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The Firesign Theatre at the Library of Congress

Phillip Proctor and David Ossman of the Firesign Theatre perform a new sketch titled, “The History of the Art of Radio, Revised,” in the Coolidge Auditorium, September 28, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

“We took that old art off of radio and mashed it up with Stan Freberg, Mad Magazine, Bob Newhart, Bob & Ray and Sergeant Pepper.” – Philip Proctor

“We skated just ahead of the needle on our first LPs and escaped just in the nick of time, diving through the hole in the center of the record.” – David Ossman

In the fall of 1966, Phil Austin, David Ossman and Phil Proctor appeared on their friend Peter  Bergman’s radio show on KPFK in Los Angeles, “Radio Free Oz,” in a broadcast of a purported film festival, complete with projector noise in the background and fictitious filmmakers and films. To their surprise and delight, callers to the station took it seriously, and a unique new writing and performing group was born.

They eventually settled on the group name “The Firesign Theatre,” after realizing that their Zodiac signs were Aries, Leo and Sagittarius, the “fire signs.” A little over a year later, they released their first album for Columbia Records, “Waiting for the Electrician (Or Someone Like Him)”; 28  years later, the Library of Congress added their 1970 album “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” to the National Recording Registry. In 2017, surviving members David Ossman and Phil Proctor performed on the stage of the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium, which can be viewed at this link.

In 2018, the Library of Congress acquired the group’s own archive of recordings, film and  videotape, photographs, scripts, studio logs, publicity, clippings and memorabilia, a definitive monument to their work and the working methods that fostered it:  a multi-format and multi-faceted collection with broad and enduring significance for American recording, radio, theater, film and television history. Comprehensive preservation of the audiovisual materials has been delayed by the pandemic, but a finding aid to the group’s papers has just been completed and can be viewed here: //hdl.loc.gov/loc.mbrsrs/eadmbrs.rs020005, illustrating the timelines of the group and its members.

The papers reach into the group’s prehistory, including collegiate work from Bergman and Proctor, who met at Yale in the late 1950s, and the ensuing years which saw the release of 27 group albums, five solo and duo albums, four radio series, ten films and videos, print anthologies, innumerable stage appearances by the four and nearly every possible duo and trio combination. The collective history of the group is here in the form of the individual histories of their many projects, which can be traced through the drafts and revisions each went through as the group woodshedded their material on stage, on radio and in the studio.

From the beginning, their writing and performance styles reflected the counterculture sensibilities of 1960s Southern California, the so-called “old time radio” era the members had grown up in, other pop culture of the 40s and 50s, the beat poetry scene, traditional and avant-garde theater, and the sonic innovations of the stereo and hi-fi eras. Their first album featured several short works, including the now legendary “Beat the Reaper” game show in which contestants were injected with diseases that they had to identify from their own symptoms to receive an antidote, but it failed to find an audience, and Columbia Records seriously considered dropping the group.

Between their second album, “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All” and their third,”Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers,” the group released this rare 7″ EP of short sketches.

It was Columbia classical music engineer and producer John McClure who kept them on the label, explaining to the brass that, appearances to the contrary, they were not a rock band, but spoken word artists. This led to a “spoken arts” contract that gave them unlimited studio time in an era when multi-track recording was expanding the capabilities of sound studios dramatically. Firesign would exploit the new possibilities to their fullest, creating long form pieces that took up full album sides, or entire albums, starting with “Don’t Crush That Dwarf…” a multi-layered sonic extravaganza in which the aging, isolated former child movie star George Leroy Tirebiter becomes comically unstuck in time, simultaneously bedeviled and cossetted by the barrage of news, commercials, and his own past glories emanating from his television, even consuming a hot meal served to him through the screen by a charismatic preacher, Pastor Rod Flash of the Powerhouse Church of the Presumptuous Assumption. The work’s progress can be seen in the numerous marked-up scripts from its lengthy period of development on the road and in the studio.

Clockwise, from upper left: Phil Austin, Phil Proctor, Peter Bergman, David Ossman of the Firesign Theatre, ca. 1971.

