A ‘Prairie Home’ companion dead at 64The man responsible for bringing the sounds of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” to life has died.
By: Amber Kispert-Smith, Woodbury Bulletin
The man responsible for bringing the sounds of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” to life has died.
Woodbury resident Tom Keith, the sound-effects wizard for the popular radio show and former Minnesota Public Radio host, died Sunday, Oct. 30 after collapsing in his home. He was 64.
Keith appeared on his final “Prairie Home Companion episode” Oct. 22.
In an Oct. 31 email statement, Garrison Keillor said the cause of death was a heart attack.
According to Keillor’s statement, Keith had complained of shortness of breath earlier in the week but did not see a doctor.
Keith collapsed around 6 p.m. He was conscious afterward but died in the ambulance on his way to the hospital.
“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,” Keillor said.
The wizard of sound
Keith, who grew up in West St. Paul, attended the University of Minnesota before joining the Marine Corps. Keith left the Marines in 1973.
Shortly after leaving the service, Keith applied to be a board operator at MPR, which was then a small operation.
He wound up working with Keillor, who at the time was host of an early version of The Morning Show. Keith started as a board operator but eventually began appearing more and more in skits Keillor produced for the show.
It was on the Morning Show that Keith developed his famed character Jim Ed Poole, a character that Keillor had created for Keith.
Keith, along with Dale Connelly, took over the "Morning Show" after Keillor left. The duo hosted the show for nearly 26 years before calling it quits in 2008.
Some of Keith’s most memorable sound effects included: bagpipes, helicopters, mortars, drunks, caribou, garbage trucks backing up, handsaws and hammers and a vocalization of a man falling from a great height into piranha-infested waters.
“His effects were graceful, precise, understated – like the man himself,” Keillor said. “Tom was one of radio’s great clowns.”
“He was serious about silliness and worked hard to get a moo exactly.”
Fellow “A Prairie Home Companion” actor Tim Russell said Keith’s talent was what made the show what it is.
“It’s such an unusual talent of being able to create sound effects to help a script come to life,” he said. “Timing is the key to comedy – and he had it in spades.”
Russell said some of his memories of Keith will be simply how wonderful of a person he was.
“He was very a thoughtful, loyal friend,” he said. “He was very thoughtful and will be irreplaceable.”
Keillor said “A Prairie Home Companion” won’t be the same without Keith’s sound effects.
“He was an ex-Marine, a good golfer, a sturdy, reliable, can-do colleague, a gifted performer with the unassuming demeanor of a stagehand,” he said. “Whenever Tom came onstage for a sketch, I could see the audience’s heads turn in his direction. They could hear me but they wanted to see Tom, same as you’d watch any magician.”
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