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St. Louisan helps put the 'Home' in 'Prairie Home Companion'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2009 - If you listen to the credits of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show you hear the name Albert Webster. Otherwise anonymous, the  tour and stage manager for the popular public radio show is a powerful presence behind the broadcast that airs live Saturdays on KWMU-FM in St. Louis.

Webster says he is "the guy who essentially books the venues and works with our sponsoring stations to set up" what will be needed for the show to come to town to do the broadcast." After Keillor decides where the show will be, he is the first point of contact of the "whole bunch of people" that handle all the details.

"A Prairie Home Companion" is making its second St. Louis appearance this Saturday, May 30, at a sold-out show at the Fox Theatre. That's nice for Webster. It's good to work for a winner, and good, too, because now he lives in St. Louis.

The St. Louis show headlines popular singer Jearlynn Steele and the Del McCoury Band, a well-known Country Western/Bluegrass group. Along with host Keillor and the regular cast and musicians, there should be some "interesting stuff" about St. Louis, Webster said.

Webster started out as a part-time weekend stage manager for the show, which is based in St. Paul, Minn. After two years as a part-timer, he took on expanding responsibilities after personnel changes caused roles to shift about five years ago.

"I went full-time and that's where the tour part of my title came in," he said. Basically, the shows would never be produced without all the steps he takes during the booking process, usually done about 18 months ahead of time. His job involves arranging the contracts and "kind of getting into the nitty-gritty of the production parts," he said.

The regular season for the show, which first started production in 1974, lasts between Labor Day and July 4. During those 10 months, Webster is away from home about 24 times for a Thursday night to Sunday morning stint to be stage manager in that week's hosting city.

Travel can take its toll on a family. Webster has a wife and three children. Comparing St. Louis to St. Paul, where he lived for 15 years before moving here, Webster said he liked St. Paul a lot, but "I really, really love St. Louis," said Webster, who was born and reared in New York City.

"Now that I've moved down here to St. Louis, I asked not to do the shows in St. Paul," he said, noting that his life in St. Louis has greatly benefited from the additional time he spends with his wife, Kristina, and their children.

"Getting those 10 to 12 weekends back has really saved the relationship with my family," he said. "This has been a great thing. It worked out really well and I'm very thankful to Garrison for letting me do it."

In addition to being host and star of "A Prairie Home Companion," Keillor is known around the country and overseas as a best-selling author who has written more than 12 books, a gifted storyteller, a humorist and a sought-after speaker.

Webster said working for Keillor is "definitely interesting ... one of the best jobs in show business," he said. "He's very concerned with the treatment and well-being of the people around him. He's as gentlemanly as anybody I've ever known.

"If he had his way, he would pay us all salaries that were completely above the industry norm, fly us in first class and put us up at the Ritz everywhere we went," he continued. "We can't afford to do that, but he's extremely generous.

"The flipside, which of course you would expect there to be," he said laughing, "is he works hard and expects us to work hard, you know. Once it gets to Friday morning, there is no focus and no goal except to make the Saturday show as good as it can be."

Anything going on in his mind or taking place around him could end up in the show, Webster said. Nothing is held back and there are no limits in making the show the very best, he added.

Compared to any similar type of organization with this kind of show, "A Prairie Home Companion's" staff is "definitely lean and mean" and "extremely small for what we do," Webster said.

Webster said he became interested in the theater while majoring in biological anthropology at Harvard. He built scenery and ran shows for more than 30 productions. "I wasn't cut out to be a researcher."

Later, he worked at the Brooklyn Academy of Music where "A Prairie Home Companion" played many times. He also did a stint as production manager at the Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul, where the show played once or twice, he said.

Webster said he's an employee of Minnesota Public Radio, which licenses Keillor's company to produce the show and owns the Fitzgerald Theatre where the shows take place in St. Paul.

"But I work entirely at Garrison's discretion," he said. Keillor's "company gets paid by MPR to produce the show and that company pays him."

The production this week marks the first time that Webster has done the show in St. Louis while also living here. "There's a whole lot of last minute stuff," he said. "The show's very organic."

The vast size of the Fox is "just right for us," he said. "It's a perfect place for us to play." Webster noted that the Fox is "a huge supporter of us" and KWMU is very good to work with. "I can't even begin to say how terrific they are. ... They sold the show for us."

Among all noncommercial and commercial radio stations in the St. Louis market, "A Prairie Home Companion" is top ranked in its time slot.

Now in his mid-60s, Keillor had some health problems a few years ago and underwent heart surgery, Webster said. "He is fine now," he added, noting that "he's just incredibly driven and incredibly productive."

Just on Fridays and Saturdays, "he's working on three or four parallel tracks at any given moment, he said. "The rest of the week he's running this gigantic empire" that involves writing books, book-signing tours, giving speeches and a variety of related events.

Looking far into the future about Keillor and the show, Webster said, "Garrison harbors hope that the show will continue without him. But I don't think so. He is the show."

Bill Morrison is a freelance writer.

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