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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