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http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/

Mouthing Off: The Art of Prairie Home Companion's Fred Newman

http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/
http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/

Interviewers often fail to describe Fred Newman.

He’s been called a mimic, an actor, and a saboteur of modern communication. The collection of things he does for a living is somewhere between acting and music, spontaneous humor and carefully constructed art: As the chief sound effects man on the NPR radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, he is responsible for all the honks, whistles, drips, bubbles, typewriter clicks, dog barks, and helicopters that color the world of host Garrison Keillor’s storytelling. The magic of Newman’s performances, however, is that these sounds come not from digital files or hidden noisemaking gadgets, but straight from their creator’s mouth.

“[My mother] wants a couple of words for the bridge club, and I tell her, ‘just tell them I honk for a living,’” said Newman in an interview for Sacramento’s KXJZ Radio. He is one of the most successful living practitioners of the old American folk art called “mouth sounds,” in which the cheeks, tongue, teeth, windpipe, and fingers become a sounding board for everything from bulb horns to trumpeting elephants. Over his years on Prairie Home, his innovative ear, nose, and throat have been responsible for angry cats, cell phones, laser printers, Minnesota winter, whales, motorcycle crashes, and (my personal favorite) a California Condor being flushed down a toilet. No other NPR luminary alive can imitate the sinking of the Titanic in less than 30 seconds.

“My first ten or twelve years I was just on ‘record’” for sounds and stories, Newman remembers. He first discovered the magic of vocal storytelling growing up in rural LaGrange, Georgia, where he spent hours as a “snaggle-toothed, freckle-faced kid” of the 1960s mesmerized by stories told on the noisy porch of Jack Fling’s Cash-and-Carry Grocery.

Newman carried such gems as the saga of Knuckles the cat and the bicycle horn honk, taught to him by a blind man, through several years of Harvard Business School, a stint at Newsweek magazine, and a job as a blacksmith in Finland, before an audition for the David Letterman show landed him in his own brand of whimsical voice acting. He has also worked with Muppet master Jim Henson and recorded sound effects for shows like Nickelodeon’s Doug series and the PBS children’s reading show Between the Lions.

“It’s all about pretending,” Newman has said.  He can imagine and convey the exact thickness, age, and force behind a door creaking open with his voice. He mimes trumpet valves and violin fingerings with his hands whenever he mimics a musical instrument. For someone who must listen closely to the world in order to keep making his living—he even bikes to and from his home in Manhattan without a helmet so as not to miss any of the sounds around him—even silence has a sound. One of his favorite example stories is of a small brown rabbit popping its head out of a hole into a lush world of snowy silence that Newman creates with the breath in the back of his throat.

On the radio, this kind of imagination is doubly important—without a visual medium to flesh them out, Garrison Keillor’s characters and happenings in the fictional Midwestern town of Lake Wobegon and elsewhere exist only in the teller’s words and Newman’s evocative grunts and whistles. Since fellow soundman Tom Keith passed away in 2011, he has been running the racket alone, but has lost none of the joy in the auditory landscape he creates.

In his how-to book of the craft, Mouthsounds, Newman writes that "sound-making, like life, requires a playful, fearless spirit; you have to be willing to look and sound like a moron and act in exactly the manner teachers told you not to." Direct from the perpetual kid who once drove his teachers to early retirement with trumpet fanfares and buzzing flies, the book includes directions for over 200 mouth sounds and the facial contortions that often accompany them. Effects range from 1 to 4 in difficulty, with one challenging five (a double nose whistle that would give R2D2 a headache.) All are suggested for party tricks, acting exercises, coded communication, and, above all, for public performance. The back cover, appropriately, promises that “elevator rides will never be the same.” If you follow the master’s advice to stuff a duck and a set of bagpipes up your vocal sleeve, nothing ever will be.

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Chloe Efforn
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Animals
John Lennon Was a Crazy Cat Lady
Chloe Efforn
Chloe Efforn

John Lennon was crazy about cats, and though he owned a couple of dogs (Sally and Bernard) over the years, he was better known for getting by with a little help from his feline friends.

1. ELVIS

Growing up, Lennon's beloved mother, Julia, had a named cat after Elvis Presley, whom Julia and John were both crazy about. The Lennons later realized they had misnamed Elvis when "he" gave birth to a litter of kittens in the cupboard, but they didn't change the cat's name based on that small mistake.

2. AND 3. TICH AND SAM

He had two other cats as a boy growing up in Liverpool: Tich and Sam. Tich passed away while Lennon was away at art school (which he attended from 1957 to 1960), and Sam was named after famous British diarist Samuel Pepys

4. TIM

One day, John Lennon found a stray cat in the snow, which his Aunt Mimi allowed him to keep. (John's Aunt Mimi raised him from a young boy through his late teenage years, and he affectionately referred to her as the Cat Woman.) He named the marmalade-colored half-Persian cat Tim.

Tim remained a special favorite of John's. Every day, he would hop on his Raleigh bicycle and ride to Mr. Smith's, the local fishmonger, where he would buy a few pieces of fish for Tim and his other cats. Even after John became famous as a Beatle, he would often call and check in on how Tim was doing. Tim lived a happy life and survived to celebrate his 20th birthday.

5. AND 6. MIMI AND BABAGHI

John and his first wife, Cynthia, had a cat named Mimi who was, of course, named after his Aunt Mimi. They soon got another cat, a tabby who they dubbed Babaghi. John and Cynthia continued acquiring more cats, eventually owning around 10 of them.

