Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Keillor's firing marks sad demise of an American folk hero

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LENOX — Garrison Keillor, creator and former host of public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion," says he's "kind of bewildered" that he's suddenly becoming a pariah, with his entire 45-year career erased from public view.

His many listeners and admirers are equally stunned and confused following allegations this week that thrust the 75-year-old humorist, essayist and broadcaster into the cauldron of shame shared by Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and an ever-lengthening list of journalists, entertainers, politicians — including the current occupant of the White House — and other public figures accused of sexual harassment, predation or worse.

Coincidentally, Keillor was in Pittsfield that day for a nearly sold-out performance at the Colonial Theatre, part of his East Coast tour. That performance (and the rest of the itinerary) was canceled after Minnesota Public Radio severed its business ties with the still-active entertainer because of allegations of "inappropriate behavior" it received from a former staffer on "Prairie."

Likewise, the Washington Post canceled his syndicated column, which had appeared regularly in The Eagle, chastising Keillor for his ill-timed and off-base defense of fellow Minnesotan Al Franken, whose future on Capitol Hill is in doubt as the Senate Ethics Committee probes multiple allegations of improper conduct.

If you missed it, here's how Keillor explained his side of the story: "I put my hand on a woman's bare back. I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called."

If that's all that happened, it's possible to argue that his punishment not only doesn't fit the crime, but far exceeds it. But I've been cautioned that additional incidents have come to light for the others accused during this long-overdue reckoning and pushback against widespread male transgressions.

Keillor said in an email to Minnesota Public Radio that two employees had made allegations. In an email Thursday to The Associated Press, which asked him to clarify how many people were involved, Keillor said one person had made a claim against MPR and one had made a claim against him.

In his first and, so far, only personal interview, Keillor told The Eagle's enterprising arts and entertainment writer Ben Cassidy on Wednesday that "I've worked extremely hard on a show that I love for almost 50 years, and somebody else can torch it in one morning, and so it's all gone. And it's a difficult thing to discuss."

And Keillor reached out to supporters in a message: "If they have listened to the show, they know me better than most of my relatives do, and that's just the case. All those stories and all of that was told from the heart, and so that's who I am."

I encountered him several times since he started appearing at Tanglewood in 1999, broadcasting his show live from the Shed. Over 17 years of performances there, he developed a special affinity for the Boston Symphony's summer home.

"There is no place like Tanglewood," Keillor told me. He cited "the ghosts of Hawthorne and Leonard Bernstein, the enormous Shed and the lawn beyond, and the loyal listeners who come."

"Every year they strive to prolong the encore beyond the all-time record, which I believe is 75 minutes," Keillor said. "We stand out on stage and sing and they sing with us and the cows come home and nobody leaves. This happens nowhere else in America."

At his last show there, in 2016, he stayed until 11 p.m. - three hours beyond the on-air sign-off — for sing-alongs and mingling with fans.

However, outside the onstage "Prairie" milieu, he's painfully shy, avoids direct eye contact and appears totally different from the garrulous, affable host, a homespun, quirky folksy Midwestern humorist and "News from Lake Wobegon" monologist.

But I'll never forget the literary gala that brought him to The Mount in Lenox in July 2010 as the guest of honor. During a meet-and-greet reception, he was polite but distant when I approached him — until he spotted my diminutive son, then 7. He crouched on his knees, making contact with Jacob at eye-level. A charming exchange of pleasantries followed.

"Garrison in person is quite different," his longtime friend, the writer Mark Singer told The New York Times. "Garrison does not express emotion in interpersonal conversations the way the rest of us do."

His friend, the humorist Roy Blount, Jr, stated that "sometimes people complain that they can't have a conversation with him, but I think that's because he's writing in his head."

"His gaze is often floating and takes you in from a strange distance," said the writer and editor Roger Angell, who in 1970 oversaw Keillor's first piece for The New Yorker. "He is certainly the strangest person I know. I don't think he's necessarily a happy man. But the time he is happy is when he is doing his monologue."

Now, Keillor's onstage persona is wiped out and his own website is purged of all content except for a statement of deep gratitude "for all the years I had doing `A Prairie Home Companion' and `The Writer's Almanac,' the summer tours, the outdoor shows at Tanglewood, the friendships of musicians and actors, the saga of Lake Wobegon, the songs and sketches, Guy Noir, Dusty & Lefty, the sheer pleasure of standing in the warmth of that audience. A person could not hope for more than what I was given."

I always thought that of all public figures, Keillor was the least likely to become embroiled in allegations of sexual harassment or misbehavior.

Last year, before he took the stage at Tanglewood the final time, I saluted him as "a cross between Mark Twain, Will Rogers and a minister whose sermon-like monologues gently, non-judgmentally, explore the foibles of humanity an American Original who lit up many of our dark nights and lifted our spirits all these years."

At least so far, based on what has emerged, nothing has changed my view. But it's very sad, and painful, to watch him ride off into the sunset, perhaps never to be heard from again.

Contact Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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