Can the North Coast laugh at itself? Or are we all up our own tree?
by William S. Kowinski
Six years ago, Dave Silverbrand was the news director, anchor and star reporter on the TV station with Humboldt County’s largest TV news staff. They generated 22 hours of local news a week---news at 6 a.m., news at 5 p.m., news at 6 and 6:30 and 11 pm, on KVIQ (Channel 6.) The Ackerley Group, owner of Channel 6, poured a million dollars into staff and equipment. Even when they lured away the anchor of rival KAEF (Channel 23,) Silverbrand remained the genial face of Channel 6 news, second in the ratings to KIEM (Channel 3.)
Then it was over. Ackerley sold out to the broadcasting behemoth, Clear Channel Communications (which reportedly was most interested in Ackerley’s billboard business). As a result of the sale, the Channel 6 local newscasts were closed down completely.
One of the few at Channel 6 to survive this sale was Dave Silverbrand, who continued to provide one local news story a day for Clear Channel’s station in Santa Rosa. Shortly thereafter, KVIQ was sold again, this time to Raul Broadcasting, and for a short time, Silverbrand was out of a job entirely.
Dave Silverbrand has the image and presence of an easy-going guy. But he doesn’t like inactivity. So in his underemployed period about four years ago, he sat down and wrote a play: a satirical look at a North Coast conflict, centered on the survival of a tree.
One of the characters is a veteran TV news reporter, worried and angry that his 35 years of reporting hasn’t amounted to much, who is trying to redeem his own self-image with one last great story.
After finishing the play, which he titled The Tree, “I didn’t try to do anything with it,” Silverbrand said recently. “I figured an opportunity would come up sometime.”
Pacific Arts Center Theatre created challenging theatre on the North Coast for a generation, first in Arcata in the 1970s and then in the early 90s in Manila. Along the way, it spawned the children’s theatre group, Vagabond Players. After leaving Manila, both groups moved for about a year to the Eagle House, then to a Eureka warehouse space. Then PACT stopped producing completely, and Vagabond reconstituted itself as a program of the Ink People. But true to their name, they were still vagabonds.
“We were homeless for about two years,” said Carole Wolfe, volunteer artistic director. “I wanted us to be in Arcata, but I was basically calling everybody who might have a space to rent.”
When it got to the point that she was looking just for storage space for Vagabond’s equipment, she contacted the landlord of the Old Creamery building in Arcata. “He asked me if we were still looking for space for the theatre. I said, ‘yes we are.’” Three months later Vagabond Players moved in---to the same space where Pacific Arts Center began, some thirty years earlier.
Vagabond’s first foray in its new space was an ambitious production last fall of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Mark Dupre.
Dave Silverbrand, who lost his job when Raul Broadcasting took over, had to apply for the position of General Manager of KVIQ, which he got. Except for an engineer, he is the station’s only employee. He does all the station’s local segments, such as his “Project Lean” series (healthful food), “Project Green” (Arcata Recycling) and “Dave is---“ (“a kind of comical thing where I try different peoples’ jobs”), a format he began in previous Channel 6 incarnations.
So last September he showed up at the Vagabond Players’ new space, now called the Star Garden Theatre Art Center, to do a story on "Wild Things.” He mentioned his play, which he’d continued to work on over the years. “They said, well, it would be our first adult production,” Silverbrand recalls, “ but let’s take a look at it, and they did, and pretty much on the spot said they wanted to do it.”
So The Tree grew in Arcata, and will open this Thursday, March 30 at the Star Garden Theatre for a three-weekend run, with all proceeds donated to Food for People, the Humboldt County food bank.
The tall reporter in the trenchcoat and floppy hat talks earnestly to the camera about his thwarted ideals. Images of his heroes, like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, flash across the screen. His career, hasn’t amounted to much. We see him doing forlorn stand-ups and getting tossed out of a rock concert. He needs one big story to justify his career.
