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Mouth sounds

From the new Mickey Mouse Club to "A Prairie Home Companion," Fred Newman (AB '74) is honking, popping and whistling his way through life

by Kelly Simmons

The lights dim and a spot shines on Garrison Keillor onstage at the Cincinnati Music Hall.

“This first portion of our show brought to you by Bebopareebop Rhubarb Pie and Bebopareebop frozen Rhubarb Pie Filling,” he says in a mellifluous voice so familiar to public radio listeners.

He begins a story about a young woman named Chantal, who has brought her boyfriend home for the holidays. While Chantal and her family are out, the young man decides to help out by putting up their Christmas tree.

“It’s a big tree and it’s hard to get it around the corner into the living room” Keillor says.

Across the stage, Fred Newman (AB ’74) leans into a microphone and grunts, as if straining to cart the heavy tree.

“You bend it and it sort of springs back and the trunk wipes out Mrs. Borchert’s collection of fine crystal.”

Newman makes the sound of a spring, followed by a cry of alarm, and uses a baseball bat to stir broken glass in a cardboard box at his feet.

“There are strings of lights and they’re all tangled together.”

Newman jiggles small glass bottles and plastic dice together in his hand next to the microphone.

“It’s a string of musical lights.”

Newman hums a carol.

“Actually they’re Scottish Christmas lights.”

The hum takes on a Scottish twang.

“Suddenly you smell smoke. You forgot about the cookies …You’re tangled in the Christmas lights and you pull the whole tree down on top of you.”

A crash, breaking glass.

“You go and open the oven, smoke billows out and the smoke alarm goes off.”

The shrill sound of a smoke detector pierces the auditorium.

“You slip and fall, which awakens their Pomeranian, who lunges at you.”

Short yips and a snarl, followed by a rip and a cry of alarm.

“The door opens. It’s your girlfriend and her parents … Wouldn’t this be a good time for a piece of rhubarb pie?”

By the end of the four-and-a-half-minute segment, the 54-year-old Newman has broken a sweat from moving quickly and artfully between props. As the sound effects man for “A Prairie Home Companion” road shows, Newman is a one-man band of sorts with an arsenal of noisemakers within reach and an unlimited supply of impressions and sounds he can make with his mouth.

“Most of it’s just fun,” he says. “You’ve just got to get out of the way and make it happen. There will be mistakes.”

On this night mistakes are few. Newman, a pair of shoes tied together hanging from his neck, and a whistle taped to his microphone, accompanies the cast during sketches that include “Guy Noir Private Eye.” After the performance, Newman is greeted by a fans seeking autographs.

“Can I ask what you did a long time ago?” a woman asks.

“I did the Mickey Mouse Club,” Newman admits.

“That’s what I thought,” she says.

That was the “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” which aired from 1989 to 1994, starring the young Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. It was one of many jobs Newman held since graduating from UGA, among them selling carpet in Dallas, and fixing cars and television antennae as a blacksmith in Finland.

When he signed the contract to host the show, Newman—who has an MBA from Harvard—insisted on this clause: May not be compelled to wear mouse ears.

While you may not have heard of Fred Newman, chances are you’ve heard him. His voice has been featured in hundreds of movies, TV shows and commercials. He was Harry in “Harry and the Hendersons,” various aliens in “Men in Black,” and Tom Cruise’s horse in “Far and Away,” among others. He is a Hollywood go-to guy for sounds that can’t be realistically recreated by a computer. Newman remembers a frantic call from a producer of “Practical Magic,” starring Sandra Bullock.

“Can you make a sound like a frog swallowing a wedding band and then throwing it up?” the producer asked.

Newman said he could.

“Can you do it right now?”

Newman croaked a couple of times, gagged and coughed.

“You got the job,” the producer said.

He teamed with “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, with whom he shares office space in New York, for a series of interactive appearances on “Larry King Live” that appeared before the 2000 presidential election.

He is the voice in the radio ads for American Express gift cards and years ago was the memorable voice of the kid who said “Sure!” when asked in the television ad, “How would you like a nice Hawaiian Punch?”

