A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor

GK's Travel Diary
February 2001
Garrison Keillor describes the literary life on the road.

Berlin—February 28, 2001

Here is how to take a trip to Europe: you go along for weeks thinking you leave on a certain day and then you find out you're leaving the day after. The extra 24 hours makes all the difference. I think this is an idea that could be applied in other areas of life as well. The principle of grace.

Flew Minneapolis to Amsterdam on a 747, the behemoth of the air, the plane that feels like a concourse, and I did as Jean Redpath advised years ago, I started thinking Sleep the moment I got in my seat. Got a pillow, wrapped the blanket around me, downed the Dramamine, put on the sleep mask, inserted the earplugs, and the moment the plane was airborne, I eased the seat back, and visualized a beach and surf and birds and before we reached Canada, I was gone. Woke briefly over the Atlantic somewhere, then dozed off, then it was morning and the flight attendants were bringing around the croissants and orange juice.

Ran into some nice people at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, waiting for the Berlin flight. Some South Dakotans in a choir making a tour of Italy, starting in Venice, singing spirituals mainly. A guy from Butte heading for Syria where he works in the earl business. Thirty days in Syria, thirty off in Montana. Norwegian ancestry, about my age and it's sure good to meet people my age who are happy about their lives.

Took a KLM Cityhopper flight to Berlin, and did the same drill, pillow, blanket, mask, beach, sleep. The beach that always works for me is Stinson Beach north of San Francisco. A nice boring beach.

In Berlin, the immigration guys see your American passport, they wave you right through. Rode to the hotel Adlon, which I read about in a history of Berlin, which said the Adlon was a favorite watering hole of the National Socialists in the 20s and 30s, so I was glad to see that this one is brand new, circa 1997, built on the site of the old one, on land that was piled with rubble and ruins when I was last in Berlin, on Unter den Linden in the old eastern sector, a stone's throw from the Brandenburg Gate, not far from the Reichstag. Chris Tschida was in the lobby when I arrived, having coffee with Joachim Buerkert, the radio journalist from Heidelberg. He went to St. Paul to do a story on the show back in 1999, and said, "You should bring PHC to Germany," and I said that I'd love to, and so here we are. Joachim put all this together somehow. He pulled all sorts of strings with German radio and Lord knows who else and for his sake I hope it's a good show.

St. Paul—February 25, 2001

Chris Tschida leaves Monday for Berlin, I go Tuesday, and the others fly Wednesday. She's an old hand at foreign tours, having been company manager for various dance and theater troupes traveling in faraway places, like the Soviet Union. You needed a tutu in Novosibirsk, Chris found one. She even scouted up a writer for this Berlin show, a perfect one, and Lord am I glad to see him. His name is Philipp Goedicke and he's Berlin-born and -bred, young, bright, writing a Ph.D thesis on Berlin cabaret music of the Twenties and Thirties, which happens to be a big element of this show, and he's American educated, the son of a German father and American mother. He's just moved, with his wife and little girl, to Minneapolis. Talk about fortuitous.

A huge relief, to have help writing the show. I have a long history of hard labor on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, shut up in hotel rooms in various lovely cities, banging away into the wee hours. Maybe I will get to stroll in the Tiergarten and look at the buildings that have cropped up in no-man's-land since I was there, just after the Wall came down.

I do have an idea for a Guy Noir script. He'll go to Berlin to trace some American lager and meet a beautiful woman who turns out to be an angel whose job it is to take him to meet God. The angel of death.

This trip is complicated by the fact that my father is very low these days, suffering from chronic pneumonia, some days seeming near death. He is 87 and death does not frighten him since it is his doorway to heaven and he has decided, very emphatically, that he doesn't want to go to the hospital again or have his lungs suctioned out. So he is on home hospice care. But just when the family gets prepared to bid him farewell, he bounces back a little. One day he lies in bed wheezing, and the next day he is up in his chair, reading the paper. I've told my brother that I will fly home from Europe if and when needed but I will not cancel a broadcast. Too many people have worked too hard on these and they can't be rescheduled.

Andrea Murray, our company manager, will be on this tour and she is tremendously competent, a true pro. PHC started out as a band of dedicated amateurs and now I'm about the only amateur left and I appreciate the pros and their friendly manner that masks ferocious abilities to arrange things.