7. JESUS

As a Beatle, John had a cat named Jesus. The name was most likely John's sarcastic response to his "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus" controversy of 1966. But he wasn't the only band member with a cat named Jesus: Paul McCartney once had a trio of kittens named Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

8. AND 9. MAJOR AND MINOR

In the mid-1970s, John had an affair with his secretary, May Pang. One day, the studio receptionist brought a box of kittens into the recording studio where John and May were. "No," John immediately told May, "we can't, we're traveling too much." But she picked up one of the kittens and put it over her shoulder. Then John started stroking the kitten and decided to keep it. At the end of the day, the only other kitten left was a little white one that was so loud no one else wanted it. So they adopted it as well and named the pair Major and Minor.

10. AND 11. SALT AND PEPPER

John owned a pair of black and white cats with his wife Yoko Ono. As befitting John's offbeat sense of humor, many places report he christened the white cat Pepper and the black one Salt.

12. AND 13. GERTRUDE AND ALICE

John and Yoko also had two Russian Blue cats named Gertrude and Alice, who each met tragic ends. After a series of sicknesses, Gertrude was diagnosed with a virus that could become dangerous to their young son, Sean. John later said that he held Gertrude and wept as she was euthanized. 

Later, Alice jumped out of an open window in the Lennons' high-rise apartment at the Dakota and plunged to her death. Sean was present at the time of the accident, and he remembers it as the only time he ever saw his father cry.

14., 15. AND 16. MISHA, SASHA, AND CHARO

In later years, John also owned three cats he named Misha, Sasha, and Charo. Always an artist at heart, John loved to sketch his many cats, and he used some of these pictures as illustrations in his books.

This piece originally ran in 2012.

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entertainment
7 Famous Actors Who Starred in Obscure Short Films
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Well-known actors who can attract attention or lend prestige to film projects can often command significant salaries. Jack Nicholson, for example, reportedly made more than $50 million for portraying The Joker in 1989’s Batman after merchandising royalties were factored in. But performers don’t always opt for money—or even feature-length movies—if a filmmaker is persuasive enough. Here are several notable talents who agreed to appear in obscure short films for a variety of peculiar reasons.

1. HARRISON FORD // WATER TO WINE (2004)

Arguably one of the most successful leading men of the 20th century, Harrison Ford has always been candid about his criteria for film work. In addition to being intrigued by a role, he wants to be compensated. (“No, I got paid,” he told a talk show host who asked if he was nostalgic about returning to the Star Wars universe in 2015.) He apparently made an exception for Water to Wine, a 2004 amateur film shot by a group of snowboarders in Wyoming. Ford—who has a ranch in the state—accepted the role of “Jethro the Bus Driver” as a favor to the filmmakers, who were friends of his son, Malcolm. Ford’s sole request was that his name not appear in the credits.

2. BRYAN CRANSTON // WRITER’S BLOCK (2014)

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston was shooting the feature film Cold Comes the Night in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy interrupted production. Rather than sit idle, the actor told the movie’s production assistants that if they wanted to try writing a short film, he’d shoot it immediately. Winner Brandon Polanco came up with Writer’s Block, a 13-minute black-and-white mood piece about an author wrestling with a lack of inspiration.

3. BILLY BOB THORNTON // THE LAST REAL COWBOYS (2000)

Billy Bob Thornton broke into Hollywood with his 1994 short film Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade that he later expanded into a full-length feature. That DIY approach may have helped director Jeff Lester entice the actor to star in The Last Real Cowboys, a short that featured Thornton as one of two main characters sitting next to a campfire. The production shot for just one day 50 miles outside of Las Vegas. 

4. OSCAR ISAAC // LIGHTNINGFACE (2016)

A year after Star Wars: The Force Awakens crossed $2 billion at the box office, Oscar Isaac (who portrayed Poe Dameron) appeared in this eccentric short by director Brian Petsos. Isaac is Basil Stitt, a man who gets hit in the face with lightning and is convinced he will soon develop supernatural abilities. Isaac and Petsos previously worked on a feature film, Ticky Tacky.

5. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH // LITTLE FAVOUR (2013)

The BBC’s Sherlock helped make Benedict Cumberbatch a highly recognizable screen presence worldwide, which in turn helped this short film raise and exceed its $40,000 budget via the Indiegogo platform. Cumberbatch portrays a British intelligence officer active during the Iraq War who is contacted by an American spy to repay a favor. Cumberbatch, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for The Imitation Game in 2015, also produced the film.

6. MICHAEL FASSBENDER // PITCH BLACK HEIST (2012)

Two-time Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender co-stars in this tight heist thriller about two thieves who are forced to complete a job in total darkness. (Liam Cunningham, who plays Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones, co-starred.) Director John Maclean knew Fassbender before the actor broke out in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and convinced him to take the gig. The two later worked on the well-received 2015 Western Slow West.

7. BILL MURRAY // A FILM ABOUT WALKING IN SLOW MOTION (2012)

The urban legends surrounding Murray’s puckish behavior are well-documented, from crashing karaoke parties to spontaneously tending bar. In 2012, Murray was filming a promotional video for a school in South Carolina attended by his son. Afterward, director David Smith asked if he could film Murray walking down a hall with crew members. He complied—and then kept walking, out of the building and into his car. 

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