Beach Blanket Babylon celebrates fabulous 40th in high style

To mark the 40th anniversary of “Beach Blanket Babylon” — the subversively iconic, long-running San Francisco musical revue — major museums, local hotels and arts centers have all gotten in on the hat.

Famously audacious headgear worn in the show over the decades is on display at Ghirardelli Square, in the lobbies of the American Conservatory Theater, Davies Symphony Hall, the Westin St. Francis Hotel, the de Young Museum, the SFJazz Center and at various Macy’s department stores.

Even the Mission District ice cream shop Humphry Slocombe has issued a limited-edition flavor, Beach Blanket Babylon Goes Bananas. Key ingredient: nuts.

The party culminates with a June 6 commemoration on the steps of City Hall, with Mayor Ed Lee and Chief of Protocol Charlotte Mailliard Shultz presiding. Also in attendance will be former Mayor Willie Brown, San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

Not bad for a show that wasn’t expected to last more than six weeks when it premiered in June 1974. It was created by the late Steve Silver, a Jewish showman of the highest order, and is maintained by two Jewish guardians, producer Jo Schuman Silver (Silver’s wife) and director Kenny Mazlow.

“It’s a citywide celebration,” says Schuman Silver. “We also want to honor Steve Silver, and that’s where the hats come in. Arts organizations, hotels, museums all asked us how to get involved.”

The pieces, which went on display in March, include several of the heftiest San Francisco skyline hats, weighing up to 250 pounds.

“Beach Blanket Babylon” recently marked its 15,000th performance. Every night, a long line of theatergoers snakes down Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard in North Beach to attend the 90-minute musical spoof of pop culture.

The paper-thin story of Snow White on a worldwide hunt to find true love is the springboard for a nonstop barrage of high-hatted pop culture staples — the Clintons, Michael Jackson, Nancy Pelosi (as a biker chick), Tina Turner — as well as uniquely Babylonian characters, including Mr. Peanut, a very gay King Louis and a trio of dancing poodles.

Schuman Silver, who took over the show after the death of her husband, makes sure no patrons go home without a smile. Among the satisfied customers: Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, George Lucas, Neil Patrick Harris and Mel Brooks.

“You have to appeal to the whole audience,” she says, “and not just the hip and happening. We work hard every day so that every show looks like opening night.”

Schuman Silver, who grew up Jewish (her father served as president of a Jewish center in Queens), is part of the creative core of the show, along with Mazlow and Steve Silver, whose influence is still felt nearly 20 years after his death.

“Beach Blanket Babylon” flaunts a Jewish comedic sensibility. “You could say it’s Jewish humor because it’s so clever and brilliant,” Schuman Silver says, “but it goes beyond. It’s really universal.”

Mazlow, who grew up in an Orthodox home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, says “Steve referred to [the show] as a health spa, soothing the soul with laughter. Many times Jo and I will stand outside to see people beaming and saying, ‘That was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.’ That’s our objective. Steve was a master showman. His objective was to take the audience and put them into a frenzy.”

It’s Saturday night, and Tammy Nelson is getting wigged out as usual.

A 20-year veteran star of “Beach Blanket Babylon,” the San Jose native is going through her paces in the show, playing a saucy lamppost-topped Frenchwoman, a pistol-packin’ cowgirl with a 10-zillion-gallon hat, and a relatively new character, disgraced TV chef, artery-clogger and alleged racist Paula Deen.

Though she has more than enough musical theater chops to make it on Broadway, Nelson likes it right where she is, playing to packed houses at Club Fugazi six times a week, Wednesday through Sunday, including a matinee.

“For me it has been the pinnacle,” Nelson says. “When I was younger I thought I wanted to be in a great show in a fabulous city, and here I am in my own backyard.”

What keeps Nelson in the show? Besides the chance to star in a perennial hit, she cites the creators’ balance between the old and the au courant.

How courant? Days after the news broke about L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist rant, it was incorporated into the show. The cast of 10 (plus understudies), the band and crew are accustomed to last-minute changes.

“We do hold on to the traditional things Steve Silver created, the staple characters like Glinda the Good Witch and Snow White,” Nelson notes. “But then adding to the excitement is the new stuff we do. The show is constantly changing, and it’s exciting to see the audience reaction. Most nights the audience is eating it up.”

