Fans of A Prairie Home Companion who attend Saturday's performance at the World Arena will see the regular cast, with one exception: Fred Newman, the show's road man for sound effects.
Newman — perhaps the only Harvard Business School graduate to make a living imitating animals, cars, gunshots, thunderstorms, creaking doors, flatulence and an assortment of other unpredictable noises — humbly distinguishes himself from Tom Keith, who does sound effects for home performances in St. Paul.
"Tom is a radio guy; I feel like I masquerade as a radio guy," says Newman, who lives in Manhattan. "He uses a lot of props; they are more accurate sound effects than what I do. I do about 90 percent of my sounds with my mouth. ... It's not even a real skill that I have."
Many would disagree. Newman has enjoyed an award-studded career as a film and television actor, composer and writer, as well as a sound-effects artist. He is the author of MouthSounds, a book/CD combo that instructs readers in the art of vocal sound effects, from the two-finger taxi whistle to the Hawaiian nose hum.
But Prairie Home is among his favorite gigs, in part because of host Garrison Keillor, "a big, brilliant nerd" who trusts Newman to improvise: a crackle of cellophane to evoke fire, a hand rubbing a foam plate to approximate the creak of saddle leather.
"The only direction he really has ever given to me is what he whispered before one show: 'Be fearless,'" Newman recalls. "So I do add a lot of things."
Sometimes the results are brilliant. When faced with the last-second challenge of mimicking a chiropractic adjustment, Newman found a ribbed plastic, half-full water bottle, and taped a terrycloth towel around it. At just the right moment, he gave it a twist.
"There was this deep kind of internal cracking, and the whole audience went, 'Owwwwww,'" Newman recalls. "It was like a bomb went off in everybody's spine."
Less frequently, Newman is stumped: "Once, Garrison reeled off a string of animals, and in the middle was 'lemur.' I'm thinking in my head, like, a two-toed sloth, and I just reached out with two fingers and pawed him. I had no sound effect at all.
"But his audience is so adoring and attentive. They give you credit for trying. ... And Garrison's peculiar, particular nature is that he wants it made fresh, particularly the sound part of it. The show is minted, mistakes and all. It is what it is: You were there with us. And that's the most important part to me."