How to smoke like a dolphin

By Lawrence Cosentino

Fred Newman and the art of the sound effect

Sound effects man Fred Newman ends a lot of sentences with “AH-WOOGA,” but he’s dead serious when he tells you that he learned his “low and dark art” under the Spanish moss and in the shadows of old slave cabins in the Deep South.

Sure, plenty of white blues and jazz musicians learned from original black practitioners, but making the RIRR-RIRR-RURRR sound of a car battery dying?

“That’s the way most of our culture was passed on before TV,” he said.

Newman plays a featured role in “A Prairie Home Companion’s Radio Romance Tour” — hosted by Garrison Keillor and featuring musical guests — at the Wharton Center on Sunday. Keillor might throw anything from space aliens to angry clams into a story, without warning Newman. Recently he went off script and mentioned a lemur.

“What do lemurs sound like?” Newman asked. “I pictured something like a three-toed sloth, so I just pawed his tie. The audience went crazy, but people at home said, ‘What was that?’”

Unlike radio listeners, live “Prairie” audiences soak up the visual contortions that go with Newman’s aural genius. To work up a proper pterodactyl squawk, he flaps his arms. When Keillor called for a smoking dolphin, Newman silently slipped a cigarette into an imaginary blowhole on top of his head.

“It didn’t work on radio, but it worked as a visual,” he said.

Newman, 61, grew up in LaGrange, Ga., two hours by two-lane blacktop from Atlanta. He spent his free time at Jack Kling’s Cash & Carry Gro, a whitewashed country grocery store on “a black street on the white side of town,” next to former slaves’ quarters.

“Blacks and whites mixed and they just told stories,” Newman said. “The best storytellers were the black guys. To hear those stories told in wonderful dialect, with all the sound effects — they would crank cars and throw cats out of windows.”

Newman even learned his famous water drip (a full, rounded “DERLOIP,” not a crude “BLURP”) at an old-timer’s knee.

Every day at dinner, Newman’s dad asked him, “Fred, what did you do today?” He expected a full account, with voices and noises.

“I was so lucky to have that oral tradition imprinted on me,” Newman said. “I still feel like I’m back at the foot of great storytellers when I’m with Garrison.”

Newman first appeared on “Prairie” in 1980. He’s done everything from acting to writing to manipulating puppets for Jim Henson. He’s also created voices and effects for hundreds of TV shows, including the Disney cartoon series, “Doug.”

Newman treasures “Prairie” as a rare throwback to the storytelling days of his youth, but Keillor hasn’t made it easy, especially on this tour. “There may have been a script at one time,” Newman said wistfully. “But every night, it’s way different.”

Both men like to tailor their stories to the locale, but Newman is obsessive about it. For a recent show in Brevard, NC, he changed the species of cicada in an outdoor scene.

“Some of them rattle and some have a kind of sizzle,” he explained. “KKHTTTT, KKHTT. That’s the kind I heard out west. Here, it’s more CHK-CHK-CHK.”

Despite the hemipteran fine-tuning, making mouth noises is not an exact science.

“It’s like a caricature,” he said. “I have to find the essence of a sound, and suggest the rest of it.”

Does he ever panic?

“All the time.”

For Newman, the saving grace is “Prairie”’s attentive audience.

“They really listen to words, to music, and they give me credit for what I’m willing to try.”

The tour is giving Newman a hint of what the old vaudeville circuit must have been like. “It’s an old tradition that goes way back, before even radio, to the late 1800s,” he said. “Garrison spins the metaphors and I’m the seltzer-in-your-pants comedian.”

Beginning July 8 in Spokane, two busloads of “Prairie” folk have trundled across the country to sold-out venues and occasional hazards. Last week, on the way from San Diego to Salt Lake City, the crew was awakened by a blowout in the front guide tire on a mountain pass at 2 a.m. — a real blowout, not a sound effect.

“There was an explosion, some debris and a panel shot out,” Newman said. “The sound came from outside and definitely not from me.”

“A Prairie Home Companion — Radio Romance Tour”

Wharton Center, Cobb Great Hall

7 p.m. Sunday