Remembering Tom Keith

Tom was one of radio's great clowns. 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.--Garrison Keillor
On October 30, 2011, Tom Keith passed away from a heart attack at age 64. Minnesota Public Radio listeners knew him as his alter ego, Jim Ed Poole, host of The Morning Show until his retirement in 2008. But I and millions of other National Public Radio listeners will remember him best for his sound effects on A Prairie Home Companion. Beginning as a board operator on MPR in 1973, Keith eventually found himself integrated into the skits created by Garrison Keillor, then the host of The Morning Show. When Keillor left the show to devote his time to A Prairie Home Companion, Keith stepped in to fill his shoes, co-hosting with Dale Connelly and maintaining the Jim Ed Poole persona that Keillor had created for him. And of course, Keith worked on A Prairie Home Companion. Drawing on an ever-expanding, internal library of sound effects tracing back to his childhood, Keith served as an integral part of the show's radio acting cast. Machine guns firing, helicopter blades thwapping, footsteps treading a staircase, wapiti bugling, penguins squealing, chickens clucking, chainsaws buzzing, giant pterodactyls emerging from subterranean hiding places...Keith manufactured them all and a multitude of other sounds besides. Seemingly no effect lay beyond his ingenuity; what Keillor asked for, often on the spot, Keith produced. And we, the listeners, laughed. Keith transformed radio into a joyous, madcap world and swept us into that world. I didn't learn of Tom Keith's passing until the week after, listening to an NPR interview with Tom's counterpart, Fred Newman. No less brilliant than Tom in his abilities, Newman described Keith's impact on his own development as the other sound effects man for A Prairie Home Companion. It was a fascinating interview, but its interest for me was offset by my having just had the wind knocked out of me. Tom Keith, dead? It couldn't be. With that news, a part of my own life seemed to have suddenly ended as well. I will miss Tom Keith--his brilliant, nutty audio portraits; the occasional, crazy showdowns when Garrison would pit Tom and Fred against each other in mock sound effects contests; his renderings of Garrison's demented brother, Larry, who lived in the basement; his simple presence on A Prairie Home Companion. The show must go on, as the saying goes, and three weeks after Tom's death, it does, as funny, creative, and engaging as ever. Yet I am certain that Garrison and Tom's fellow radio actors grieve the loss of their colleague and friend of many years. Good-bye, Tom Keith. Rest in peace. And thank you.