IF YOU WERE WATCHING WGBH on February 7, 1968, in a house with two TVs, you were in luck.
That Wednesday night, without warning, viewers were invited to take part in a radical experiment. Instructions appeared on the screen: “Gather two television sets in the same room. Place them 6 feet apart. Turn one to Channel 2. Turn the other to Channel 44.”
On the left screen appeared a young British man named David Silver, who proceeded to interview theater director Richard Schechner. This footage was in black and white. On the right television, tuned to Channel 44, Silver materialized in full color, adding commentary to the interview unfolding on the other screen, putting himself down as a phony. Elsewhere in the show, home viewers watched agog as the young British invader played Ping-Pong across screens, the tiny white ball magically zipping between two unconnected boxes in their living room.
The show’s creators said they tried to keep the left program comprehensible without the aid of the other screen, “so that our audience wouldn’t freak out and turn it off.” Up on Fort Hill in Roxbury, the experiment impressed Mel Lyman, the impossible-to-freak-out creator of “Avatar,” a popular underground newspaper that was the subject of multiple controversies that year.
“By God Dave you really ARE a pioneer in television, your show is without a doubt the most real, the most alive, the most IMPORTANT thing happening in the TV medium. . . . I want the word to get around,” Lyman wrote in an open letter to Silver published in his paper. “WATCH THE SILVER SHOW ON TELEVISION!”
For two years, twice a week, What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? transformed home televisions into portals for a psychedelic fever dream, uninterrupted by commercials or common sense.
WHEN HE WAS GROWING UP in East Lancashire, England, Silver’s first love was Shakespeare. He attended the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute, and for four years saw every play put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the same time, he was enchanted by the raw power of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. He stayed for two degrees, writing his postgraduate thesis not on the Bard but on a contemporary American author: Saul Bellow. Silver’s tutor sent it to Sylvan Barnet, a Shakespeare scholar at Tufts University, who was so impressed he invited Silver to come teach in Boston. Silver soon moved into his new home on Brattle Street in Cambridge. At 22, he was the youngest “instructor professor” the school ever had.
With heaps of UK bands making inroads on the American pop charts, Silver instantly became a popular figure on the Tufts campus. Karen Thorne clearly remembers his arrival.
“He looked like a dead ringer for Mick Jagger,” she says of her teacher, who was only a year older. “He took one look at me and I became his girlfriend. I can’t explain it any other way.”
With a word of caution, Tufts was willing to let young love bloom between a student and a professor. The couple fell for each other and the city at the same time.
One evening in April 1967, they were watching TV with mounting boredom. Thorne complained that nothing on the tube resembled “our lives or our culture or our desires.” She told Silver he should change that: “You’re English, you’re trendy, you look the right way.”
Silver recalls that a poetry professor at Tufts knew a producer at WGBH and set up a meeting for him. Thorne, on the other hand, is certain that they walked into the WGBH offices off the street, telling a receptionist, “We have an idea for a show. Who should we talk to?” Either way, Silver got a meeting with director Fred Barzyk.
Barzyk came to WGBH from Wisconsin in 1958. The nonprofit station had been on air for only three years, employing 50 people at its Massachusetts Avenue headquarters near MIT in Cambridge. Though Barzyk had aspired to a career in theater, not television, the $85 a week was hard to turn down. Shortly after arriving, Barzyk had a series of arguments with two WGBH producers about their coverage of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — the station’s most popular offering.
“I felt there was more to do visually than cut from the oboe to the trombone at the right moment,” he says. “Why couldn’t we make abstractions timed to the music revealing a visual understanding of the music?”
Barzyk kept looking for a way to take the avant-garde sensibility he had fallen in love with in college and apply it to television. He thought educational television, WGBH’s bread and butter, had an identity crisis: “Was it high-minded talking heads or how-to shows? Was it Julia Child or strong political documentaries? Or was it to reach to the young audience we had in Boston?”
The old guard at WGBH wanted to hold the line, but six years later, the burgeoning popularity of the Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan gave Barzyk what he needed to push for change. McLuhan’s 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, introduced the concept of “the medium is the message.”
To the leadership team at WGBH, Barzyk looked like an expert on a developing zeitgeist. Barzyk got another lucky break when the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts provided artists with a chance to try out their talents on the small screen. Experimental television labs popped up in San Francisco, New York, and Boston. The funding removed the lingering hesitations at WGBH.
Silver recalls Barzyk’s vague but exciting proposal from their first meeting: “We’re gonna set up a situation in Studio A and you’re just going to do things, and hopefully they’ll like you.”
