The stars come back to St. Paul for Prairie Home premiereby William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota's capital city can now claim to have hosted a Hollywood-style premiere. On Wednesday night, the stars of the movie "A Prairie Home Companion" filed into downtown St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater for the Midwest debut of the film based on the long-running radio show.
Most of us will have to wait until it opens in theaters next month to see it, but a select group was invited to the premiere inside the theater where much of the movie was filmed. Minnesotans eager for an up-close view of some of their favorite stars lined the red carpet outside the theater.
St. Paul, Minn. — At an hour when commuters were beginning to stream out of downtown St. Paul, Kim and Mike Marolis were leaning back in their lawn chairs on the asphalt of Exchange St. They occupied a prime spot just behind the lip of the red carpet leading into the Fitzgerald Theater. An hour before showtime, the couple had already been waiting about an hour.
"We're transplants from Chicago," Mike said, "so we're trying to inculcate ourselves into Minnesota culture and I guess this is about as good as it's going to get. We've never heard Garrison Keillor or 'A Prairie Home Companion,' but now we're going to look forward to the movie and listen for it on public radio."
People offered various explanations for their presence along the red carpet. Some were neighbors who had watched the comings and goings at the Fitzgerald while the movie was being filmed.
Wally Arnold, who lives in the building next door to the theater, remembered that the cast and crew were generous with their conversation and their snacks.
"All the stars was real friendly," Arnold said. We always got free pizza and doughnuts and White Castles. They'd make an effort to stop and talk to us."
Ann Kryjeski teaches at St. Matthews Middle School in St. Paul and brought a few of her students with her to see the spectacle of a major motion picture premiere.
"I just wanted them to participate in something that was local culture, and for them to get to see some media. And this is something that isn't a chance they're always going to get," Kryjeski said.
Another St. Paul school teacher on hand for the event served as an extra during the filming. Penny Heubach said the assignment involved more waiting than anything else.
But she was grateful that actors Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly made a point of regaling the extras with some bonus entertainment.
"Woody and John were amazed that all the extras didn't get paid," Heuback said. "And so they did a little show for us, a little extra hoedown kind of thing. It was way fun. And the Powdermilk Biscuit Band and everything -- Jearlyn Steele came out and sang. It was great."
The fans and excited onlookers even outnumbered the dozens of photographers and reporters who also set up camp along the carpet, and periodically taped segments for various news and entertainment shows.
A similar crowd had formed several blocks away in front of the St. Paul Hotel, watching for the movie stars, who would climb aboard horse-drawn carriages in a parade that would be led to the theater by the Highland Park High School marching band.
At the theater, excitement picked up as some of the VIPs invited to the screening arrived in their black ties and evening gowns.
St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman and his family were the first to stroll down the red carpet, with Coleman pausing to tell interviewers that the occasion brought valuable national publicity to the city.
There were also a number of false alarms, as anxious teenagers responded to Lindsay Lohan sightings that proved to be mirages.
When the carriages finally did pull up and the stars disembarked, a crush of photographers descended onto the red carpet and a number of fans followed them, stepping over the velvet rope and crowding around the celebrities. For others farther back, that made glimpses of the stars a precious commodity.
The actors paused for brief interviews and signed a few autographs amid the swarm of adulation before disappearing behind the theater's glass doors. Security guards made a belated attempt to return onlookers to their designated areas.
After the last VIP had entered the Fitzgerald, the show soon began. Director Robert Altman introduced the cast and gave the movie a somewhat puzzling introduction, perhaps alluding to his highly collaborative approach.
"It's so incestuous now that nobody's going to understand this movie," Altman said. "And you won't know what it's about, and that's good."
Back outside on Exchange St., the remaining fans took pictures of one another posing on the red carpet. They gave the spectacle mixed reviews, depending on how good their view had been. For Nick Rodriguez, an hour-long wait had generated only disappointment.
"I didn't really get to see much, he said. "The carpet barrier broke down and then I was behind 15 people and I couldn't see anything."
But for teenagers Anna Walsh and Emily Arksey, the evening will not be forgotten.
"I just loved it, it was so fun," said Anna. "It's like the first time I've ever been to one of these."
"It was just amazing," Emily concluded.
"A Prairie Home Companion" opens in theaters nationwide on June 9.