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'Prairie Home' sound effects man Keith dies at 64

Tom Keith, a longtime sound effects man who was the source of creaking doors, clucking chickens and more on "A Prairie Home Companion," has died. He was 64.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tom Keith, a longtime sound effects man who was the source of creaking doors, clucking chickens and more on "A Prairie Home Companion," has died. He was 64.

Keith's death was announced Monday by Jon McTaggart, chief executive of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media, which distributes "A Prairie Home Companion." He died suddenly of a heart attack after collapsing at his home Sunday, "Prairie Home" host Garrison Keillor said in a statement.

Keillor remembered Keith as "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," Keillor said.

Keillor said Keith performed on the "Prairie Home" show Oct. 22 at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater, where he did a sound effect of a grade-school teacher being shrunk from 6 feet to 3 inches "using a balloon, some small sticks, and vocal thwops and splorts, and then did the voice of a 3-inch-tall female."

Keith complained of shortness of breath the next week but put off seeing a doctor, Keillor said. The Oct. 22 show, with guest John Lithgow, was Keith's last "Prairie Home" performance.

Keith had performed with Keillor since 1976, when Keillor hosted an early version of MPR's "The Morning Show." Keith worked as a board operator but began appearing more and more in skits Keillor produced.

"Whenever Tom came onstage for a sketch, I could see the audience's heads turn in his direction," Keillor said. "They could hear me but they wanted to see Tom, same as you'd watch any magician. Boys watched him closely to see how he did the shotgun volleys, the singing walrus, the siren, the helicopter, the water drips. His effects were graceful, precise, understated, like the man himself."

When Keillor moved to "A Prairie Home Companion" full time, Keith co-hosted "The Morning Show," appearing in his alter ego of Jim Ed Poole.

He retired from that program in 2008 but continued to appear on Keillor's show. Along with other regular cast members, he appeared as himself in the 2006 Robert Altman movie "A Prairie Home Companion."

"We're just stunned," said Tim Russell, a voice actor on the show. "He was such a joy to work with and such a master at his craft. He's really going to be missed."

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."