One day in May 1967, Silver entered the studio and found a table full of magazines waiting for him as his only prompt. Silver riffed on an issue of Cosmopolitan. It wasn’t good. But six weeks later, Barzyk told him they were scheduled to do a five-part series, one hour each — though the actual episodes later clocked in at varying lengths, some as short as 22 minutes — with the possibility of more. Another program director had seen Silver’s test footage and decided he was the man for the job.
Management, who assumed that Barzyk would simply throw together something quaint, hadn’t considered his love of offbeat theater. The show would be the equivalent of a video happening: “a scrambled exploration of nonsense and critical info,” Barzyk says.
Only about 20 minutes of scattered clips exist online. Silver has agreed to show me a few of the full episodes.
“God knows what this is,” he says softly, squinting as he scrolls through a video player on a laptop. “This was just craziness.”
The show is about to begin.
IT GOES LIKE THIS: A swarm of inkblots. Cut to a circular logo bouncing across the screen. A child announces the title of the show, then looks confused. A Jim Kweskin song plays as the inkblots return. A half-second clip of a woman in a red dress, staring off into the distance. Edits happen without warning and truncate sentences throughout. Silver sits on the floor and asks the woman a question, but her answer goes unheard — cut to stock footage of a man talking about producing high school yearbooks. Cut back to the woman telling Silver about an impending “cataclysmic event.” Microcuts to old commercials. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” starts to play.
Behind Silver and the lady in the red dress, a dozen young people dance wildly. Seated to their left and right are an extremely old man and woman, watching. Backward sequence of Silver eating a banana. Stock footage run through an effects module rendering it new in an array of psychedelic color patterns. Black-and-white scene of samurais fighting. The editing pace quickens. Four distinct audio tracks play at once, often at odds with one another. Silver, all in black, fences with a woman dressed all in white. Inkblots overlay the duel. A woozy pattern spins as we hear news reports on the Vietnam War.
“You could be frozen for several hundred years,” a woman in a floral pattern dress tells Silver while the dancers clap in time behind them. “That would break up the monotony of eternity.” The elderly pair looks confused. Dave Wilson, one of the founders of “Avatar,” drives his motorcycle onto the set and does loops around the whole scene, the exhaust thickening. “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett plays. Silver lies down with the woman on the floor, the dancers keep swaying, and Wilson continues to circle everything on his hog.
With no fanfare, the end credits appear. The sound fades out. You’re left in total silence, watching the elderly pair’s reactions. They do not understand what just happened. Do you?
The episode, “Madness and Intuition,” won a National Educational Television award.
Barzyk used every film chain and videotape machine he could find to create it.
“I had groups of thousands of slides being projected,” he recalls.
Barzyk instructed everyone in the control room to yell out if they got bored, and then he’d cut to something else, without rhyme or reason. He assumed that everything would make sense in the end. Twenty-two minutes into the half-hour show, he got up and left; the episode had taken on a life of its own and no longer required a director.
Sometimes they’d sit in the control room after a live airing, waiting for viewer feedback.
“Some woman called the station complaining that she hated the show and that the cuts were too quick,” Thorne says. “She said the show was giving her brain cancer. Fred loved that. He told everybody that the show was giving this woman brain cancer.”
Silver says “Madness and Intuition” was probably inspired by a mutual appreciation for Allan Kaprow, who had helped to develop the concept of performance art in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
There were certainly experimental films that approached the level of absurdity found in Silver and Barzyk’s creation, but the difference was that this program snuck into people’s homes twice a week — and not just in Boston. What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? appeared on 13 partner stations across the United States. Andy Warhol may have been the superstar of the experimental film world, but even he had to convince the public to seek out his movies. For Barzyk and Silver’s form of madness and intuition, you didn’t even have to leave your couch.
Silver and Barzyk owed a debt to Warhol’s pioneering work, and the British TV host was ecstatic when, in 1967, he learned that Warhol was coming to town with the Velvet Underground and wanted to be on the show. They shot the segment, which also featured Velvet Underground singer Nico, with director Paul Morrissey in an upstairs room at 53 Berkeley Street, the home of the Boston Tea Party concert hall, where the Velvets were headlining that night.
THE SHOW AIRED EVERY Wednesday and Sunday at 10:30 p.m. Newsweek loved it. Gregory Mcdonald, who went on to write a popular series of novels about a smart-ass detective named Fletch, called it a “weekly half-hour mind blower” in his Boston Globe piece, which appeared on New Year’s Eve in 1967:
By the end of the more-or-less half-hour program (so far it’s run anywhere from 25 to 41 minutes) you’re a beat-up mess on the floor, hand groping for the Off switch while the title credits count ten over your bloody, bowed head.
“I never miss it,” said a lady who hates the program. “I never can believe it makes me as mad as it does.”
