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Arts & Culture

Twenty Years Ago, 'A Prairie Home Companion' Came To San Antonio

Twenty years ago this week, TPR worked with Minnesota Public Radio to pull off what was probably the biggest production the station had ever undertaken in its 14-year history. The previous year, we had agreed to bring “A Prairie Home Companion” to San Antonio.

There was a lot of debate internally about whether TPR had the resources to pull off the show. It would mean arranging for a large venue to host the show, finding a week’s lodging for the cast and crew, and selling over 2,500 tickets to the performance, something we had never done yet. TPR’s Operations Manager at the time, the late Jan Huggins, took the lead on the project, and I remember him in his office, poring over seating charts and stacks of contracts. He spent a good deal of time on the phone with Trinity University and Minnesota. We needn’t have worried about ticket sales. Within three hours, Laurie Auditorium was sold out!

On Saturday, June 15 at 5 p.m., it was show time.

Garrison Keillor opened the show with “Tishomingo Blues,” and then went into a fake advertisement for the Café Boeuf “just off the River Walk on fashionable Drainage Ditch Drive” where the prix fixe dinner is Villa Armadilla de la Quesadilla, “baked in the shell.”

Other highlights of the show included Dusty and Lefty, and musical guests Johnny Gimble and his band,  who played “Gardenia Waltz,” and Flaco Jimenez y su Conjunto.

During the first half of the show, San Antonio resident D.C. Nix appeared on stage. The previous year, he had won the first annual "Oddest Laugh in Texas" contest, sponsored by Ripley's Believe it Or Not. Nix was joined by 11-year-old Tyson Harper the 1996 champion from Fort Worth.

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At Laurie Auditorium.

After the mid-show break, when Garrison traditionally reads notes from the audience on-air, he came upon this gem:

“Fondest regards to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, from Carlos Guerra, their favorite columnist.” That one got a big laugh. Guerra had been critical of the DRT in the pages of the San Antonio Express-News.

TPR’s Volunteer Coordinator, Toni Murgo, helped shuttle the cast from place to place, and remembers having an extra pair of red socks on hand for Garrison, should he need him during the broadcast. After the show, there was a reception at a local couple’s home, but no one was sure if Garrison would show. “He had a reputation for being unpredictable,” Murgo remembers. “Sometimes he wouldn’t come” to the post-show party. But when the time came, GK was there.

“He was so charming and sweet,” Murgo says. “He stood in that house for two hours while all these people lined up for autographs.”

While driving some of the cast back to the hotel, TPR receptionist Diane Chambers-Stewart had a bit of a scare. It was late at night, and from a distance she heard a police siren that gradually got louder. Nervously clenching the steering wheel, she found out just what it’s like to have a master sound-effects man in your back seat. The late Tom Keith had pranked her, and she fell for it!

As for me, I heard the show like so many thousands of others who weren’t there in person. I had volunteered to work the Saturday night shift on KSTX that evening, and so enjoyed the News from Lake Wobegon on the radio as I watched the sun sink low in the sky, looking out of the eighth floor of our studios on the northwest side of town. It was a great night.

A full rundown and audio of the program is on A Prairie Home Companion's website here