Firesign Theater founder Peter Bergman dead at 72

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Peter Bergman

Peter Bergman

Peter Bergman, a found­ing mem­ber of the Fire­sign The­atre and the dri­ving force behind Radio Free Oz in all its incar­na­tions, died early Fri­day morn­ing due to com­pli­ca­tions from leukemia. He was 72.

Bergman was “my dear friend and part­ner for over 50 years,” Philip “Phil” Proc­tor, a fel­low Fire­sign mem­ber and a voice actor in his own right, said by iPhone from the Hawai­ian island of Kauai.

He guested in sev­eral 1996 episodes of Akom Stu­dios’ The Tick: as Den­nis and Audi­ence Mem­ber #1 in Side­kicks Don’t Kiss, Terry in Grandpa Wore Tights, and Click and Door­man #2 in The Tick vs. Reno, Nevada.

As well, he voiced the Dragon and the Youth in the 1978 Film­fair Com­mu­ni­ca­tions short Petronella, which also fea­tured the voices of Proc­tor and the late Alice Playten.

Bergman was born in Cleve­land, Ohio (sub­ur­ban Shaker Heights, accord­ing to some sources) on Novem­ber 29, 1939, the day after Rus­sia invaded Fin­land and the day before Win­ston Churchill (his hero) turned 65.

Bergman’s comic career began in the sixth grade, writ­ing comic poems with his mother for library class — a pen­chant that devel­oped into co-authoring the ninth-grade humor col­umn “The High Hat­ters,” and his own cre­ation, “Look and See With Peter B,” for his high school newspaper.

His audio career was launched in high school as an announcer on the school radio sys­tem, from which he was ban­ished after his unau­tho­rized announce­ment that the Chi­nese Com­mu­nists had taken over the school and that a “manda­tory vol­un­tary assem­bly was to take place imme­di­ately.” Rus­sell Rupp, the school prin­ci­pal, promptly relieved him of his announc­ing gig. Rupp was the inspi­ra­tion for the Prin­ci­pal Poop char­ac­ter on Don’t Crush That Dwarf.

While attend­ing high school, Bergman formed his first record­ing group, “The Four Can­di­dates,” turn­ing out a com­edy cut-up sin­gle titled “Atten­tion Con­ven­tion,” par­o­dy­ing the 1956 Demo­c­ra­tic National Con­ven­tion. Released on Buddy Records, it received air­play in Cleve­land and Pittsburgh.

At col­lege, he was man­ag­ing edi­tor of the Yale Uni­ver­sity com­edy mag­a­zine. He wrote the lyrics for two musi­cal col­lab­o­ra­tions with Austin Pendle­ton, both of which starred Proc­tor. He grad­u­ated as a scholar of the house in eco­nom­ics, and played point guard for the lib­eral bas­ket­ball league whose mem­bers have since lost their drib­ble but not their politics.

Bergman spent two grad­u­ate years at Yale as a Carnegie teach­ing fel­low in eco­nom­ics, and as the Eugene O’Neill play­writ­ing fel­low at the drama school. After a six-month stint as a grunt in the United States Army’s 349th gen­eral hos­pi­tal unit, he went to Berlin on a Ford foun­da­tion fel­low­ship, join­ing Tom Stop­pard, Derek Mar­low and Piers Paul Read at the Lit­er­arisches Col­lo­quium Berlin. There, he wrote and directed his first film, Flow­ers, and con­nected with the Liv­ing The­atre — a major influ­ence on his art.

Work­ing briefly in Lon­don with Spike Mil­li­gan and the British Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion, Bergman returned to Amer­ica in 1966. Back in the U.S., he secured a nightly radio show on Pacifica’s KPFK in Los Ange­les, Radio Free Oz, around which the Fire­sign The­atre coa­lesced and gestated.

Bergman coined the term “Love-In” in 1967, and threw the first such event in April of that year in Los Ange­les. That event ulti­mately drew a crowd of some 65,000 peo­ple, block­ing free­ways for miles. This so impressed Gary Usher, a Colum­bia Records staff pro­ducer, that he offered the Fire­sign The­atre its first record contract.

In the 1970s, he diver­si­fied his comic career as the pres­i­dent of a film equip­ment com­pany. He also helped pro­duce a machine for view­ing angio­car­dio­grams and mea­sur­ing the block­age of the arter­ies of the heart.

Bergman turned to film and tape in the 1980s, pro­duc­ing the comic fea­ture J-Men For­ever with Proc­tor, as well as pro­duc­ing TV shows that fea­tured var­i­ous mem­bers of Firesign.

Start­ing in 1995, he began tour­ing the U.S. as a “high tech come­dian,” deliv­er­ing lec­tures and keynote speeches to computer-oriented com­pa­nies and con­ven­tions. He worked on pub­lish­ing the Web site for one of the can­di­dates for mayor of Los Angeles.

His lat­est ven­ture, in asso­ci­a­tion with fel­low Fire­sign alum­nus David Oss­man, started in the sum­mer of 2010: the pod­cast revival of Radio Free Oz.

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