A Tribute to a Magician

Posted on by Larry

His voice was magical … summoning helicopters, gonzo moose, a startled cow, a man falling sixteen stories into tapioca pudding… it was a voice that created magic out of puffs of air.

Tom Keith died yesterday, the LA TIMES reported this morning.

For those that have not fallen under the spell of a “Prairie Home Companion,” hosted by Garrison Keillor, a blank look can be forgiven. Prairie Home has been on the air since the early 1970’s. It’s a radio show, airing Saturday evenings live from St. Paul, Minnesota.

Robert Altman’s last film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” presented an evening at a show — thus forever confirming that what goes on behind the scenes is ALWAYS more interesting than what goes on in front.

But radio is theater of the mind – and that’s where Tom Keith came in. What does a grade school teacher sound like when instantly being shrunk from 6 feet to 3 inches? Or a drunken caribou stubbing his toe? Tom instinctively knew how to make the sound, and the composure to create it in real-time for a live radio show.

Sound effects that were undeniably believable and off-the-wall funny. Tom could carry an entire scene on sound effects alone.

While I have met Garrison Keillor, I never met Tom Keith. I had the pleasure of watching the show live on two occasions, plus many more when PBS would broadcast a simulcast. Garrison is the soul of the show, but Keith was its heart.

“Tom was one of radio’s great clowns,” said Keillor. “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.”

It struck me, as I was reading the obituary, that we all get so caught up in the technology, that we forget the magic.

Tom Keith, armed with only a pair of hands, a versatile mouth, and a light-speed imagination, brought the impossible to life.

I will miss his singing walrus, the pre-pubescent teenager forever coping with growing up, and the garbage truck backing up into a tree. Because I can see them in my mind as clearly as if I were there. And I was.

The imagination of the mind trumps the imagination of the screen — and I’m grateful Tom lived to remind me of that.


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