Tom Keith dies at 64; ‘Prairie Home Companion’ sounds master


Tom Keith, who created an astounding array of captivating, hilarious, bawdy sounds and voices as longtime master of radio sound effects for Garrison Keillor’s nationally syndicated “A Prairie Home Companion,” has died. He was 64.

Keith, who also co-hosted a weekday morning program on Minnesota Public Radio, died Sunday after having a heart attack at his home in Woodbury, Minn., a St. Paul suburb.

Keith last performed Oct. 22 at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater with the cast of “A Prairie Home Companion” 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 seeing a doctor, Keillor said.

“Tom was one of radio’s great clowns,” said Keillor, who had worked with Keith since the mid-1970s. “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.”

Along with soundmaking for the radio show and Robert Altman’s 2006 film version of “A Prairie Home Companion,” Keith voiced recurring characters, including weird Larry from the basement, Maurice the maitre d’ from Cafe Boeuf, and Timmy the teenager.

Born in St. Paul on Dec. 21, 1946, Keith served four years in the Marines and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1972. He began working at Minnesota Public Radio as an engineer before appearing on air as his alter ego Jim Ed Poole.

“For those who listened, he connected in a strong way,” Dale Connelly, who co-hosted MPR’s “The Morning Show” with Keith from the early 1980s until 2008, 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.”

Keith is survived by his wife, Ri Wei Liu-Keith, a sister and two brothers.

Walsh and Miller write for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and McClatchy Newspapers.