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Tony Bol: Minnesota Public Radio show-maker

Tony Bol is the director of performance programs for the Fitzgerald Theater and the UBS Forum, both owned and operated by Minnesota Public Radio. He has his photograph taken in his office in the MPR studios in downtown St. Paul. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Randy Hanson)1 / 3
The Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media building at 480 Cedar St. in downtown St. Paul is where much of the nation’s public radio programming is produced. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Randy Hanson)2 / 3
The Fitzgerald Theater at 10 East Exchange St. in downtown St. Paul is home to “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Wits” radio shows. It’s the leading producer of live radio stage shows in the nation, according to Hudson resident Tony Bol. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Randy Hanson)3 / 3

Life is pretty good if you’re Tony Bol.

He’s lives in a town he enjoys, he has the job of his youthful dreams, his wife is strong, his daughter is above-average -- and to top off, he isn’t bad looking.

Bol, a Hudson resident for 10 years, is the director of performance programs for Minnesota Public Radio. In that capacity, he’s responsible for all the live-audience radio shows that take place at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul.

The Fitzgerald is home to “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor, the flagship program of MPR, now produced and distributed by MPR’s parent organization, American Public Media.

The weekly Saturday evening variety show featuring music, comedy sketches, music and “The News from Lake Wobegon” is heard by some 4 million people on more than 600 public radio stations.

But the Fitzgerald hosts more than just “A Prairie Home Companion.”

“Wits,” MPR’s newest comedy, music and conversation show, also is broadcast from the theater. So is Kerri Miller’s “Talking Volumes” program and numerous other shows.

“I’m very proud to say the Fitzgerald Theater is the nation’s leader in making radio stage shows,” said Bol. And as a result, shows produced by other public radio organizations around the country often want to do a program at the Fitz to build their reputations.

Minnesota Public Radio owns the theater at 10 East Exchange St., located a block away from the MPR and American Public Media studios and offices at 480 Cedar St.

Bol also oversees the UBS Forum, a studio on the top floor of MPR’s St. Paul facility that hosts community discussions on public policy and social issues.

“To put it simply, I make radio stage shows -- or I help to make them. I bring in others,” Bol said of his job.

He took an hour out of his schedule on a Friday in mid-January to visit with a reporter from his hometown.

Dream job

Bol was a young man when he first heard “A Prairie Home Companion” and made it his goal to one day have a job at MPR.

Reading didn’t come easy for him as a youth, he said, but he enjoyed learning through stories and lectures and could retain what he heard.

“I remember even as a little kid always being the one who wanted to go hear the librarian read,” Bol said. “He should have had a radio show, I thought. He was great.”

After graduating from Stillwater Area High School in 1976, Bol began an on-and-off-again college experience.

He was a nightmare for his parents, he said, bouncing from university to university (including a stretch in Colorado) before ultimately earning a master’s degree in communications from the University of Minnesota.

He dropped out of college at one point to manage the St. Croix Boom Co., a popular Stillwater rock-and-roll bar in the 1980s.

“I will say I have no regrets about that time of running the St. Croix Boom Co. because it gave me leadership in management and tough negotiations, and real serious money -- hiring, firing,” Bol said.

His first job out of college was in student affairs at Macalester College, where he worked for five years.

Part of his job at Macalester involved arranging concerts.

“So making shows seems to be what I do,” he said. “I was always aiming toward the craft of storytelling and making shows.”

Bol started with MPR 23 years ago.

He was a young man living in Stillwater when he met Garrison Keillor for the first time.

Keillor was then a resident of Marine on St. Croix, north of Stillwater.

Bol got invited to a beach volleyball game on a river island that Keillor was participating in.

“I was struck by his quiet demeanor,” Bol recalled. “(He was) very friendly, but very quiet.”

Bol works regularly with Keillor now. They talk occasionally.

He has been to Keillor’s home and he knows his son and grandchildren, Bol said, but they don’t socialize.

“People sometimes don’t understand his social manner, but I think we’ve all met people who live in their heads,” Bol said.

He considers Keillor a genius. He’s produced shows in which Keillor has recited many verses of poetry from memory – and helped out poets who stumbled trying to recall lines from their own work.

“Garrison’s ability to retain information is shocking,” Bol said. “I’ve seen him do it in action and he does it time and time again, over and over again.”

“He’s been only wonderful to me,” Bol added. “…The fact of the matter is, I chose to go into public radio because of Garrison Keillor. And here I am. I’m very honored that my career worked out where I am literally working with him and not just theoretically wishing.”

If Keillor is an introvert, Bol is the opposite.

Friendly and affable, he’s quick with grin and a laugh, and happy to engage in conversation.

“Stories will be told,” is the phrase stamped on a Fitzgerald Theater coffee mug that Bol took off a shelf and handed to a guest.

“That’s the idea” at the Fitz,” he said. “Stories aren’t acted. They aren’t put on a screen. They aren’t projected. We aren’t known for having Broadway. We tell stories on our stage.”

Bol is wearing a Kelly green shirt with a matching plaid bow tie. A Kelly green pocket square is tucked into breast pocket of his sports coat.

His office on the main floor of the highly secure and larger-than-expected MPR and American Public Media building looks out on the Union Gospel Mission Naomi Family Center.

“They’re good neighbors,” he said matter-of-factly.

His desk and book shelves are peppered with family snapshots, often featuring his 13-year-old daughter, Yasha, a student at Hudson Middle School.

Bol and his wife, Eden Penn, moved to a house on Fourth Street when Yasha was 3.

He researched the Hudson School District before buying the house from a co-worker at MPR. The schools were a big part of why they came here, he said, and they haven’t disappointed them.

“The school district has been so attentive to our daughter’s education. She’s a very good student, and they keep finding new ways to elevate her,” he said.

Eden is an accomplished floral designer. She works for Martha’s Gardens in St. Paul, and has been to Paris to arrange flowers for an event benefiting the Friends of Versailles.

An antique lover, Eden also has a space in the Abigail Page Antique Mall in downtown Hudson.

Bol’s brother Todd and his wife moved to Hudson a few years after Bol and Penn arrived. Todd, the co-founder of Little Free Library, is two years older than Bol.

“Make sure that’s crystal clear,” Bol said jokingly.

“We chide each other enjoyably. He’s done something though. His vision with the Little Free Libraries is amazing.”

Tony and Todd grew up on a hobby farm near Lake Elmo, Minn. After having four boys, their parents adopted a girl. Tony is the youngest of the boys.

Their father was chiropractor who enjoyed the outdoors and raising horses. Their mother, a former schoolteacher, was the inspiration behind Todd’s first Little Free Library.

Happy in Hudson

While Bol works in an urbane world of authors, entertainers and musicians, he said he’s perfectly at home in Hudson.

He likes The Phipps Center for the Arts, the Star-Observer, the downtown, the parks and the river.

One of the things that attracted him and Penn to their Fourth Street house is that they can walk to the parks and the downtown shops and restaurants. And Yasha could walk to Willow River Elementary when she was a student there.

He raises heirloom tomatoes in their backyard garden and likes having Fleet Farm and Menards nearby, too.

“I’m proud of our town,” Bol said. “I won’t call it Mayberry, but it truly has that experience.”

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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