Why comedy master Peter gets serious about 9/11


IT'S hard to tell when Peter Rosengard is joking. His voice retains the same tone throughout our conversation - only changing slightly when he talks with pride about the 9/11 education programme he instigated.

This is a man who founded the iconic Comedy Store and who is in the Guinness Book of Records for selling the biggest life insurance policy in the world for $100 million to music and film legend David Geffen.

Peter speaks as he lives his life - at a furious pace.

Most mornings for Peter begin with breakfast at luxury London hotel Claridge's, where he conducts the majority of his business.

"I have had breakfast at the hotel most days since 1981," he told me. "I don't have an office - I hold my meetings at my breakfast table, 25 of them per week. I don't want to be in an office.

"I am a salesman so I enjoy going out to see people.

"I have my table at Claridge's booked until December 12, 2046 - the day after my 100th birthday."

Peter now has 2,000 clients - from rock stars to millionaires, dustmen to dentists.

Former Arsenal FC vice-chairman David Dein, one of his closest friends, is also a client.

In fact, his life has been so full of adventure and amusing anecdotes, that he wrote a book, Talking to Strangers: The Adventures Of A Life Insurance Salesman.

It has already topped the Amazon charts.

Peter became a life insurance salesman in May, 1969, but had quite a life before that.

Born Peter Rose in Hammersmith, west London, he was raised in a Liberal Jewish home in East Acton, which he describes as "not the end of the world - but you can see it from there".

His father, Jack, was from Glasgow and referred to himself as a Hebrew Highlander.

Jack, a doctor, was a compulsive gambler and one of the first members of Gamblers Anonymous in the UK. He died last year, aged 98.

Peter originally studied at the Royal Dental Hospital - before that he was an encyclopedia salesman as his place was held over for him due to him failing his A-level physics exam.

But with 1960s London in full swing, he quit studying dentistry - but not before volunteering in Israel during the Six-Day War.

The 66-year-old recalled: "Every day I thank God I quit dentistry, otherwise I could have destroyed the greatest mouths in a generation.

"Israel, at the time, was the most popular country in the world. I remember being on the Tube and reading that Israel had been attacked. That was it for me.

"I ended up on the flight to Israel with the great actor Topol and the beautiful Israeli actress Daliah Lavi.

"I didn't actually end up fighting for Israel - I spent a week on Kibbutz Erez.

"On my arrival at the kibbutz, a giant of a man greeted me.

"I thought, 'Great, this is what the New Jew looks like'.

"He introduced himself as Sean Armstrong, from Dublin. There were many non-Jewish volunteers.

"I washed the dishes, which was obviously the heroic thing to do."

On his return to London, Peter landed a job as a DJ at a club which many au pairs frequented.

He headed to an island near Gothenburg, after falling in love with a Swedish au pair.

Peter was a dishwasher there before spending six months as a DJ in Stockholm.

"My grandfather, Mark Silverstone, kept writing to me to tell me to come home and become a solicitor or an accountant," he explained.

"Then he sent me a copy of the Evening Standard which contained an advert for a new insurance company. He told me to come home and become a life insurance salesman."

Which is exactly what Peter did. He was extremely successful along the way and bought himself a Rolls Royce and a Jaguar E-Type.

The Comedy Store tale began in 1978 in Los Angeles, where he was on holiday with then-wife Shirley.

"We had nothing to do one night so I asked the concierge and he recommended the Comedy Store.

"At the time there was no live comedy in the UK, apart from working men's clubs up north, which was not really my scene.

"I loved what I saw in LA so decided to open one in London, despite everybody telling me I was nuts."

Peter found the Nell Gwynne Club as his venue through somebody who knew owner Don Ward.

Explaining that he wanted to open a club like the one in LA, Ward said he could use his premises on a Saturday night.

But it was also a strip club with topless barmaids, which Peter had to explain when comedians came to audition.

"I wanted to find the British Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen or Steve Martin," he said.

Peter arguably helped launch the careers of Alexei Sayle, Ben Elton, Keith Allen, Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Arnold Brown and French and Saunders, who all started at the Comedy Store.

But the partnership turned sour in late 1981 when he received a letter from Ward's solicitor telling him his business relationship had been dissolved.

Peter, who reverted to the family's original surname of Rosengard, went back into insurance, although he did open another comedy club called The Last Laugh.

"Ernest, my father's youngest brother, who died a few weeks ago, kept the surname and he was always my favourite," he added.

Peter's endeavours even saw him discover and manage 1980s pop band Curiosity Killed the Cat.

"I was enjoying lunch with my client Tariq Siddiqui, who managed Julian Lennon," he said.

"Tariq wanted to play me his new discovery, who he said were a heavy metal band.

"I didn't have a clue about that type of thing, but he gave the tape to the barman to play.

"I was impressed and asked barman Gianni who they were and he pointed to three young good-looking guys who were surrounded by half a dozen gorgeous women.

"I went up to them and told them I was their new manager. I told them I would make them the biggest band in the world."

Peter, who is father to 18-year-old Lily, managed them for a number of years.

The group, led by Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot, had a number of hits, including Down to Earth.

Despite such entertaining exploits over the years, Peter decided to turn his hand to something more serious four years ago.

Using his illustrious book of contacts, Peter helped to set up the 9/11 Education Programme charity.

Mancunian Lord Fink is a prominent supporter of the charity, which aims to ensure that future generations have the opportunity to be taught about the events and to understand the causes and consequences of 9/11, in the UK, America and across the world.

The charity has been working in partnership with the Institute of Education to develop an educational programme.

"There is an incredible level of ignorance about September 11, 2001 among 13 to 17-year-olds," Peter said.

"The events of that day changed the world. We need to teach today's youngsters what happened and its causes, as well as teaching toleration and respect for Jews, Muslims, Christians and everybody."

Peter is also behind a campaign to erect a permanent public monument to the British victims of 9/11.

The sculpture is made from a reclaimed World Trade Centre girder that was left to rust in a Cambridgeshire farmyard.

But, thanks to Peter's links to London Mayor Boris Johnson, it will now be installed in the capital's Olympic Park.

It honours the almost 3,000 people, including 67 Britons, killed in 9/11.

It was installed in Battersea Park, but removed after one month, when attempts to install it elsewhere failed.

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph