Photo: Jonathan Bernbaum
Photo: Jonathan Bernbaum

A talented visual artist from Berkeley who made a name for himself in the international electronic music scene is reportedly among those killed Friday night in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland.

Friends and former classmates have planned a “candlelight and laser vigil” Monday night for 34-year-old Jonathan Bernbaum at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. He graduated from the program in 2008.

Bernbaum graduated from Berkeley High School in 2000, and was a member of the Berkeley High Jacket staff, according to former Berkeley High teacher Rick Ayers, writing on Facebook at 4:25 p.m. Sunday to confirm that Bernbaum had died. According to Bernbaum’s Facebook page he lived in Oakland at the time of his death, but was from Berkeley.

Bernbaum worked as a VJ, mixing lights and video projections for electronic music shows, including large tours. Bernbaum’s family says he was at the warehouse “with the rest of the local arts community to have a good time.”

Authorities announced at 6 a.m. Monday they had found the bodies of 36 people, but needed to suspend the search until the afternoon because conditions in the building became unsafe. Three individuals with Berkeley ties were among the first named victims — Nick Gomez-Hall, David T. Cline and Donna Kellogg — while another three have widely been reported to be missing: Vanessa Plotkin, Jenny Morris and Griffin Madden.

Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County sheriff’s office said late Sunday night that the next group of names was expected to be released Monday.

“The identifications have been very hard,” Kelly said, and authorities have used IDs found with victims, along with fingerprints and other methods, to determine the names of the dead. He said the total number of fatalities is expected to increase “a little bit more” before recovery efforts are complete.

German-American DJ and music producer Markus Schulz wrote on Facebook on Saturday shortly before 3 p.m. to ask for prayers for Bernbaum: “He was our VJ for the Scream 2 Bus Tour and he is one of the … people listed as missing from the Oakland fire last night. We are praying he is safe.”

In recent years, Bernbaum worked as a VJ for Australian electronic band Knife Party, LA-based V Squared Labs and Oakland’s Circuit 5 Visuals, according to his LinkedIn page.

Many took to Facebook to remember Bernbaum on Sunday after word spread that he was missing and was not believed to have survived.

Former Berkeley High classmate Fred Nicolaus shared some of his memories of Bernbaum on Facebook, noting that their paths had often crossed as nerdy teenage boys: “Like many nerdy people, Jonathan was smart and awkward. Unlike many, he didn’t apologize for his intelligence – he was not a guy to sit in the back of a classroom quietly knowing all the answers. He was outspoken and aggressive and misanthropic… But he was brave enough to be completely himself – a rarity, even at a school like Berkeley High.”

He continued: “Ten years after high school I saw him at our class reunion. He looked trim and sharp in a velvet blazer – still smart, but the awkwardness was gone. We had a funny conversation about his wacky adventures in the video world and reconnected on FB. I was always happy (and sometimes jealous) to see his success as a VJ – this guy who had suffered in the trenches of adolescence was now traveling to exotic locations and making fiery animated skulls appear on giant screens for thousands of screaming fans.”

Teacher Joy Osborne still had clear memories of Bernbaum from his sixth-grade class, and said “he could be quiet because he was smart and often thinking” yet was also “a rascal making waves… I was always fond of him.”

This photograph of Jonathan Bernbaum in 2009, shared by Lior Chefetz‎, was taken at the premiere of their thesis film in Paramount Studios.
Jonathan Bernbaum, right, has been identified as one of the victims of Friday’s fatal Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. Photo: Rick Ayers

Of his VJ work in more recent years, Darrion Granieri described Bernbaum as “A mentor, friend, and all around legend in the industry to many including myself. My heart hurts.”

Thomy Hoefer wrote that Bernbaum “has and always will be an inspiration to me and the entire … industry of vjing. I wouldn’t be where I am without his guidance and no bullshit demeanor. I could hit him up any time for advice and no matter where in the world he was he would take time out for me.”

On reddit, a poster identified as “belethors_sister” described Bernbaum as “incredible” and “Easily my best friend,” writing: “I stood on the … stage with him during the Knife Party/Pendulum set (after dropping by the hotel every day while he rendered and worked on visuals for the set to the very last minute to make them perfect) and was just floored. I mean, I’ve seen his work so many times but still. Afterward, we were in the artist yacht just hanging out and were told how many people tuned into the livestream and he turned to me as said with awe ‘Did I really just look that cool in front of 30 million people?’ He was so struck by it and was always humble about his work even after that set.”

Not much of Bernbaum’s personal Facebook page is visible to those he didn’t know, but many of his comments from over the years show up through search: his birthday greetings to friends, and many comments on a variety of shows he either planned to attend or was sorry to miss. His verve and passion for the music scene, as well as his sincere support for the associated community, come through loud and clear.

A 2011 post penned by Bernbaum, in the Facebook group You know you grew up in Berkeley when…, also makes an appearance in those search results. He writes that you know you’re from Berkeley “If you despise Starbucks because they cleared out Ortman’s Ice Cream.” The post sparked a lively debate about the local coffee scene, and the battle between small businesses and large corporations.

Among many other comments, Bernbaum took his initial post a step further: “Hell, f coffee chains, support old ice-cream shops, ones with gumball machines and drooping old bottles and grilled sandwiches and mind-blowing cookies and the best mint-chip on the planet and were just up the block from my elementary school… at least until some … coffee chain kicked ’em out.”

The “Ghost Ship” fire in Oakland. Photo: ACSO

Monday’s vigil for Bernbaum in Los Angeles is set to take place at the USC School of Cinematic Arts,
at 900 West 34th St., from 6 p.m. until midnight. See more of his work on his Vimeo page.

Berkeleyside has reached out to Bernbaum’s family for comment and will update this post if additional information becomes available.

A candlelight vigil in remembrance of all the fire victims is planned for Monday at Lake Merritt’s pergola, 559 El Embarcadero in Oakland, at 8 p.m., and the Oakland A’s have set up a donation page to help victims of the fire. The Oakland Raiders have also signed on to support the fundraising effort, and the organizations each plan to match up to $30,000 in relief donations, up to $60,000. The Golden State Warriors have pledged to donate $50,000.

Longtime San Francisco nonprofit Gray Area Foundation for the Arts also launched a fundraiser that has already brought in more than $214,000 to help with relief efforts.

The deadly fire took place at an artist collective’s warehouse called the “Ghost Ship” during the Golden Donna 100% Silk 2016 West Coast Tour, according to the Facebook page for the event, which has since been turned into a memorial page. The warehouse has been identified as the home of the Satya Yuga collective.

The three-alarm fire broke out Friday, Dec. 2, just after 11:30 p.m. at 1315 31st Ave. in Oakland.

According to numerous reports, the building had no fire alarms or sprinklers, and only a staircase made of pallets connected the first floor to the second. Berkeley resident Diego Aguilar-Canabal told The New York Times he had been to the warehouse once last summer “and remembered it as a dim and cluttered area with a ‘maze’ of furniture, canvas paintings on the walls and papier-mâché hanging from the ceilings.”

The city of Oakland says it will undertake a “thorough investigation of what occurred” and announced Sunday that the Alameda County district attorney’s office has activated its criminal investigation teams as part of that effort.

The city of Oakland has created a central page where it is posting updates about the fire and resources for assistance. This story was updated shortly after publication to include an updated death toll and a note about the suspended search.

Related:
As death toll from fire rises to 33, 3 with Berkeley ties are dead, 3 others reported missing (12.04.16)
Remembering David Cline: ‘A ferociously brilliant student and impossibly bright mind’ (12.05.16)

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook or get the latest news in your inbox. Email us at tips@berkeleyside.com. Support independent local journalism by becoming a member.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...