Tom Keith: Sound Effects Man

June 14, 2011

Tom Keith

Tom Keith provides sound effects and character voices for A Prairie Home Companion. A St. Paul native, Keith has performed with Garrison Keillor since 1976. With vocal gymnastics and a variety of props, he creates creaking doors, footsteps, barking dogs—even elephants.

How is it that you came to work with Garrison Keillor?
I first started working with Garrison when he began doing his Prairie Home Morning Show in 1974....I think that was the year. It was the third time he did a daily morning show on MPR. I was the engineer on duty at that time of morning. I had never heard the earlier shows but I first heard about Garrison when I was taking a comedy class at the University of Minnesota and our class had to critique an article he wrote for The New Yorker. I told him about that and he asked me what I thought of the article and I said, "It was ok".

Listen to "Best Bits 1998 - 2000"

You started on The Morning Show with Garrison Keillor back in the early '70s. A lot of the same elements are present in A Prairie Home Companion today. The music is fairly similar, except PHC is performed live. The sketches were present and even the beginning of a weekly report about the small town of Lake Wobegon. What is your first memory or the first mention of Lake Wobegon, "the little town that time forgot and decades could not improve?"
I knew that the town was a made up town but I have to admit, like so many others, I still had to check a Minnesota map just to make sure. It all sounded so convincing.

A big question for those in Minnesota, is Jim Ed Poole your twin brother?
Actually the first Poole name was Ed Jim Poole who trained chickens for the crowing contest at the Minnesota State Fair. Garrison came up with the last name and I decided how to spell it not knowing that poulet was French for chicken. I should have used that spelling it would have given me more class. Jim Ed Poole came later as the brother of Ed Jim. Jim Ed trained attack chickens for security purposes. I was also the voice of Biff Roberts who was the manager of the breakfast theater across the alley behind the radio station and voices for any other characters that Garrison thought up. I was the one who got to do this because I was the only one in that station besides Garrison.

Listen to "The Morning Show: Final Show" featuring The Steeles, Neal & Leandra, Greg Brown, Peter Ostroushko, Peter Mayer & Dan Choinard

How did The Morning Show (which saw its final broadcast in 2008) change or evolve after Garrison left and started A Prairie Home Companion?
Musically it stayed about the same but there was no fictitious town and all new characters appeared from the mind of Dale Connelly.

Watch "Rhubarb" featuring Tom Keith & Fred Newman

A notable difference between you and Fred Newman is that you have a sound effects table. What would you say are required elements of an effective sound effects table?
Yah, Fred is more comfortable doing the sound effects vocally and I prefer trying to come up with props. It's fun when Fred is on along with me because he can handle all the vocal gymnastics and I can deal with the props.

Listen to "The Six Minute Hamlet"

You have been a part of many memorable scripts including "The Six Minute Hamlet," the opera spoof "La Influenza," etc. When do you first see a script and how do you prepare or get ready to perform the piece?
We, The Academy of Radio Actors, first see the scripts on Friday during our first rehearsal. That's when it is timed for length and I try out my sound effects to hear what works and what doesn't. Garrison knows what I have in my sound effects kit but sometimes I have to come up with something new. If I can't then the script will be adjusted. The next day we will get the scripts again with edits. Sometimes on Saturday we might even get a new script we haven't seen and run through it during rehearsal and then have that edited just before broadcast. You have to be flexible.

Is there a lot of "live" ad-libbing of sound effects?
Sometimes it looks like Garrison is trying to trick me but I usually know when it is going to happen. But there have been one or two times where he has extended a script by adding a few extra sound effects.

Listen to "Guy Noir"

What is your favorite sketch to participate in? Any episodes that stand out in particular?
Some of my favorite sketches were the ones that we did touring as the "Annual Final Show." Those were Buster and Timmy with Sheila the Christian jungle girl played by Kate MacKenzie. "Guy Noir" is always fun and is usually filled with sound effects and can be quite a challenge.

A lot younger fans of A Prairie Home Companion have cited Guy Noir as being their favorite part of the show because of the sound effects. What advice would you offer to any young fan who might want to re-create a few of the sound effects and sketches from the show?
The first thing I would say is to take off those stupid earphones and listen to the sounds of the world. Whenever I go walking around the neighborhood I like to hear the sounds of nature and people and any large trucks that may be coming up behind me driven by someone who may be texting while driving.

Watch "The Lives of the Cowboys"

What advice would you offer young performers?
Practice, practice, practice.

As one of the longest tenured weekly performers on the show, you have gotten the chance to see The Everly Brothers, Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Emmylou Harris, among so many others. Who did you most look forward to working with or listening to on A Prairie Home Companion?
There have been so many it would be hard to pick one. Emmylou is a favorite because of the heroic effort she and her team made to get from Nashville, Tennessee to Birmingham, Alabama by bus through an unusual blizzard. She finally made it in time to be on the last half of the show. The weather was so bad that we couldn't leave Birmingham until the airport opened for flights on Monday. Even then they had to rock the plane back and forth to get it unstuck from the gate.

Another favorite is Ray Goulding and Bob Elliot. They did sort of the same thing with radio that we do.

You had a pretty large part in the A Prairie Home Companion movie... what was it like working with Mr. Robert Altman and the amazing cast that was assembled?
I wouldn't say I had a large part in the movie but I'm glad I didn't have to memorize any lines. It was absolutely fascinating for me to see how a movie is made. It's a lot of work trying to coordinate everything and everyone. I could see why actors would jump at the chance to be in a Robert Altman movie. He made it a joy and is sorely missed.

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

Available now»

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