A Visit with Firesign Theatre

This piece was written for The Syracuse New Times and editor Mike Greenstein, who in his patience and mercy first gave my writing a public home. At the time, it was entitled “The Day the Ethernauts Descended on Syracuse.”

* * *

October 27, 1974

Last February, I received a call from the turkey who edits this rag and writes half the copy (the dull half). He said, “Hey, Kihm.” I should have known I was in trouble; usually I’m just “Hey.” When he says my first name real nice it means he wants something.

“Hey, Kihm, how’d ya like to have dinner with half of Firesign Theatre?” he asked. Sounded good to me, impetuous young fool that I was. As I understood it, I was to have half a dinner with Firesign Theatre.

So the next day, I spent eight hours with Philip Proctor and Peter Bergman, one half of the venerable comedy troupe Firesign Theatre. And I got to eat all of my dinner (club sandwich with mayo, two Guinness Stouts). And then I had to write this article.

Ever get one of those chain letters? The kind where if you don’t make and mail 20 copies in the next three days your thing will fall off? Well, editors are like that, too. When I’d gone three days with no results, things started to happen. Sunday evening, my marriage collapsed. Monday, I’m looking for a new place to live and it occurs to me I’m a full-time student with a part-time will to study. I’m in trouble. Tuesday, my dog takes me aside and explains that I’ll be out of money in two months, but my wife has a job and he’s no fool. It’s adios. Wednesday, my thing fell off.

Then events took a turn for the worse. On Thursday, the Daily Orange ran a terrific article on the historic Firesign half-visit. Now I was really in a jam. Cold sweat. I decided I’d better do the article in perspective, get some distance.

For seven months I’ve been getting distance. For seven months, the editor has been coughing on my shoes, avoiding my eyes and playing with scissors when I’m in the office. Then, last week, I got my perspective while reading Time magazine, specifically an ad for the Honda Civic, with smiling faces of happy owners near orgasm over their low gas bills. But that can wait.

:: Crazy and Twisted ::

In 1967, there wasn’t much use for sanity. The government was throwing money and life into the Vietnam grinder at an ever-increasing rate. To die, you only had to be 18 years of age, male, able to tear a tissue into two pieces and, oddly enough, sane. The electorate was sound asleep. Your draft board was crazy; therefore, rational arguments were a waste.

But there was a way to survive. You had to be crazier than they were, so twisted even they couldn’t follow you. That worked, brought you full circle back to sanity and let you live.

It was a natural time for the appearance of Firesign Theatre, who gave the twisted American vision another twist and turned it back on itself. Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Philip Proctor filled the smoke-filled rooms with smoke of a different color and hustled us out the trap door. It was the most original comic vision in 10 years, giving us not only new laughs but a new perspective as well. In a time of madness, they brought us ultra-madness. As the poster says, “When the Bomb goes off, make sure you’re higher than the Bomb.” Firesign took us higher, in an arc that defied description (well, not so much defied it as invited it in for a drink and then took off its pants).

Where did they come from? After meeting Proctor and Bergman, I still wonder. And it didn’t help last week when I was reading Time and eying the two-page spread for the Honda Civic with all those faces saying, “My mileage made my pants wet,” and up there smiling in the left-hand corner was Philip Proctor. His line was, “It’s terrific.” Far out, Phil. But what do I tell my children? It’s 1984, I’m playing the Theatre’s “Ralph Spoilsport Motors” for them and you’re selling cars.

:: Unspeakable Practices ::

Discount Records didn’t look too much different from the outside, surrounded by the usual February quotient of slush. Inside, the manager, Steve “Mad Dog” Parker, was strolling the aisles, looking debonair in a red plastic fire hat, while Proctor and Bergman chaired high-speed seminars on physics, finance (“It’s not about cash, it’s about cash flow.”) and unspeakable practices.

The exchanges with the predominately male audience ranged from light (“How do you like Monty Python?/Fine.”) to heavy (“Do you think of yourselves as teachers?/Well, yes…/Like Christ?/Well, I don’t suppose we’d use that example.”) Bergman enjoyed talking, but Proctor loved it, digging into his press kit for glossies like a speeding elf whipping out cookies on Christmas. he would – and did – sign anything, including the then-new Maria Muldaur album.

Ravaged by hunger, the Columbia Records representative, Harvey Leeds, managed to get everyone out the back door to his illegally parked jeep for a quick run over to Danzer’s. A quick run, that is, once Harvey scraped off the “THIS CAR IS ILLEGALLY PARKED” sticker someone had glued to his windshield. Proctor was ecstatic, bouncing around with his camera screaming, “I love it!”

The camera came out every time he wanted to make a visual note, such as Harvey’s scraping his windshield or a decal in a shoe repair shop window across the street from Danzer’s. A notebook bearing the portrait of a koala bear came out every time he wanted to make a written note, which is to say it never got warm in his pocket. Addresses, names, remarks, ideas – Proctor is a vacuum cleaner. I told him I used notebooks all the time too, and he said, “Got one by the bed?” I shook my head and he continued, “I do, with a flashlight!”