Continuity is a notable feature of the collection reflected in both the papers and recordings, and works such as “Anythynge You Want To (Shakespeare’s Lost Comedy)” —which began as a live sketch in the early 1970s, and progressed to a 60-minute broadcast on NPR’s “Earplay” in 1979, a record album in 1982, various live versions in the 90s and a full two hour version on CD in 2001—is preserved in scripts from the 70, 80s, 90s, 00’s and 2011.

Six more albums for Columbia followed “Dwarf,” along with solo efforts by Phil Austin and David Ossman and three albums featuring the duo of Proctor & Bergman. David Ossman worked in radio on his own and with his wife Judith Walcutt for most of the 80s, with Firesign continuing as a trio, releasing the albums The Three Faces of Al and Eat or Be Eaten. Ossman rejoined the group in time for a 25th anniversary tour in 1993 and 1994, and the release of three albums that marked the end of the millennium: Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death, which satirized the Y2K panic, Boom Dot Bust, which was their take on the early days of the internet, and Bride of Firesign, a deconstruction and re-assembly of their own audio legacy.

There were occasional on stage reunions until the deaths of Peter Bergman in 2012 and Phil Austin in 2015. Since then, Ossman and Proctor have appeared at the Library of Congress and other venues as “What’s Left of the Firesign Theatre,” and taken part in events such as the National Audio Theatre Festival. During the pandemic, they have appeared together in several online radio dramas and comedies for the Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety And Comedy (SPERDVAC).

Program from a 2009 appearance, in costume for one of the adventures of the detective “Nick Danger – Third Eye.” L-R Proctor, Austin, Bergman, Ossman

You can read Firesign historian Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr.’s Recording Registry essay on “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” here:
//www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/FiresignTheatre.pdf

You can read Phil Proctor’s 2015 interview for the Recording Registry here:
//www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/ProctorInterview.pdf

 

 David Ossman, Coolidge Auditorium, September 28, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

 

Phillip Proctor, Coolidge Auditorium, September 28, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller. 

 

Don’t hesitate to contact Ask a Librarian about the availability of Firesign materials or any other items in our collections.  Before you plan to come in and view any collection items, please get in touch with our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center.

5 Comments

  1. Chris Gaidrich
    September 7, 2022 at 8:58 am

    In 1967 or 68 I discovered the Firesign Theater. They were as subversive as comedy got for high school science geek in football crazed Pittsburgh. “Beat the Reaper” was cutting edge stuff. I have been a fan for over fifty years.
    Along with Monty Python they are the gold standard.

  2. Mark E. Martin
    September 7, 2022 at 8:36 pm

    It’s good to know there is a Firesign Theater archive! I’ve been a fan for decades (and an achivist for decades) so I can appreciate both sides of this album.

    There was nothing quite like tossing out a line from one of the routines and have a stranger (usually a bartender) fire back the next line. That was a sign of a true homecoming of kindred spirits no matter where it happened to be. Long live Firesign Theater!

  3. Steve Lenkowsky
    September 8, 2022 at 6:40 am

    To this day – which is some other day if it happens not on that day – you can tell what’s on a Firesign fan’s mind if a sly grin crosses their face when introduced to a woman named Nancy …. I like to think Paul McCartney got it when he met his current wife.

  4. STEVEN LEYTON
    September 8, 2022 at 9:58 am

    I discovered The Firesign Theatre in 1970 while concurrently discovering a separate mind-adjustment resource. At first, I found them amusing. With repeated exposure, I came to embrace FT as the single most rewarding American entertainment, beyond any movie, TV, book or music. I return to their recordings, again and again, always experiencing the delight of audio submersion into multiple layers of both deep meaning and a full range of comedy, artfully crafted and more gratifying than any other creative endeavor I’ve ever enjoyed. I am enormously grateful to have been introduced to this treasure of American media.

  5. Jery
    September 8, 2022 at 4:24 pm

    GRUBS AGAIN!! (GRUMBLE, GRUMBLE)

    DOMINE DOMINE DOMINE, YOU’RE ALL CATHOLIC NOW!!

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