Keillor lobbied for fans to be let into the building, a practice the theater has continued at times of severe weather.

"The rush line is a source of guilt to me every Saturday," Keillor said . "I drive in on Exchange Street every Saturday, and I see them there standing on the corner--it's like something out of a Depression photograph."

The atmosphere on Exchange Street is anything but depressing. Quite the opposite, in fact. There's a friendly community atmosphere, a scene straight off a Norman Rockwell painting. Mingling accents from different states and countries talk about the weather--which is unseasonably warm today--and people hold one another's place in line during food runs and bathroom breaks. There is, however, some tension as to how many of them will get in.

The average number of rush tickets released is 70, although that number fluctuates with available space, and each person in line is allowed to buy two $10 tickets. The theater itself only holds 1,100, and shows have been sold out since the early '90s. Often, one-half to two-thirds of those waiting are turned away.

Katie Burger, event services manager for "Prairie Home," said some out-of-town patrons actually attempt bribery. "Even today, someone tried to slip us a $20 bill," Burger said. Others have more subtle approaches, like paying people to stand in line for them or buying tickets through relatives who are MPR members.

Friends Brian Murphy, 37, and Liz Ellis, 31, from Minneapolis, sit wrapped up in a flowery bedspread, chiseling away the hours with magazines. Strangely, however, both are already MPR members but like the "adventure" of the rush line.

"Sometimes the journey is as fun as the destination," Ellis said. "It's a live radio show, and especially in our current media age, it's an art form that's less and less common."

"A Prairie Home Companion" remains a rare bird in an endangered species of radio entertainment. A few shows such as "Michael Feldman's Whad'Ya Know?" and "West Coast Live" include audiences in their broadcasts, but these shows are a minority in FM broadcasting.

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