If San Francisco were a summer camp, then Beach Blanket Babylon would be its talent show. The big hats, broad parodies, and jump-cutting songs all still have their charm. They’d better—once the city names a street after you, you’d better stick around a while. And the show has. It's celebrating its 40th anniversary this Friday with a free noontime show at City Hall.
The song-and-dance-and-shtick show is the brainchild of street performer Steve Silver, who died in 1995, and whose wife, Jo Schuman Silver, is now the producer. “Steve was born in the Marina. He went to Lowell high school. It’s the only place he ever lived,” she said. “All he wanted to do was for him and his friends to have a good time. When they opened at the Savoy Tivoli, he said he’d be there six months if he was lucky.” That was 1974.
The show has prospered, in part, thanks to its talent for making friends in high places. Charlotte Shultz, the socialite and the city’s chief of protocol, became fast friends with Silver. She introduced it to her husband George, the Secretary of State during the Regan administration (“He didn’t get it at first,” said Jo Silver), who—in turn—brought along senior Republicans like Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld. But in the bluest city in one of the bluest states, it also counts fans in mayors from Willie Brown to Ed Lee. Ten years on, a song line from a swishy King Louie, “Thanks to Gavin Newsom, we’re going to be a twosome” still charges the crowd. And when a leather-jacket clad Nancy Pelosi rolls in a motorcycle, what other song could there be but Leader of the Pack?
Another part of the show’s longevity is its compulsion to hit the refresh button as often as possible. As news breaks, new bits are written in—sometimes in the same day. That doesn't mean that the cast doesn't lobby a little bit of its own, though. “I really want to do Vladimir Putin,” says Curt Branom, one of the performers (he's King Louie in the photo above). “We could do Putin on the Ritz. Get me in little sequin shorts on a Ritz cracker.” Branom has been with the show since 1994—one of the last cast members to be hired by Steve Silver before he died in 1995. “He had never seen me on the stage because he was so ill. That night Carole Channing was in town doing Hello, Dolly, and she did the opening number with us,” he says. “Steve and Jo were there and he came back to congratulate all of us. It turned out to be the final show that he ever got to see.”
The show also cycles in new young performers as well, like Caitlin McGinity. Beach Blanket Babylon started a high school scholarship program in 2002 for singing, acting, and dancing. (Peter Chern, who went on to Broadway productions of West Side Story and Wicked was an early winner.) McGinity performed in the first year, and though she didn’t win, Jo Silver begged her to audition after she graduated. “She’s now Banana Carmen,” said Silver.
All and all, it's not a bad record for the brassy review. What other city in the world could a show like this not only survive, but turn into a civic institution?
Beach Blanket Babylon will perform its 40th anniversary show at City Hall on Friday, June 6th at noon.