But it is educational programming that is nearest to his heart. In the 1990s, he created voices, music and sound effects for the childrens’ series “Doug.” He writes and stars in the Emmy award- winning “Between the Lions,” a PBS series that teaches children to read.

He is passionate about teaching children to read because he struggled to read as a child. The words didn’t make sense to him, so he devised a method to figure them out. The double-o in look looked like eyes. The consonants “b” and “k” in book looked like bookends.

“I thought that was how you learned to read,” he says. It was not until he reached UGA and took a psychology course that he learned he was dyslexic.

His current project is a PBS television series called “Fred,” in which he tells stories and makes sounds. The show is named after Fred Rogers, of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.”

“I’m not acting, I’m just talking,” Newman says. “It’s like what Mr. Rogers did, but crazier.”

“I think where I am right now I would have never predicted or even hoped for, because I didn’t know it existed. I feel just extremely blessed and lucky to be paid to do what I did behind teachers’ backs.”

Newman’s love for language began when he was a preschooler in LaGrange, Georgia. His grandfather sat him down on the grass and put his finger on the boys’ lips. “Shhh,” he said, “just listen.”

“We sat for what felt like a half hour or more, cross-legged…and just listened,” Newman says. “Anytime I’d talk he’d go ‘shh, shh.’ He’d say ‘That’s a cicada. That’s oak leaves rustling. That’s different from pines whispering.’ He just went through the sounds.”

Later, Newman hung out at Jack Fling’s Grocery on Country Club Road while the locals told stories. Newman sat on the Coca-Cola box, taking in the different dialects from southwest Georgia and eastern Alabama.

He arrived at UGA in 1968 with no idea what to study. He thought about pre-med, but liked liberal arts. An honors student, he reveled in the vast array of opportunities and took courses in theater and art, including a metalworking class that led to a stint as a blacksmith. He got his degree in political science.

UGA “was a good place for me to find myself,” Newman says.

He hopped around after graduation, spending time in Europe before coming back to the U.S. and entering Harvard Business School. While he didn’t fit in with the starched shirt set, he did identify his strengths while earning an MBA.

“I wasn’t at all a businessman but I could express myself better than anyone else there,” he says. “They got bogged down in numbers.”

He took a job at Newsweek to pay the bills and moonlighted as a stand up comic. It was during this time that Newman wrote MouthSounds, a how-to book for people who want to “whistle, pop, boing and honk.” He auditioned for David Letterman who invited him on his show as a guest. That’s when Newman realized he could make a living making noises.

He appeared on “A Prairie Home Companion” for the first time in 1980 to promote MouthSounds and went on stage doing a baby voice. Keillor looked at him and said, “Oh Baby Elizabeth, come up here and sit in my lap.”

Several years later, when Keillor was looking for a sound man to travel with the show, he brought Newman on board.

The show keeps Newman on his toes. Keillor writes the script and the cast rarely knows exactly what they’ll perform until Saturday night.

He often tests Newman’s talent.

“Once in Miami, Garrison said, ‘Let’s do some loons tonight,’ ” Newman recalls. “Often I don’t get a heads up. All of a sudden I’m doing a wapiti.”

Keillor and Newman are making their way out of the Cincinnati auditorium when Keiller throws out an idea: A bottle of French shampoo and a tube of men’s hair gel meet in a trash can after they’ve been confiscated at airport security. They formulate a plan to escape.

“You could be a spray can,” Keillor says. “Can you talk as you spray?”

The shampoo and hair gel could mix, Newman says. “The offspring could be explosives.”

You can hear it now, can’t you?

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Click on image to enlarge

His props in place, Newman performs in a skit during a rehearsal for "A Prairie Home Companion" road show in Cincinnati. Photo by Dot Paul.

Newman provides the sound effects as Garrison Keillor tells a story during a live performance at the Cincinnati Music Hall. Photo by Dot Paul.

Newman creates sound effects and shows children how to phonetically sound out words in the Emmy award-winning television show "Between the Lions," aired daily on PBS Kids! Photo by Chrystie Sherman WGBH/Sirius Thinking.

Fred Newman, fourth from left, is shown in the 1973 Pandora yearbook as part of the student government's executive cabinet. Newman served as minister to communications.