The man in the video is the man showing it to me on an ancient monitor perched on a riser at the Star Garden space: Dave Silverbrand. The clips, which Silverbrand edited together to create what amounts to a character in his play, are from his own career. There are six or seven of these taped segments which the audience will see, while the live cast accomplishes its scene changes.
This is one of the joys of this play for him, the live Silverbrand claims. “I get a chance to laugh at myself,” he says, “which I enjoy doing very much.”
Dave Silverbrand (the surname is an Americanization of a common Swedish name) was born in King City, south of Salinas, and grew up in various small towns down in Steinbeck country. In high school his English teacher suggested he attend a town council meeting and write something about it for the local radio station. He did, and found he liked it a great deal. Until then he hadn’t even imagined a career in broadcasting, but after earning a B.A. in journalism at San Jose State University, he wound up in Portland, Maine, where he worked as a television reporter and substitute anchor for the next twenty years.
Silverbrand returned to California in 1992. After a couple of years as a reporter for KIEM-TV, he went back to school and earned his Master’s in English at HSU, where he also taught and was heard on KHSU radio. By 1997 he was back in TV broadcasting, as news director at Channel 6.
He showed me another taped segment for his play when I visited his Channel 6 office, a cramped, narrow space in the Eureka building where Eureka Television Group runs its four stations and his as well. The premise of this clip is that the reporter, now bored and angry because the “big story” he’s covering is moving too slowly, is being interviewed by a grade school girl for her school newspaper. She asks him general questions like “What is your job?” and he gives increasingly resentful answers, complaining that he is called in to anchor when “the little punk calls in sick,” and he loses choice assignments to reporters who bat their eyelashes “and shake their booties.”
As he continues to rant even after the girl says she has to go, the segment is genuinely funny. But it is pretty biting if not bitter, so I asked Silverbrand if that’s how he feels about his own career.
“Sure, this is how I feel, that’s the point,” he said. “In 35 years, I’ve had cases where I had to come in and fill in for the little punk who calls in sick, and I’ve been upstaged by the anchor queens, because they’re the anchor queens. There’s a lot about TV that’s superficial, and I’ve watched people just slide into these plum assignments because that’s the way TV is. It ticks me off sometimes. The rest of the time I’m having such a good time it doesn’t matter. That’s why I’m enjoying myself with this play. Because it gives me a chance to say a few things, without sounding like some grousing, grumbling old man. I can be a humorist and say the same thing. It’s great.”
Because, as it turns out, Silverbrand and I are almost exactly the same age (born six weeks apart in the summer of 1946) and had our first journalism jobs at the same time a few hundred miles apart (I was a writer and editor for the Boston Phoenix while he was getting started in Maine), I happen to know something more about the peculiar point in media history when Silverbrand was beginning his television career.
There were few women on the air in television news until 1971 or so. Boston’s largest TV station, WBZ, had one female reporter, a middle aged woman respected for her reporting skills. But a few years later there was a huge influx of primarily young and attractive women hired to be on the air, at first as “soft” news reporters, then general assignment reporters, then talk show hosts and co-anchor spots on new early news shows, and by mid-decade, the anchor chair on the more established news programs.
Several proved to be very good at television news. The alarmingly beautiful Natalie Jacobson, who became the first woman to anchor the evening news in Boston, is still a popular (and now award-winning) newscaster at the same station, WCVB. Pat Mitchell, who I met when she was the WBZ film and theatre reviewer, is now the head of PBS.
But there were others… On a story, I had to attend a public hearing in Boston concerning telephone company regulation. I arrived an hour or so into it and saw a group of reporters standing in the press section, but I didn’t know any of them. However, there was a tall, extremely striking woman I’d seen on TV, and of course she’s the one I chose to approach, to catch up on what had gone on so far. She smiled her blinding smile at me and giggled. In her long, perfectly manicured fingers she held a reporter’s notebook, completely blank.
