It’s easy to take for granted the fixtures of our city. The way the fog rolls in in the late afternoon, the brightly painted facades of grand Victorians, a certain whole roasted chicken and bread salad. But for longtime residents, it’s easy to get distracted by shiny new objects and forget to revisit our true San Francisco institutions.
When Jo Schuman Silver announced this year that she was closing the country’s longest running musical revue, we were all pretty shocked. But so it is: Beach Blanket Babylon will officially end scene here on New Years Eve.
“I wanted the show to go out on top,” said Schuman Silver, widow of creator Steve Silver, who has run the revue in his stead since 1995. “I just had this feeling a few years ago that I think it’s going to be time soon because we’re still so on top. It was this year. I hope I made the right decision. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
Schuman Silver made the announcement in April, giving plenty of warning to her cast and crew, as well as to San Franciscans who wanted to visit the show one last time. And while eight months seems like ample time to grab tickets, weeks of sold-out shows proved the city isn’t quite ready to say goodbye to Snow White and her gang of unlikely friends.
The news of the day, including pop culture icons and politicians, regularly made it into nightly scripts.(Courtesy of Beach Blanket Babylon)
A Disney-scented fairy tale Beach Blanket Babylon is not. The bold, brash, loud and colorful production is uniquely San Franciscan, from its outspoken liberal leanings to its quirky devotion to gigantic hats. The story follows a lost Snow White, with all the innocence of the original character but without the dwarves to help her navigate an uncertain future. Instead, she’s off on her own to search for her prince; beginning in SF, she enlists the help of cultural icons—from Adelle to Vladimir Putin to Ruth Bader Ginsberg—as she travels the globe.
While each nightly show follows this loose outline, the show changes almost daily, ensuring the production you saw last year will feel different than the one you saw yesterday. If you read about the President’s most recent indiscretion this morning, it’s almost certain it will be mentioned in the show tonight.
“If someone who works here thinks there’s something worthy in the news that day that the audience would care about we can try it that night,” Schuman Silver said. “If the audience reacts we can make it even more important next time. If the audience doesn’t react, it’s gone.”
The nimble script gives the production an element of improv, with the polish of a scripted show. And while politics are well represented in each presentation today, the show didn’t always lean so heavily on teasing our world leaders. In 1974, creator Steve Silver gathered fellow artists for a lively street performance to entertain the city with some goofy songs and the many costumes he had stored in his home. He expected it to last just that day. That day turned into weeks which turned into 45 years, including runs in London and Las Vegas, and the permanent residence at Club Fugazi in North Beach.
“Steve created it on a lark for a bunch of his friends for something to do. He had a lot of costumes from a company he had and in the ’70s everyone was singing on the street corners,” Schuman Silver said. “So they decided to sing on the street. That was 45 years ago.”
Silver’s dedication to keeping the nightly show fresh with new material, costumes and set changes ensured the audience kept coming back. “Steve Silver was crazy in the way he ran the show. It was always lots of fun and there was always crazy and wacky stuff we’d do on stage,” said John Camajani, the show’s stage manager for 40 years. “Every year I thought he can’t possibly top what he did last year, but he always did.”
Costumes, in particular, were integral to the show’s success, as were the towering hats that turn characters into caricatures. Silver worked with animator and puppeteer Alan Greenspan (who still produces hats for the show today) to translate their visions into something actually wearable—including a 20-foot wide and 33-foot tall San Francisco skyline that was crowned the largest hat to ever appear on any stage in 1987. (Schuman Silver hasn’t decided where the show’s hats and memorabilia would end up after its closing, but she is confident they will not be hidden away.)
After Silver’s passing, Schuman Silver carried on the production, staying dedicated to the show’s constant reinvention, from adding pop culture icons to political news to current music. Bill Keck, musical director and conductor for more than 25 years, said this dedication helped the show appeal to all ages, and locals to tourists alike. “You still have all this great old music in the show that everyone knows, like the show tunes and songs from the ’50, ’60s, ’70s,” he said. “Then, years later, there is still plenty of new material we add that the older generation knows and the younger generation knows, too.”
While the show was based in SF, it continued to appeal to visitors and was frequently billed as one of the city’s top attractions. It has even attracted countless celebrities over the years, including Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, Queen Elizabeth, Martha Stewart, David Bowie, Robin Williams, Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Liza Minnelli, and Sidney Poitier to name a few. It was also a favorite among such local as prominent businessman Cyril Magnin and former Mayor Willie Brown. The popularity even inspired the opening (though largely panned) number for the 1989 Oscars.
“The formula that Steve Silver came up was just brilliant,” said Tammy Nelson, a performer in the show for more than 25 years and wearer of the famous skyline hat. “You’re able to put in and take out timely things to stay current. It’s one of a kind. There is nothing out there like it.”
It may touch on political issues, but it does it gently and wants the audience laughing with them and not at the clumsy politicians. “Steve’s gift was to make something that was really entertaining, made you feel good, didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, and was just totally crazy,” Keck said. “The San Francisco community embraced the fun and the craziness of it in a way that other places might not have. I think it just mashes up with the spirit of the city perfectly.”
Both Silver and Schuman Silver were also endlessly dedicated to their cast and crew, which nurtured employees who all lived for the job. “I am so honored to have been part of this,” Nelson said, holding back tears. “I loved this job and I could not have imagined a better career and experience. It’s a dream job. You’re doing something that’s having a positive effect on people.”
Each cast member reiterated how intensely grateful they are for their time with the show and many were mournful at the loss for an unborn generation. “We feel so lucky that we had this. It’s just sad it’s not being carried on in the next generation,” Nelson said. “One of our Snow Whites saw the show as a little girl and now she’s in the show.”
The show also leaves behind a philanthropic legacy, one that Schuman Silver said will continue even when the show concludes. The Steve Silver Foundation and the Beach Blanket Babylon Scholarship for the Arts award college scholarships to Bay Area high school seniors, with more than $500,000 to date given to aspiring students in the performing arts.
“It is so quintessentially San Francisco,” said Curt Branom, a performer with the show for more than 25 years. “It shows off the wackiness of this town, the spontaneity of this town, the way this town dances to the beat of a different drummer, the way we allow people to be themselves and how we as San Franciscans laugh at the world and at ourselves. It’s a reflection of people that have found their people because most of us have come from other places. And some of us call this place Oz or Babylon.”
// Tickets for Beach Blanket Babylon are still on sale for performances through Dec. 31, 2019, but they’re quickly selling out; go to beachblanketbabylon.com.