The Globe piece gave What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? a huge boost. More episodes were ordered for 1968, and WGBH allocated a $200,000 budget for the show.
Silver, the accidental English professor, was suddenly a celebrity.
“I couldn’t walk anywhere in Boston or Cambridge without being stopped,” Silver remembers with a smile.
“I was literally a groupie,” Peter Simon recalls. “It was the first TV show that spoke to the stoned generation, ever.”
Simon, the younger brother of singer-songwriter Carly Simon, was a photo editor for The BU News at the time. He would host a potluck dinner where everyone would get fed, stoned, and then watch “as if God was speaking from the heavens.”
As the show’s popularity grew, it booked bigger guests, including Frank Zappa, William F. Buckley, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Bill Cosby. But the boldface names didn’t distract from the creators’ devotion to the unpredictable.
Barzyk and Silver began playing around with different episode formats. Why not, Barzyk wondered, try to do the show live?
“Good evening,” says an oddly agitated Silver on a WGBH set made to appear as a busy newsroom. “The reason you saw that bit of fakey film there to start off the show is that it’s a parody of a news show. I’m sick and tired of ordinary news shows and this one is my thing!” Silver throws to a pretaped interview with Bill Cosby.
An “Apartment of the Week” segment consists of footage of a rundown house in Somerville.
“If you’re a hippie in Cambridge who’s being busted,” Silver says, “go and live in that place.”
Behind him, people can be seen answering phones and bashing on typewriters. It’s not clear if anything they’re doing is real.
At one point, Barzyk cuts to footage of two kids dancing to the music.
“That was by Nancy Sinatra,” Silver explains. “I say it was by Nancy Sinatra, but it’s not really by Nancy Sinatra, because she’s got false hair, false nose, she had her cheekbones shaved, and she’s got false boobs! How false can you get?”
Fifty years later, Silver notes, “And that’s why they took my show off the air.”
“That moment?” I ask.
“Yes, well, and maybe what happened next.”
Later in the live episode, co-host Russell Connor admonishes Silver for being hard on Sinatra.
Silver shrugs it off and introduces professor Howard Zinn for a “guest editorial.” The show cuts to a pretaped speech by Zinn in which he vividly rails against the Vietnam War. It was unheard of to feature this kind of direct antiwar sentiment anywhere on television.
“How can we justify giant, powerful America bombarding the peasants of a small Asian country to force them to accept a corrupt and cruel government which they themselves are unwilling to fight for?” Zinn asks.
Zinn concludes with support and admiration for those who refuse “to cross the sea to make war on the people of Vietnam.”
“Thank you, Professor Zinn,” Silver says. “I agree with every word you said.”
Afterward, the mood inside WGBH was grim. D.C. and Boston had seen the episode live; program director Michael Rice told Barzyk that what they’d done was unacceptable.
“We’re embarrassed,” he said. “This may be the end of the show.”
In the end, Rice let the show remain on the air, with the proviso that it never be broadcast live again.
Silver hung on for a while. But in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, WGBH found itself playing a key role in keeping Boston calm. Pressure mounted on Rice to make room for programming for and by the African-American community. Whether or not funding for Silver and “black television” truly became an either-or choice for WGBH, the station certainly used it as a way to wrap up the Silver circus.
Rice told Barzyk that WGBH was going to take the money from the Silver show to develop a program called Say Brother — with Barzyk as consultant.
The final episode of What’s Happening, Mr. Silver? was a “masterpiece of camp,” according to the Globe, featuring “a gang of sweet old ladies dashing about the city with violin cases trying to gun down Silver.”
Somewhere inside that swan song was a sequence in which Silver and Thorne are sitting up in bed. She’s naked, her breasts exposed. WGBH aired the scene unedited, and Thorne believes hers was one of the first nude bodies on television.
This small milestone aside, Silver was devastated that the show had come to an end.
“There was something there in Boston for me that was completely unique in my life,” he reflects. “Not just being famous for a little while or having a little bit of power. There was something about the camaraderie and the community in the late sixties. I was a part of this community.”
Silver and Thorne got married in 1969 and had a daughter together, but split up a few years later. Thorne is now a professional psychic; Silver’s varied career includes writing the documentary The Compleat Beatles, working at Warner Brothers, and hosting a mindfulness podcast. In 2000, The New York Times credited the Silver show as a key influence in the birth of video art. Silver agrees that he had an active role in the counterculture, adding, “I constantly felt like I was in a dream.”
Barzyk can still remember one incident that might have contributed to his partner’s surreal feeling. In a Christmas episode, Silver walks through Boston Common, past trees lit up for the holidays. Two young women approach, recognizing him from somewhere.
“You’re not real,” one of the women says. “You’re supposed to be on television.”
Silver answers curtly, “I’m real.”