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Companion to most, but not all

Garrison Keillor's Saturday evening radio show is a flash point for many listeners.

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If you know that "Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery" does not refer to the California supermarket chain, or that the maitre d' at the fictional Café Boeuf is Maurice, odds are pretty good that you're one of the 4 million devoted fans who spend Saturday nights with public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion." Since the show first aired in 1974, host Garrison Keillor and his "little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve" have acquired a fan base that borders on the cultlike. Devotees have been known to reschedule vacation plans and childbirth to worship at the shrine of what they see as a rare, sly humor.

Now Robert Altman's film, opening Friday, is poised to introduce Keillor and "Companion" to a potentially far wider audience. Some newcomers will find charm in the Norwegian bachelor farmers or the cowboy adventures of Dusty and Lefty. Others will learn why the show is named after a cemetery in Moorhead, Minn. But there are sure to be those, despite Keillor's seemingly inoffensive homage to Lake Wobegon, who will be added to the list of the humorist's critics.

When the show first went on the air, many listeners didn't know what to make of its slightly odd, understated tone, says Paul Croce, professor of American Studies at Stetson University, in Deland, Fla., "but it went from being old-fashioned to being retro-cool." He calls Keillor's deadpan humor and political commentary a combination of a modern Walter Mitty and a liberal Rodney Dangerfield. It appeals to cultural progressives who would like to change the world but understand that change is not that simple, according to Mr. Croce. "These folks just eat up the spoofing of political correctness in Guy Noir, the English Majors Association, and strong women and good-looking men in my hometown," he adds, listing recurring characters from the show. Perhaps most important, he says, Keillor's program is based on fundamental American values of small-town participatory democracy.

Keillor declined to be interviewed for this story.

Many listeners feel a lack of community in cities and appreciate Keillor's affection for it. " 'A Prairie Home Companion' succeeds because it makes the nation feel like a smaller, simpler place," says film historian Beverly Gray, who calls it the radio equivalent of a small-town bulletin board. "The heart of each show is Garrison Keillor reading messages, connecting friends and family members who live thousands of miles apart."

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