Of course, there were male anchors more famous for their handsome smiles than their penetrating intelligence (the urban legend about Boston’s biggest anchor star had him solemnly warning that a missing child should be approached carefully, because he was “acoustic”), and airhead anchors of both genders have since become a living cliché. But at precisely the moment Dave Silverbrand was beginning, this rapid influx of young women into local broadcasting was skewing the system to the detriment of other reporters, before some balance was achieved. Though it wasn’t easy for the young women either, it could be frustrating for young men.
But Silverbrand coped with all the change for 20 years in Maine, and could have stayed longer. “People I worked with years ago are still there,” he said. Or he could have tried to advance to more prestigious and better-paying media markets in bigger cities. “I didn’t have the fever for big city TV,” he said. “I’m kind of a small town guy.”
Since coming to the North Coast to be closer to his California family, Silverbrand has felt the effects of media conglomerates as well as all the other outrages. So besides satirizing his fate in a play, how does he deal with it? “If I had just acquiesced to the way things were, I would be incredibly angry and disillusioned,” he said. “But I learned early on that if something is really important to you, you go ahead and do it.”
Case in point: In 1982, a young Maine schoolgirl named Samantha Smith wrote to Yuri Andropov, then the Soviet Premier, telling him of her fears about nuclear war. He invited her to Moscow, and her trip became a media sensation.
“It was a big global story, one of those stories that I wanted to do so badly, I could ace that story—but somebody else, for those superficial reasons, got to go and do it,” Silverbrand recalled. “I felt so angry and left- behind about that. But I said, Dave, you can come up with your own way to do something like that. You don’t have to wait for somebody else to write your ticket, you can do it yourself.”
So Silverbrand organized high school student trips to Russia and went with them for four consecutive years. “That was even more fulfilling to me than covering Samantha Smith. And that’s the way I’ve been doing things ever since.”
Even when he was the one-person news staff for Channel 6 during the Clear Channel period, and he got a hankering to go to Cuba: “I knew nobody I worked for would send me, but I really wanted to go. I knew I would have to pay my own way, so I did.” He also took a camera. And since he was responsible for providing Clear Channel’s Santa Rosa station with one story a day from Humboldt, he fed them his series on Cuba. “What were they going to do? They had to put something in that slot. And I had just a wonderful time, talking to Cuban people.”
These days Silverbrand also teaches English and journalism classes at College of the Redwoods, and passes on this lesson. “I tell my students, ‘you can do things that are important to you, you can find a way. You don’t have to be told to do it, just go out and do it, and make a difference, and feel good about yourself. If you let others write all the rules for you, you’re not going to get anything done.’ In its own passive-aggressive way, what I did was revolutionary. So I tell them, ‘Just find a way to work the system, you can have an awful lot of fun.’ ”
In the end, that seems to be Silverbrand’s dominant feeling about his career. Veteran CBS journalist Mike Wallace had announced his retirement a few days before our conversation. Silverbrand watched an interview with him. “I thought, dammit, I’ve had as much fun at my job as he’s had at his. I didn’t make nearly as much money, and I didn’t work on a national TV network, but I’ve had a ball. And I’m not done.”
Coming in from the March mist and cold, the space inside the Creamery building now known as the Star Garden Theatre feels immediately welcoming. The very high ceilings add to a sense of spaciousness and possibility, and there’s a warmth in the combination of modest fixtures and the theatre’s elegant wood floor. The homey reception area has a refreshment bar, topped with the large masks from Where the Wild Things Are, and a revolutionary new concept in local community theatre---two (count’em, two!) restrooms, one next to the other.
Though Carole Wolfe’s main concern is providing “a safe space” for children at Vagabond Players’ productions and kids classes, she is open to other opportunities these rooms provide. That’s one reason they gave the theatre a separate name. “We’d like to rent to other groups that want to perform for a weekend, or for classes,” she said. “We’re looking for a fresh start,” which also means an openness to new plays and productions for adults, as evidenced by The Tree.
Ten actors, some of them in their first production, gather here for rehearsals. At first, Dave Silverbrand wanted Mark Dupre to direct. “After six months of creating the heads for ‘Wild Things’ and putting together the production, Mark decided he didn’t want to do it,” Wolfe said. “But Dave was still set on having it in this space.”
