After more than four decades of bringing joy and laughter to hundreds of thousands of theatregoers, Beach Blanket Babylon, the much beloved San Francisco revue, hung up its colorful hats for the last time on Dec. 31, 2019. I was fortunate enough to catch one of its closing-week shows, making a cross-country journey from my home in Atlanta to San Francisco for one last chance to experience one of the most joyful theatrical experiences ever. Although I am not a true San Franciscan, Beach Blanket Babylon was a show that welcomed all people to a city where anybody could fit in.
Steve Silver created the show in 1974 as a series of showstopper musical hits, sung live, with outrageous costumes, in a cabaret setting. The very loose narrative of followed the character of Snow White as she searched the world for her true love, along the way meeting pop stars and politicians but not princes. In the end, Snow White returned to her hometown of San Francisco, with the entire cast coming out to sing the iconic anthem that begins, “San Francisco, open your Golden Gate.” The closing of Beach Blanket Babylon, a show with no other aim than to spark pure happiness in audiences, reflects the slow disappearance of San Francisco’s once-flowering bohemian culture, as well as changes in contemporary theatre.
Musical revues get a bad rap. The genre brings up images tourist-bus retirees watching jukebox classics as sung by drama students from the local university. In the hierarchy of capital-T “theatre,” revues have low status because they lack narrative or plot, and the scores comprise snippets of pop hits. But the revue format embodies many classic forms of American theatre, from elements of vaudeville, tap, quick-change costumes, and visual gags. Beach Blanket Babylon perpetually showcased these elements and more, unabashedly reveling in a theatrical style that may look hokey to some jaded eyes. In its own distinct way, though, the show became like a modern-day saloon, but with techies and tourists instead of sailors and prospectors, with dancing girls (and boys) and everyone singing along to the music.
The show was exuberantly creative. Remaining true to Steve Silver’s original vision, Beach Blanket Babylon was always a visual spectacle as much as a musical one. It was especially known for outlandish costumes, often featuring towering hats and headpieces. The character of King Louis XIV was practically drowning in lace, which poured out of every crevice of his costume, and he was topped with a three-foot-tall curly pink wig. Performers regularlyl ran behind the curtain to quick-change among characters: a rabbi, a poodle, Nancy Pelosi, Tina Turner, Bill Cosby in handcuffs. According to Jo Schuman Silver, who married Steve and inherited the show when he died from AIDS in 1995, Steve’s opulent vision was the key to the show’s longterm success. While the show was not outright gay-themed, Beach Blanket Babylon had a distinctly queer vision: kitschy, kooky, over-the-top. Exactly the type of work that once flourished in San Francisco.
The famous towering hats were a byproduct of the show’s first venue, the Savoy Tivoli, where the space was narrow but extremely high. Props that took up a lot of floor space were a no-go, but tall hats worked fine, and were a great solution, becoming props and set pieces in themselves. The most famous hat from the show was the showstopper finale hat: a skyline of San Francisco, set at an angle, with at least a nine-foot-wide brim, replete with a cable car going uphill and the Transamerica Tower literally rising from the middle.
“Steve always meant for the show to evolve,” Schuman Silver told me. “We have always kept it fresh and new.” Indeed, over the decades they would often create new material based on headlines from the morning’s newspaper (political scandals, PG&E power outages), and by that evening the cast would have costumes and choreography ready to throw in a new number. “If the audience didn’t react and laugh that night it was taken out the next day,” she recalled.
This sense of constant change, challenge, and experimentation is something that several performers named as one of the greatest parts of working on Beach Blanket Babylon. Doing the same exact Mamma Mia or Wicked night after night? That would be a drag by comparison.
“Beach Blanket Babylon changed just enough to keep you inspired and having fun as a performer,” says Renee Lubin, who spent spent 34 years performing with the show. In 90 minutes, Lubin had more than a dozen costume changes: She played Glinda the Good Witch, Oprah, Michelle Obama, Whoopi Goldberg, Nicki Minaj, Tina Turner, a Haight-Ashbury hippie, and many more. Some of the changes were so quick, she said, that if she hesitated on a single button and missed a cue, she would have to skip ahead to the next bit.
She recalled an experimental new number that the cast loved, which was nixed after one show when it left the audience cold. “We were singing and dancing nuns—the song was ‘Nun Singular Sensation,’ and we were dancing with canes. We worked so hard on it all week, but the audience didn’t get it, and the next night it was gone.”
For Shawna McNulty, Beach Blanket Babylon provided her professional satisfaction and personal stability, which can be very hard to find anywhere as a performer. While studying musical theatre at UC Irvine, she realized that the New York City career path was not for her. A Bay Area native, she wanted to be near her family but still have consistent work.
“I came to audition for Snow White before I had graduated,” McNulty said. “When Jo found that out, she told me to go finish my degree, come back, and they’d have room for me.”
The show has been so good to McNulty, she’s achieved something many Bay Area creatives dream of: “I bought a house,” she said.
Getting a spot in the cast at Beach Blanket Babylon was highly competitive for Bay Area actors. Recalled Christopher Goodwin, who performed with the show for 15 years, “I went to the open call and it came down to me and one other guy.” He got the job, it turned out, because the show already hat a hat that fit his head better than his competitor. In his tenure, Goodwin played dozens of roles, including singing and dancing poodles. He said that the poodle outfits had started out draped on the members of the show’s live band, but after a while they migrated to the performers, where they were even better received. Goodwin later originated a role as Donald Trump, a longtime butt of jokes, in the show as in real life.
One edge he had in the role: his prior experience tap dancing. When the show added Christmas elements for the holidays, Goodwin played the “lead tap-dancing Christmas tree.” One problem: There was no face hole in the costume. “Though the Christmas tap was difficult, even more so was the fact that you could barely see through the fabric and had to walk up and down miniature stairs in slippery tap shoes. I almost slipped multiple times, and every year it was something in the back of my mind,” Goodwin said.
No matter the season, no matter the news cycle, no matter where the show was performed, Beach Blanket Babylon always closed with “Theme from San Francisco.” Originally sung by Jeanette McDonald in a film about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the song is played at 49ers games and local movie palaces around the Bay.
“I still get emotional when I hear ‘San Francisco,'” Goodwin said. “It’s always been the closing song for the show. Even when we’d do travel shows we’d end with ‘San Francisco.’ The song was written after the city was destroyed in 1906 to bolster the morale of the survivors. It still makes locals happy today! The lyrics ring true for many of the performers too. Most of us at one point in time left Beach Blanket Babylon for a brief stint, whether it was to move to a new city, try new things, etc. So with the lyrics, ‘San Francisco, welcome me home again, I’m coming home to go roaming no more,’ I always felt like it was referring to people who felt a little lost in the world, but could call San Francisco—and Beach Blanket Babylon—home.”
Truly, there was something magical when everyone, including most of the audience, broke out in the old-timey tune. Even tourists quickly picked up on the lyrics and clapped along in double time. In those moments, entire roomfuls of wandering souls were all at home, singing and having a joyous time together.
Beach Blanket Babylon was an expression of a very specific time and place, when artists and bohemians found joy in San Francisco amid the challenges of AIDS and income inequality. A confluence of great performers, designers, technicians, and a mother hen producer nurturing everyone’s careers, its like won’t be seen again.
“I always wanted the show to go out on a top, with a great cast,” said Schuman Silver. “I felt this was the time.”
Matt Terrell, a writer and photographer, is communications director for Dad’s Garage in Atlanta.