The Loon Goes Silent: Remembering Tom Keith
by Abe Sauer
On Sunday, October 30, 2011, for reasons yet unclear, Tom Keith collapsed in his home. Keith’s passing robs us of one of the most enjoyable personalities ever to occupy a Minnesota Public Radio studio. Most Americans who knew him probably did as Garrison Keillor’s sound effects guy, the one who lent Prairie Home Companion sketches that all-important extra dimension. Others — Minnesotans — knew him as Jim Ed Poole and Doctor Larry Kyle, characters he created for his hosting gig on The Morning Show, which he inherited from Keillor, and which he left in 2008.
I had an opportunity to speak with Keith when he agreed to a “high concept” interview of mine. Sad to say, I dragged my feet and we never completed the project and now we never will.
After his retirement from The Morning Show, I reached out to Keith to do an interview about his career. I was especially interested in his time as a U.S. Marine, something few of Keith’s MPR fans probably knew about him. But also, I wanted to challenge him “to do sound effects in print.” The idea, which now seems a lot stupider than it did then, was to get Keith to write down what he thought certain sound effects would look like spelled out. It was a total stunt. (Yet, it was not entirely without precedent, as Minneapolis’ City Pages once attempted to spell out a Keith sound effect in 2008).
But Keith was kind, patient and cooperative, writing back to me:
“Well, we could try. Usually the sound effect directions I have written in my script don’t always come with verbs. But if the door is to be closed forcefully my written direction would probably appear like (DOOR SLAM). Sometimes I might see (BIG METALLIC CRUNCH) which is a tough one because I don’t have a metallic crunching prop in my sfx kit so I just try and come up with something that sounds big and destructive. I could use a combination of crunching one of my Styrofoam plates (I use for breaking wood) and a vocal sound and my crash box filled with empty tin cans that I stick a foot in and stir up.
Let me know. This could work. Who knows.
Busy with other projects, I back-burnered the Keith interview for a few months because I figured, we can do it any time.
For nearly four decades Tom Keith was a figure in Minnesota Public Radio. In June, Keith was interviewed at length by the Prairie Home Companion website and he discussed how he came to work with Keillor:
I was the engineer on duty at that time of morning. I had never heard the earlier shows but I first heard about Garrison when I was taking a comedy class at the University of Minnesota and our class had to critique an article he wrote for The New Yorker. I told him about that and he asked me what I thought of the article and I said, ‘It was OK.’
The interview is a must-read for anyone looking for a comprehensive review of Keith’s career. It also includes numerous clips from his career at both Prairie Home Companion and The Morning Show. Keith’s advice for youngsters looking to do what he does: “The first thing I would say is to take off those stupid earphones and listen to the sounds of the world.”
Two years ago, I speculated about the death of Garrison Keillor. The voice of Prairie Home and Lake Wobegon had just suffered a minor stroke. If death was coming for anyone on the show anytime soon, Keillor was the most suspect. The man in the red shoes even knew it. Keith’s health was never publicly in question. Though many rolled their eyes at Keillor’s 2013 retirement announcement, Keith’s departure makes it more likely to happen. It’s always been a question if the show could survive without Keillor; it cannot be easy for it to survive without Keith.
That Keith’s sudden death came in a manner that seems to mirror a plot point of the 2006 Robert Altman adaptation of A Prairie Home Companion is not lost on the show’s biggest fans. Keith appeared in the film, more or less as himself.
Prairie Home Companion fans certainly have their favorite Tom Keith sound effects: the wind of his Alberta Clipper whipping down the plains or his revolver action spins from Guy Noir. Every Lives of the Cowboys episode was fleshed out by Keith’s work.
It’s clear that one of Keith’s own favorite sounds was of the loon, Minnesota’s state bird. Numerous skits not just used a loon call, but meta-enabled the loon sound effect. A 2009 skit focused on a “Fred Farrell’s Animal Call Warehouse” sale of outdated model of loon calls.
A year before that, Keith and Keillor did a memorable bit about Keith himself, with the latter quizzing the former on the difficulty of loon calls. It is an extraordinary highlight of Keith’s effects talents and his expert comic timing.
The show embodies, parodies and celebrates the private Midwesterners who never get all that high and never get all that low because life goes on and the chores aren’t going to do themselves. The show will go on because it has to. People are counting on it. But A Prairie Home Companion will never be the same.