He is ravenous for information and experience. In the hours he spent in Syracuse, he talked to dozens of people, giving them his full attention and even taking notes. He has a way of leaning into you with his eyes that demands straight talk. He wants to know – now.

He has toured Russia with the Yale Russian Chorus, played a juvenile delinquent on The Edge of Night, sung the role of the young German soldier in The Sound of Music on Broadway and appeared on The Daniel Boone Show, The Rookies and All in the Family. In the light of this, it is easy to see him doing an ad for the Honda Civic: It is something new.

:: A Dangerous Freak ::

Proctor is really the most dangerous sort of freak. When you see, say, Keith Richards coming, you can brace yourself. But Proctor looks so innocuous that he can go anywhere, gliding by all the defenses until the slow terrible dawning of the truth comes: This man has taken leave of his senses and is about to take liberties with yours.

Bergman, on the other hand, is an obvious rogue with heavy-lidded eyes and an ambience that screams “viper.” Also a Yale man, he met Proctor under a stage there. I assume that Proctor was there to see how things worked, and Bergman had come to do something illegal.

While Proctor never did a minute of radio before Firesign Theatre, Bergman is heavily rooted in the medium. Over dinner, he spoke of how he used to drive from home in Ohio to school in New Haven, listening to the stream of radio stations on the way. In front of a microphone at WAER, voice after voice came out (“This is Smoke, honey”), personae he had soaked up and made his own. After graduating from Yale, he taught labor history there for a year, then spent two years in Europe writing plays and making a film called Flowers, which was distributed in the U.S. as a short. In 1966, he created and hosted Radio Free Oz, a “late-night underground radio show” in Los Angeles. It was there that Firesign Theatre took form – or took Form for a ride.

:: Beer and Ethernauts ::

At Danzer’s, Proctor ordered in German (a language he does not speak), and he and Bergman held forth on a number of subjects, alternately expounding and devouring ideas: the cloning of Toronto in outer space, Sagittarians’ feelings for beer, the viability of three-card Tarot readings on the radio (“Past, present, future; it’s easy”), which Bergman performed during his early days of broadcasting. At some point between laughs and fork-fulls, Bergman asked when the interview would begin. “This is it,” I said, and Bergman said, “Oh, great.”

The transition from speaking over a plate of schnitzel to speaking over the air back on campus was accomplished smoothly. The WAER staff had inflated a legion of balloons in honor of the occasion, and the visiting ethernauts fell right into an interview with Miles T. Zorn, whom they quickly, although not cruelly, left in the dust. From a distance, it could have been called improvisational radio, but up close there were no words for it. Feeding on the electricity, bouncing off each other and the balloons, and calling for James Brown and Tower of Power, Proctor and Bergman dominated the airwaves over the Salt City. Most of Syracuse was ready, although one caller said, “Look, what is this? I want to hear some music. Play the Beatles.” He called three times. Harvey Leeds tried to slip in a little Sgt. Pepper to pacify him, but Bergman wouldn’t stand for it. “Hot Pants,” he shouted. “What Is Hip!”

Some people videotaped the proceedings and after some promo-taping for WOUR (“POW, dis is Petah Boigman! And when I’m in Utica, you know where I’m tuned!”), everyone walked over to Synapse, SU’s cable television station. It hadn’t been on the schedule, but when Proctor heard it’d go out live, he said, “Let’s do it.” He and Bergman instantly organized The Multiple Identity Marathon Telethon. “We’d bring in our poster child but he’s, well, just too funny to look at.”

The campus responded admirably, and the boys raised one guppy and two rubles before fatigue forced them off the air. To close their visit, they strolled over to Jabberwocky for refreshments and more talk. Bergman was last seen inviting the fetching blonde from the Daily Orange up to his room at the Holiday Inn.

The new Proctor and Bergman album has been delayed until next spring, but the new Firesign Theatre offering is due this month and tentatively entitled Everything You Know Is Wrong. The only hint we have as to its contents comes from the omnipresent Harvey Leeds who spent a lifetime in New York City with the entire crew on the day Nixon’s first set of transcripts hit print. Ossman and Proctor were reading the transcripts in a Columbia studio with Windy Craig, an alumnus of Syracuse University and WOLF. Craig does the voice of Nixon for the National Lampoon. Later that afternoon, they laid siege to N.Y.U.’s radio station in much the same fashion as they had at WAER.

If there is a lesson to be learned from all this, it is this: The gloves are reversible; if you lose one, turn the other inside out.

* * *

An afterword: Danzer’s was a German restaurant on Syracuse’s north side, famed for its sandwiches. WAER was the Syracuse University radio station; WOUR was a commercial rock station in Utica; Jabberwocky was a club on campus. Discount Records was on the edge of the campus, at the foot of Marshall Street. And yes, my first marriage did come to end the Sunday following this visit. Only the part about my thing is fiction.

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