Sound Guys Hard to Forget

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by Joe Kennedy

I spent 36 years in daily journalism, and in that time my memory performed some marvelous tricks. For a long spell, I could walk down the street, see someone a block away whom I’d interviewed 20 or 25 years earlier, and, when we stopped to talk, I could converse as if we’d been neighbors for decades. I’d remember everything about that person’s history and almost most everything that went into the story. But I could seldom remember the person’s name.

I suspected that people sensed the gap as I asked specific questions about their jobs, their families and the most obscure details of their lives. But I never let on. If they had called me at the office and told me their names, I’d have known exactly who they were. But I could not produce the names.

Since having my stroke and developing some pain, my energy has flagged a bit, but I still remember specific things about specific people whom I haven’t seen in years. I may forget to balance the checkbook, but the really important stuff, like your dog’s struggle with gout, is retrievable at all times.

A couple of weekends ago, I was listening to public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” on WVTF-FM in Roanoke and was surprised to learn that Tom Keith had died. Keith was the show’s sound effects man, the talent whose comic contributions were the funniest things about many of Garrison Keillor’s humorous skits.

I interviewed Keith backstage many years ago when Keillor brought his troupe to perform in two shows at the Roanoke Civic Center. Keillor, a forbidding person when questioned by the media, worked himself into a dead-serious lather nearby, throwing together elements taken from previously used skits and songs.

Featured performers fidgeted while the show’s producer and her team hunched over laptop computers refining bits and calling for musical arrangements to be faxed from the show’s office in St. Paul, Minnesota. Keith and I sat off to the side in folding metal chairs. He was without airs — quiet-spoken, modest about his talent and clever with his tools.

 I remember many other things from famous show’s visit: the friendliness of singer Kate McKenzie and the quiet grace of Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, preservers of American string music famed for their soundtracks to the documentaries of Ken Burns, including “The Civil War.” Mason’s upright bass did not arrive as planned, so at my suggestion, she borrowed one from Ken Rattenbury at his nearby Fret Mill music shop.

After the show that night, the cast and crew repaired to the old Mediterranean Restaurant on Campbell Avenue and had themselves a grand, raucous time.

The next day Keillor delivered a hilarious speech at the meeting of the Downtown Kiwanis Club, and that afternoon he stood for an hour inside “Books, Strings and Things” signing books for adoring fans, saying something witty to practically everyone. (He later wrote an Op Ed piece for the New York Times extolling Roanokers’ all-American charm.)

The freezing rain predicted for the morning after the second show did not arrive, so I drove in from Catawba to the Holiday Inn Civic Center to speak with cast members before they boarded their tour bus for the next stop in Greenville, S.C.

The next morning no one could find Keillor. Eventually word came that he had risen early and flown ahead so he could work on his screenplay — this despite staying up late and sharing with cast members the jar of moonshine a fan had given him after the Kiwanis speech.

The lesson here, and it’s one I observed many times, is that high achievement comes mainly to those who outwork and outthink others by throwing themselves into their tasks practically every waking hour of their days.

I was not surprised to read, later, another Keillor essay in which he described his heart surgery and medically required abstention from alcohol.

Everything has its price. And many things have their rewards. It’s up to us to decide how much we are willing to pay.

I will never forget the dichotomy between the old-timey radio show and the crew’s feverish, high-tech preparations.

As we talked, Tom Keith mentioned that he and other cast members had once visited frequent guest performers Robin and Linda Williams at their home in Middlebrook, a white frame farmhouse with a modern addition that did not detract from its rural charm. Another cast member walked by and Keith stopped him. He mentioned the visit to Middlebrook and asked, “Was that when we played golf at the Homestead?” I still laugh when I think about it.

Keith was the son of a 3M manager who frequently performed on the radio.  His sweater vest and bow tie gave him the appearance of an accountant or small- town clerk, but he was a former U.S. Marine who got his start in the radio business as a sound engineer. Later he became host of a St. Paul morning show with Keillor. His appearance provided no clue to his fame.

Some four million people now tune in each week.

Tom Keith died of heart failure while driving himself to the hospital. He was 64, a good guy, and they’re the ones I always remember, if not always their names.