The quirky little show was never supposed to last very long. It was the evolution of a street performer’s act—the next step, if only a fleeting one—to showcase Steve Silver’s mastery of parody and improv. So, on June 7, 1974, knowing that he had to generate a lot of laughs in a short amount of time, Silver set out to make the most of the show’s six-week run at the The Savoy Tivoli in North Beach.
Instead, he made history.
Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon moved to Club Fugazi in June 1975. At 45 years, it is the longest running musical revue in the world, having had performances in Las Vegas, London and even at the Academy Awards. Its list of notable audience members span from royalty (HRH Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall) to pop stars (David Bowie, Robin Williams, Liza Minnelli, Shirley MacLaine, and Sidney Poitier, to name a few).
The ever-current political and pop culture production with the over-the-top hats has become such an integral strand in San Francisco’s tapestry that it’s often listed among the city’s landmarks: Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars and Beach Blanket Babylon. Perhaps that’s the reason behind the city’s collective gasp when the announcement was made and news quickly spread: “Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon to close on Dec. 31, 2019.”
Never mind that six weeks stretched to nearly five decades. No one saw the news coming. In many ways, Beach Blanket Babylon is San Francisco: quirky, creative, smart and so fabulously “out there.” It is the little cable car that could—and, boy, did it.
“I met Steve a long time ago,” says San Francisco’s chief of protocol, Charlotte Shultz. “At that time, he had a group called Rent-a-Freak, which performed on the street, and people were throwing money. He could and would create any character for any event. One day, I called him and asked for a Brazilian ghost, and, pronto, one appeared! Steve decided to write a show and called me to ask how to get the press out. So, I threw a party for my sister-in-law’s birthday. I invited a lot of our friends and the press. We all attended the show. The next day it was in the paper. That was 45 years ago.”
No one was more surprised by its success and longevity than Silver himself, who passed away in 1995. Since then, his wife and handpicked successor, Jo Schuman Silver, has served as the show’s producer. And while she understands the shock and pain of the news, she feels comfortable with the decision she’s been wrestling with for more than a year, stating simply: “It’s the right time.”
“The legacy of this show is Steve Silver,” she says. “I didn’t create it; I just followed. Steve did an amazing show, and it was done in the city he loved so much. He never thought it was going to continue, and neither did I. This was Steve’s gift to the city.”
Indeed, it is the gift that keeps on giving, night after night, character after character, hat after outrageous hat. “Savoy Tivoli, where the show first started, had this long, thin bar where the performances were,” says Schuman Silver. “They didn’t have room to go horizontally. So they had to go up to make a big splash. Hence, the big hats. Steve had to figure out a way to make something fantastic, so he started building hats, and Tivoli had a very high ceiling.”
If people came for the hats, they stayed for the content. A big part of its success is the fact that no performance is ever the same. The writing and characters are constantly tweaked and created to reflect current news, while the basic premise remains: Snow White in search of her Prince Charming, stumbling upon relevant characters along her quest for love.
“I would write the show with Kenny Mazlow, our director” says Schuman Silver. “We’d think of something to go in the show that we thought the audience would care about and would be fun. If the audience didn’t care, we’d pull it. We could tell what worked or not, the audience really was the judge.”
With more than 33 years under her belt, Renée Lubin is the most veteran performer of the show and has developed a good sense of what works as well. Lubin has played numerous characters over the decades, including Glinda the Good Witch, Tina Turner, Oprah Winfrey, Lena Horne and Whoopi Goldberg. “My favorite of all time is probably going to be Anita Hill,” she says. “I got the opportunity to sing ‘Respect’ while dragging Clarence Thomas all over the stage by his collar. It was fantastic.” And that has been the winning formula. Political angst translates to theatrical gold here. The show gives every audience member an opportunity to trade in a shaking fist at the nightly news for a belly laugh at a live performance. Here, at Club Fugazi in North Beach, is where reality and escapism intertwine to create 90 minutes of only-in-San Francisco magic.
“There is such a need for this show on so many levels,” says Tammy Nelson, who joined the show in 1993. Nelson grows emotional recalling the day she auditioned for the show. After going back and forth on song choices, an agitated Nelson yelled from the stage: “Work with me!”
“Something about me yelling stuck with them,” she says. “We came up with ‘A Good Man’s Hard to Find’. “I got up to sing my solo and Steve says, ‘Gentlemen, I want you to surround her.’ They were pawing and pulling at me, and then Steve said, ‘Gentlemen, treat it with respect.’”
A year after Nelson was brought on, Curt Branom joined the show. The certified public accountant was an unlikely addition to the cast, but after seeing a performance in 1985, Branom was hooked. “I was sitting right there in the balcony,” he says, pointing stage left. “I was watching and thinking that these were the most talented people I’d ever seen. I lost myself for 90 minutes. I thought, ‘There’s no way I could ever do what they’re doing.’”
He could, and he did—playing characters such as Dick Cheney, Susan Boyle, Michele Bachmann, and Kellyanne Conway. One of his regular characters is King Louis—though his height made him unlike any previous actor who played the role before. “They called me Shrimp Louis backstage,” Branom laughs, “because all the other Louies were 6 feet tall. I kind of looked like Yosemite Sam, so I just worked it. You bring to the role what you can. I could make short funny.”
Admittedly, not all performances were crowd favorites. “It was Y2K, when everyone thought computers were going to all shut down,” he says. “I started singing ‘Shout’ in an Indian accent and the crowd just looked at me like ‘What are you doing?’ We cut it.”
After this interview, both Branom and Nelson disappear behind stage to prepare. At 6pm, a line outside the theater has already formed for the 8pm show. Once inside, the sold-out crowd is abuzz with conversations about the production coming to an end. But as the curtain rises, chatter gives way to laughter.
Nelson moves seamlessly from one character to the next: an Italian woman, a Jewish mother, Adele, Stormy Daniels, Kim Jong Un, a cowgirl, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, each role gaining more laughs. But this is the moment the audience is waiting for: the iconic San Francisco skyline hat, in all its 14-foot-high, 9-foot-wide, 3-foot-deep, 250-pound wonder, deftly navigated onstage by Nelson. This truly is an awardworthy act for the performer, who, just two hours prior to the curtain going up, was in tears.
“I never imagined I would be the last principal wearing this hat,” Nelson says. “It does not seem right.”
Many would agree that San Francisco without Beach Blanket Babylon does not seem right—but only because it’s been so right for so long. The city, post-Beach Blanket, seems impossible to imagine. Of the nearly 50 years of hats and costumes, Schuman Silver says “something wonderful” will happen to them. She is adamant that the Steve Silver Foundation, established in 2002, and its Scholarship for the Arts, offered to Bay Area high school seniors every year for college, will continue in some form.
Asked what’s in store for the final performance on New Year’s Eve, Silver doesn’t hesitate to respond: “We do things by the seat of our pants. I don’t know what it will be. That’s how this show has always worked. For now, we’re just trying to put on the best show we can every night.
“The show that Steve intended.”
Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd. (formerly Green Street), San Francisco
Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco
Photography Courtesy Of: Photos by Rick Markovich & Courtesy of Beach Blanket Babylon