'Prairie Home' sound effects master Tom Keith dies

"One of radio's great clowns" also was known as the popular "Jim Ed Poole."

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Tom Keith during a live radio broadcast of the Garrison Keillor Prairie Home Companion Show at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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A quirky, iconic, uniquely Minnesotan voice -- and creator of an astounding array of captivating, hilarious, bawdy sounds -- has fallen silent.

Tom Keith, longtime master of radio sound effects for Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" and cohost of "The Morning Show," died of a heart attack on Sunday at his Woodbury home, Keillor said on Monday. The St. Paul native was 64.

Keith provided sound effects and voices for the nationally syndicated show, which is produced by Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media.

He last performed Oct. 22 at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater with the show's cast and guest John Lithgow, playing "a zombie and a beery Elizabethan bartender, [doing] sound effects for 'Lives of the Cowboys' ... and a wonderful and shocking sound effect of a grade-school teacher being shrunk from 6 feet to 3 inches," Keillor wrote in a statement.

The week after that show, Keith complained of shortness of breath but put off going to see a doctor, Keillor said. He collapsed at his home on Sunday evening and died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. MPR and American Public Media CEO Jon McTaggart broke the news to staff members on Monday morning.

"Tom was one of radio's great clowns," said Keillor, who had worked with Keith since 1976. "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 ... garbage trucks backing up, handsaws and hammers, and a beautiful vocalization of a man falling from a great height into piranha-infested waters."

Keith's death is "just one of those things that you can't believe," said actor Tim Russell. "We loved working with him."

Along with soundmaking, Keith voiced recurring characters, including weird Larry from the basement, Maurice the maître d' from Café Boeuf and Timmy the teenager.

"Prairie Home" wasn't the only show on which he was a popular presence. In 2008, he wrapped up 25 years as "Jim Ed Poole" on MPR's "The Morning Show" with Dale Connelly. At the time, Keith said the show was never the same after it moved to The Current (89.3 FM), which leans toward a younger demographic.

On Monday, Connelly was among those in mourning for his longtime friend. Keith "was a very generous spirit, an extremely creative man," he said. "We spent almost every weekday morning together in a small room for 25 years, and I loved working with him -- so inventive and easygoing, and never a harsh word."

Connelly said Keith was a kind man "who could be gruff sometimes, but for the most part, that was an act.

"As someone who works in radio, you can become rather jaded about the audience after a while, and he might act like he was, but I always took care to notice what Tom did rather than what he might say," Connelly said. "Whenever a listener wanted something -- a song, a question answered -- he took extra time to provide it."

Local boy makes good

Keith grew up in West St. Paul and played football, baseball and basketball at Sibley High School, said his twin sister, Terry Green of Woodbury. His quiet, dry humor was popular with his peers, and he was student council president and MC of many school events.

After a year at the University of Minnesota, he served four years in the Marines, after which he returned to the U, graduating in 1972. "He was looking for broadcasting jobs and sat one day in the foyer at MPR until one of the higher-ups came by," Green said. "He stepped up and asked the guy for a job, and next thing, he was working nights there."

Green said the death of "a wonderful, kind brother, uncle and great-uncle," comes as a great shock.

"For those who listened, he connected in a strong way," Connelly said. "Radio can be like that -- people adopt you -- and he became friend and family to so many people."

Wrote Keillor: "Whenever Tom came onstage ... 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. 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."

In addition to his sister, Keith is survived by his wife, Liu, and two brothers, Dave of Syracuse, N.Y., and Jeffrey of Wilton, Wis.

pwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482 pmiller@startribune.com • 612-673-4290

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