Garrison Keillor remembers Tom Keith

  • Updated: October 31, 2011 - 5:42 PM

Garrison Keillor issued this statement on Tom Keith on Monday evening:

TOM KEITH

1946-2011

Our colleague the actor and sound-effects man Tom Keith died Sunday night of a heart attack at his home in St. Paul. He performed on the show October 22 at the Fitzgerald with the cast and guest John Lithgow -- played a zombie and a beery Elizabethan bartender, did the sound effects for "Lives of the Cowboys" and "Mom" and did a wonderful and shocking sound effect of a grade-school teacher being shrunk from six feet to three inches, using a balloon, some small sticks, and vocal thwops and splorts, and then did the voice of a three-inch-tall female. He complained of shortness of breath the next week, but put off going to see a doctor, and collapsed Sunday night around 6 p.m. He was conscious afterward but died in the ambulance on his way to the hospital.

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.

He was an engineer at Minnesota Public Radio in 1971, when I did the morning show in the studios in Park Square Court in Lowertown St. Paul, and he took the name Jim Ed Poole, did the sports segment, and talked about his pet chicken, Curtis, who lived with him at the Hotel Transom. When "Prairie Home Companion" started in 1974, he engineered most of the first two seasons, using a five-channel mixer, and then graduated to the stage where he played three roles in the ongoing "Buster the Show Dog" -- the dog, Father Finian, and Timmy the Sad Rich Teenage Boy. He was Maurice the maître d' at the Café Boeuf and he was Larry who lived in the basement under the Fitzgerald stage.

He was an ex-Marine (who could do a fine drill instructor), a good golfer, a sturdy, reliable, can-do colleague, a gifted performer with the unassuming demeanor of a stagehand. 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. 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. 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. 

Garrison Keillor, St. Paul, Minnesota, 10/31/2011

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