Enter Denise Ryles, the veteran Humboldt County actor who directed her first show a few years ago. “Dave Silverbrand and I go way back,” she told me. “I was in an English class he taught at HSU, and later he would come into The Costume Box, the shop my mother and I have. He was doing his ‘Dave is…’ thing on Channel 6, and we’d dress him up for the different things he wanted to do.”
So Ryles agreed to direct (and her mother, Rosemary Smith, who still has the Costume Box at 2nd and T in Eureka, has designed the show’s costumes.) By all accounts, Silverbrand worked closely with the production, from involvement in casting to attending rehearsals and making revisions according to what he saw and experienced. “I believe in having the writer here,” Ryles said. “He can hear it and decide for himself if it sounds good or not. He can help the actors, and maybe the actors can add something, so he’s here to decide to keep it or not. I think he’s very happy. He told me this is just how he imagined it to be.”
The story in The Tree pits two families against each other: one father is an ex-hippie environmentalist who is now produce manager at the Co-op, the other an ex-logger now working in a lumber yard. They are battling over a single tree in the heart of town---should it be cut down to make bleachers for the high school football team, or left to live out its natural life? An aggressive police chief and a cautious mayor are between them.
This is not Silverbrand’s first play (a documentary drama called The Lobster War, based on his Maine reporting, was produced at the Eagle House in 1999), but it is his first comedy and work of the imagination. It seems his English Masters paid off, for it also includes star-crossed lovers in a Romeo and Juliet subplot, as well as a mysterious figure, a elderly woman who becomes a key player in the unfolding story.
Silverbrand and Ryles agree that the theme of the play is change, and how people cope with it, and try to locate a new identity in flux. The action---which includes protests, police plans for subduing protestors, city council meetings, etc.---seem to come from familiar local events, many of which Dave Silverbrand covered as a reporter.
They are situations rife with conflict, but that’s always fascinated Silverbrand, from the first town council meeting he witnessed as a teenager. “These personalities clashing with each other, these people bickering and picking at each other---it just seemed like so much fun to me.”
This attitude towards local conflicts, however, may be contrary to North Coast tradition. “Everybody here has an opinion about conservation and environment, and it’s a pretty deeply held philosophy. You don’t find too many ambivalent people around here. But there are some parts of the country where people laugh at themselves on a regular basis,” Silverbrand mused. “Where I lived in Maine, it’s part of the culture to laugh at yourself. Different parts of the country are the same way. We take ourselves very seriously up here---too seriously sometimes, I think.”
Silverbrand said he hasn’t seen the Dell ‘Arte play about a tree-sitter, Shadow of Giants, now on national tour, so he can’t make any comparisons. “I’m not saying this is one of the great plays of all time---it’s not,” he added. “But it is a local satire, an opportunity for all of us to laugh at ourselves. That’s pretty much the value of it.”
For all his fascination with disagreements, Silverbrand seemed proud to point out that he got along well with both police and tree-sitters during the protests in Freshwater a few years ago. Though Silverbrand refused several invitations to climb a tree, he and Jenny Carr—known as Remedy---were cell phone friends. He remembers answers his cell in a San Francisco hotel where he was on a Christmas shopping trip with his wife, and it was Remedy calling from her tree home, just saying hello.
Everybody likes Dave. But will they feel the same way after this play?
“I think he wrote a real heartfelt piece,” Denise Ryles said, and added with a grin, “he makes fun of everybody equally.”
A different version of this story appears in the North Coast Journal.
Performances of The Tree are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., March 30 to April 15. There is also a matinee on Saturday, April 15. Tickets are $10, $8 students/seniors. 2-for-1 tickets on Preview Night, March 30. The Star Garden Theatre Art Center is in the Old Creamery Building, at 1251 9th Street in Arcata. The theatre seats about 100 for this production. Call 442-1533 for reservations and information. This is a show for adults. Proceeds benefit Food for People.