As polished as “Beach Blanket Babylon” has become, it is live theater and mishaps do occur. There is “no second take,” as Nelson puts it. One night she accidentally whipped off her cowgirl wig. It flew off her head and into the band pit.

Like a trouper, she laughed it off with the audience. The show’s general manager later told Nelson she handled it so well, he wished he could incorporate it into every show.

One of Nelson’s other characters is a zaftig Jewish mother, complete with a wig full of gefilte fish jars big enough to make a floor display at Costco.

She’s not the only Jewish character. “Beach Blanket Babylon” also has a line of dancing bottle-topped Hassidim and a crooning, cross-eyed Barbra Streisand.

Steve Silver, who had a Jewish father and Catholic mother, identified with his Jewish side. He was the one who inserted many of the spoofs of Jewish culture into the show, and they stuck.

“The thing about the Jewish people is we have a wonderful sense of humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves,” says Mazlow, whose grandfather was a cantor. “That’s a huge reason the Jewish community is as strong as it is.”

With “Beach Blanket Babylon” since 1988, Mazlow readily credits Silver for the show’s enduring popularity.

“He had such a haimish quality about him and was such a whimsical person,” Mazlow recalls. “He was the pied piper; you’d follow him because he was so much fun. He made everything an event. It helped that he was a genius.”

Born in San Francisco in 1944, Silver earned an MFA at San Jose State University, but even before that he was already staging performance art and guerrilla theater in the city. He launched the first edition of “Beach Blanket Babylon” at the Savoy Tivoli in North Beach on June 7, 1974, for what he thought would be a six-week run.

As for the zany mile-high hats and wigs, Silver dreamed them up out of necessity. Planning that first show, Silver noticed the Savoy Tivoli stage was very narrow and had a high ceiling. He created the hats simply to fill space, making many of them himself in the early days. “Now,” Schuman Silver says, “they are the signature of the show.”

In 1975 “Beach Blanket Babylon” moved to its permanent home at Club Fugazi, with seating for 400. As the show built momentum, it not only sold out every performance, but in the 1980s it hit the road, with successful runs in London, New York and Las Vegas.

Silver accepted certain other high-profile gigs, including designing the opening number of the 1989 Oscars, which featured a Snow White character in the arms of Rob Lowe. It was roundly panned at the time, though defenders say Silver’s vision got lost due to poor lighting and less-than-optimum directing.

Silver died of AIDS in 1995. Schuman Silver notes that part of her late husband’s legacy is the philanthropy he established. In his lifetime he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to such beneficiaries as the AIDS Emergency Fund, the S.F. Main Library and a cancer research lab at UCSF Medical Center.

Jo Schuman Silver and Steve Silver

His foundation has continued the tradition. For the 30th anniversary, Schuman Silver gave $400,000 to local arts organizations such as ACT, San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Symphony, Marin Theatre Company, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and San Jose Repertory Theatre. The foundation also sponsors Scholarship for the Arts, which each year awards a Bay Area high school senior with $10,000 toward a college education.

Mazlow admires his late mentor’s commitment to tzedakah, but his lasting memories of Steve Silver have to do with his creativity.

He picked up on those qualities at his audition in 1988. Silver asked Mazlow to try performing a Jacques Brel song. In French. As Bette Davis. Drunk.

“There was something about him that made me so relaxed,” Mazlow recalls. “He was so genuine and kind. I related to his zaniness. He always looked for that special ‘it’ factor you can’t explain.”

Mazlow is nearing 25 years with the show. Nelson is in her 20th. Several other cast and crew members have logged multiple decades with the show.

Why stay when Broadway beckons?

“It’s a great job,” Schuman Silver says. “There’s  a paycheck every week and full benefits. And it’s a fun show where you have the time of your life every night.”

With “Beach Blanket Babylon” honored in museums and City Hall, one wonders what Silver, a one-time street theater artist, would have thought of all this mainstream acceptance.

Those who knew him best think he would have loved it.

“It mushroomed into this cult following, and grew and grew,” says Mazlow. “People would say ‘I can’t explain what it is, you just have to see it.’ It’s pure escapism: No hidden agenda, no hidden message.”

For tickets and show times, visit www.beachblanketbabylon.com.

on the cover

photo/rick markovich

“Beach Blanket Babylon” and the San Francisco skyline hat


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.