Tom Keith, who died this week, once told me that the most valuable resource as he travelled around the country for broadcasts of A Prairie Home Companion was the local hardware store. It was there—at the very last minute—where he could purchase the gadgets needed to do the sound effects conjured up by Garrison Keillor.
Keith said Keillor, who wrote in most of the sound effects in his scripts, liked to make last minute changes and, at times, created almost impossible effects — some designed to trick him. But Keith almost always succeeded in pulling off an authentic version of anything his old friend could create, whether it be a singing walrus or a man falling into piranha-infested waters.
Whenever I visited a live broadcast of Companion, I always liked to get seats in front of stage left, where Keith positioned his table of sound effects goodies. Not only was he very good, but his facial expressions were hilarious. He was also an actor in Keillor’s sketches, where he played “Buster the Show Dog” and Maurice the maitre d’ at the Cafe Boeuf, among other characters.
When I interviewed him in his dressing room, Keith was the same unassuming, funny guy as on stage. He had worked for many years in radio in Minnesota and went back with Keillor to the early 1970s. He was engineer on the first two seasons on Companion, before joining the cast.
Tom Keith joined a grand tradition of radio sound effects artists. Cliff Thorsness, who did sound effects for Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre radio company, was a personal friend in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Both he and Orson told me that sound effects operators and musicians were treated as equal parts of the sound palette in a good radio broadcast.
“Orson conducted the cast and crew as a symphony orchestra, bringing up the various elements of effects and music as they were needed,” Thorsness said. It was exactly the same level of artistry with Tom Keith, whose effects were essential to the success of all of Garrison Keillor’s on-air sketches.