The theater where we'll do the show is in Charlottenberg, a middle-class section of the former West Berlin, west of the Zoo and the Kurfurstendamm, not far from the Olympic Stadium where Jesse Owens won his gold medals in 1936, on a street where the banking family of Mendelssohn had its headquarters, in a building that the British occupation force used for a recreation center. It's a section hard-hit by Allied bombing in the war, as all of Berlin was, but nonetheless there still are, I'm told, many of those five-story brick apartment buildings from Victorian times, the same style as you find in Copenhagen or Stockholm. The ones with the dark staircase going up the middle and the tiny cage elevator in the middle of it, and two flats on each floor, with a large salon or two up front, tiny servants' rooms and small kitchen in back, and usually, next to the front door, a large study for the Herr. If he were a doctor or a lawyer, he could practice there, or if a novelist he could sit and brood and in the evening sip whiskey with his cronies.

Saturday night I saw the 1947 Kurt Weill musical, "Street Scene," which our old PHC music director Rob Fisher conducted for Minnesota Opera. Rob went from our show to a great gig as music director of the Broadway hit, "Chicago," and since has set up "Chicago" companies in Scandinavia, London, Australia, and Berlin. This is his debut at MinnOp. A big show, cast of dozens, and a fantastic New York street scene set, and wonderful music. The prole aspect of the plot was sweet and antiquated. Sunday I drove down to do a benefit with Philip Brunelle at St. Olaf College in Northfield, the big Norwegian Lutheran college, and so this was my attempt to make reparations for what I've done to Norwegians over the years. The show was in the gym, with the college orchestra and choir, and what a joy to be around bright student musicians. Dizzying. I've worked with a lot of orchestras and this was one of the best. It was a benefit for the music program, which I did for no fee, and so I was on the moral high ground here, which you always want to be if you're among Lutherans. You don't want to be doing a show at St. Olaf the same day the newspapers report you took $400,000 to wheedle presidential pardons for a couple of your cocaine-dealing buddies.

St. Paul—February 19, 2001

The Berlin show is two weeks away and I come to that moment when I think, "I really should start writing that term paper." I want so much to do this show. Now it's time to get going. Saturday I spoke by phone with a woman in Berlin named Lucrezia Mache, a German woman who has lived in New York and who I'd like to come on the show to talk about her experience living in America. Still looking for an American to talk about living in Berlin. I dialed the number and felt that old chill one feels when dialing 0011 --- the fear of venturing beyond English, though I have no German whatsoever and so English is all I could offer. Nonetheless. She was, of course, very gracious and immediately agreed to come on the show and talk, though she is off to London for a week of vacation. I believe Lucrezia is a judge in Germany and she would seem to be in her mid-60s.

The Comedian Harmonists are signed up, a male vocal sextet that does arrangements of the original C.H. group of the 30s, a popular German jazz vocal group that came to grief under the Third Reich because three of the singers were Jews. And we're angling for other German talent, including a great cabaret singer, Max Raabe. And the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band is coming, and they'll be a big hit. Pat Donohue and Rich Dworsky and Andy Stein and all. Tom Keith doesn't want to travel because he and Liu are building a new house and it's at that stage where they need to supervise it, which is completely understandable. Sorry to lose the sound effects man. But as long as he can't come, I decided to not ask Tim Russell and Sue Scott. It's a long haul for them to do a broadcast, and of course they'd be brilliant, but I think we should use local talent.

I want to do this show in Berlin because I like Germans and feel kinship to them, because they suffer from the stupidest sort of lingering self-righteousness. When I lived in Denmark, my Danes were terribly righteous about Germans, Germans were the people you were allowed to be freely contemptuous of, and though I felt that older Danes who had endured the Occupation were entitled to their anger, the contempt of younger people was morally suspect. And then when my stepkids and I all visited Berlin, I remember my stepson leaning across a konditorei table and saying, "These people are so much like us." Which is absolutely true. I first went to Berlin in 1986, when the Wall was up and you waited hours to cross and the eastern sector seemed so barren and the western sector so beleaguered, and then again in 1990, when the Wall was down but still there were big stretches of empty terrain around Potsdamer Platz and the Reichstag, where the no-man's zone had been. And now, I'm sure, I'll find a whole new city.

Our ace in the hole with this show is the GASS Band. American music travels very comfortably to foreign cities. We know this. I remember when I lived in Copenhagen, how people like Flaco Jimenez and the Fugs and Johnny Cash were welcomed by the Danes. A comedian is another story. They have no idea who Johnny Carson or David Letterman are, but they do love Elvis and Lyle Lovett.

I head over on Monday night, the 26th, on a late flight to Amsterdam, and then to Berlin, and to a hotel on Unter den Linden in the old East Berlin. The show is in Charlottenberg, in a theater just off the Kurfurstendamm. Time to write the term paper.

Travel Diary Archives

European Book Tour 2004

European Tour 2001
Wed, Feb 28—Berlin
Sun, Feb 25—St. Paul
Mon, Feb 19—St. Paul

Rhubarb Tour 2003

All Entries
February 2001

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