“A Prairie Home Companion’: From Lake Wobegon to Las Cruces
By S. Derrickson Moore/Sun-News reporter
LAS CRUCES — The folks of Lake Wobegon are coming for the first-ever Las Cruces live broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” from New Mexico State University’s Pan American Center on May 31.
Here on the Southwestern prairies, fans are eagerly awaiting the event, according to David O’Neill, “PHC’s” marketing director.
“We are very excited to be coming to Las Cruces and from the moment that Garrison (Keillor) made mention of our coming there in a New Year’s Eve special, we have been hearing from folks telling us how excited they are — we honestly have been given an incredible welcome have received a ton of the nicest messages from people in and around Las Cruces,” O’Neill said.
In phone interviews this week from their home base in Minneapolis, longtime cast members Tim Russell and Sue Scott talked about what it takes to bring the beloved PBS show to its fans every week.
“Usually we come into town the day before the show,” said Russell, whose motley crew of characters have been described by legendary show host and author Keillor as “the mafioso, callow youth, Yale smoothie, prickly curmudgeon, Paris boulevardier, Russian artiste, Swedish sourpuss and cowpoke president.”
This year, Russell has added some new voices to his repertoire.”Because it’s political season, I’m also doing John McCain and Barack Obama in addition to the current occupant” of the White House. “And sometimes I still bring out Al Gore,” said Russell, breaking into character to announce that “I didn’t really invent the Internet.”
He has a Monday through Friday show on a Minneapolis radio station and spends most weekends on the road with “PHC.”
“We’ve been on the road for the last six weeks,” said Russell, adding that broadcasts from the Midwestern environs envisioned by most “PHC” fans are rare these days.
“We actually do most of our shows on other locations: maybe 10 or 12 in the twin cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) and all the rest, 24 or so, are on the road. I love to travel and enjoy going to museums in whatever city we’re in,” Russell said.
He said the show is full of surprises for the cast and rewrites continue until just before broadcast time.
“Garrison is a genius and what makes it fun for us is that we really don’t have to think about it. The writing is so good everything just falls into place. We’re always in hog heaven,” said Russell, who has been with the show since 1994.
There are also perks like the chance to hobnob with a highly diverse group of celebrities that range from legendary musicians to movie stars.
“Leon Redbone was just on the show,” said Russell.
He and Scott also have fond memories of the 2006 movie based on the show with an all-star cast that included Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and Lindsay Lohan.
“Lindsay calls me grandpa,” Russell reports.
Scott, a native of Tucson, Ariz., said she is looking forward to a visit to desert country. She’s been with the show since 1992 and said she has “the best job in show business. We are truly like a family. Some people have been with the show for 33 years, since the beginning. Garrison writes brilliant dialog and at 65 going on 66, he seems to have more energy and gets busier all the time.”
She has recently added Hillary Clinton to a list of characters that Keillor describes as “Lutheran lunch lady, grizzled waitress, supermodel, suburban mom, bimbo, harridan, harpy and siren.”
She and Russell also team as Barb and Jim, the popular Ketchup Advisory Board couple.
“I say that they are all my favorites because I don’t want any of my characters to feel left out. Tim is great with impersonations and I would say that I am more of a character actress. I try to find some kind of hook. Laura Bush is easier because of her thick Texas accent. Hillary is harder. I try to pick up something from her stump speeches,” she said.
Her adventures with “PHC” have included theme cruises with the cast and live broadcasts from exotic locales like Iceland.
“We broadcast to about 5 million fans in the United States but we’re aired in other English-speaking countries, on the BBC in London and in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand,” she said, and Internet streaming is making “PHC” a worldwide phenomenon.
She said an 18-wheeler with sets and equipment will roll into Las Cruces a few days before the May 31 broadcast, and a cast and crew of about 25 will gather for rehearsals on May 30.
“Garrison keeps doing rewrites and the script keeps evolving until broadcast time,” she said.
The “PHC” Web site recently announced that the musical guest will be Grammy Award-winning mandolin player and vocalist Chris Thile.
“We’ve been working to get this show here for three years. I’m really excited about this,” said Bobbie Welch, Pan Am’s special events coordinator, who reports that 3,000 of 4,500 available tickets were sold by this week.
“That includes almost all of the top-end tickets,” she said, adding that Pan Am officials are considering whether to open up additional seating areas to a maximum capacity of 5,300 seats for the show.