Prairie Home Companion sound effects man Tom Keith rememberedby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio,
Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — When Tom Keith stepped up to the sound effects microphone, radio magic invariably followed.
"He could do anything. You would ask him to make a sound, and he could make that sound," said Dale Connelly, who was Keith's co-host on The Morning Show for Minnesota Public Radio from 1983 until Keith retired in 2008. "He brought things to life. It was amazing to watch."
Keith, most famous for his sound effects wizardry on A Prairie Home Companion, died Sunday after collapsing suddenly at his home. He was 64.
Read a News Cut post with more on Tom Keith's time on A Prairie Home Companion and at MPR.
"All of us at the show are shocked by his passing and send our sincere condolences to his family and also to the listeners who enjoyed his work so much," Garrison Keillor said in a statement released Monday.
Keillor said Keith's sound effects "were graceful, precise, understated, like the man himself."
Keith worked at MPR for 25 years, but remarkably little planning went into his career.
After a stint at the University of Minnesota where he was a standout baseball player, Keith joined the Marines. Keith said he had papers to go to Vietnam, but another Marine who hadn't been tapped to go offered to trade assignments. Keith accepted, and in 1973 he was out of the military and looking for a job.
He applied to be a board operator at MPR, then a small operation.
"The person who interviewed him didn't have time to read his application and just said, 'Well, can you start tomorrow?'" Connelly said.
Keith wound up working with Garrison Keillor, who at the time was host of an early version of The Morning Show. Keith started as a board operator, but began appearing more and more in skits Keillor produced for the show.
"Garrison has a big imagination," Connelly said, "and Tom was able to step into that world and help Garrison with the show."
Keillor also praised Keith's creativity.
"Tom was one of radio's great clowns," he said. "He was serious about silliness and worked hard to get a moo exactly right and the cluck too and the woof. His whinny was amazing -- noble, vulnerable, articulate. He did bagpipes, helicopters, mortars, common drunks, caribou (and elands and elk and wapiti), garbage trucks backing up, handsaws and hammers, and a beautiful vocalization of a man falling from a great height into piranha-infested waters."
Whenever Keith came onstage for a sketch, Keillor said, the audience watched intently.
"They could hear me but they wanted to see Tom, same as you'd watch any magician," he said. "Boys watched him closely to see how he did the shotgun volleys, the singing walrus, the siren, the helicopter, the water drips."
When Keillor left The Morning Show to concentrate on A Prairie Home Companion, Keith co-hosted the show with Connelly. Keith hosted that show as his alter ego, Jim Ed Poole, a character Keillor created for the earlier version of the show.
Connelly, who wrote the scripts for the show, said Keith was an observer and a listener. He watched the world around him, and picked up the tiny details which would later appear in his work.
Connelly said he often thought of Keith as his muse.
"Whatever I could imagine, he could make happen," he said. "I would write a character for him and hand him a script, and give him absolutely no useful advice as to how to bring this person to life. And he would read it through once, and then taking cues from the script and his own imagination, he would come up with something fully formed."
Connelly says he doesn't know how Keith did it, and suspects Keith didn't know either.
But Tim Russell, a radio actor for A Prairie Home Companion who worked alongside Keith for many years, thinks he has an idea.
"He was a big fan of Bob and Ray and some of the glory days of radio. And when you have that sort of working knowledge, he was able to bring all of that to Garrison's show. And so it was a matter of shorthand for him to come up with just the right way to deliver a line or to deliver a sound effect," Russell said.
Keith had been practicing from an early age. His father, Jimmy Keith, was a local radio performer who appeared on Twin Cities radio as Pop Wiggins. In a 1988 broadcast with his son, Jimmy Keith recalled how he often got unrequested help.
"When I would rehearse, he couldn't resist joining in," the elder Keith recalled.
"It was hard for him to play the guitar and hold his hand over my mouth at the same time, but that's how I got into showbiz," Tom Keith recalled.
They compromised by having Tom add sound effects to the song, "My Little Rooster." In later years they did the song as a party turn, asking for suggestions from the audience.
Off the air, Connelly said Keith was easygoing. He didn't shove himself into the limelight, but he was always an important presence, Connelly said.
"There wasn't a lot of drama with Tom," he said. "He just liked to make things happen. ... Things were always relaxed when Tom was in the room."
Russell said he and Keith performed together on Oct. 22 and "everything seemed just fine."
He said he'll remember Keith for his generosity and kindness, as well as his talent.
"We always had just the greatest time," Russell said. "He really kind of reinvented the whole genre of radio sound effects, going back to the earliest days of A Prairie Home Companion, and he was so generous to the rest of us as actors and other cast members."
Keith collapsed at his Woodbury home Sunday evening and died shortly afterward.
Keillor said Keith had complained of shortness of breath the week before he died but had not seen a doctor.
The cause of his death has not been released, and funeral services are pending.
MPR and American Public Media CEO Jon McTaggart announced Keith's death to staff at a meeting Monday morning, and staff participated in a moment of silence. McTaggart said he knew few details about the circumstances of his death.
"Tom was beloved by everyone who had the pleasure of knowing and working with him. We will miss his humor, his amazing talents and his friendship," McTaggart said later in an email to staff.
- All Things Considered, 10/31/2011, 5:52 p.m.
Elizabeth Dunbar is a general assignment reporter for MPR News.