Naughty and Nice: Forty Years of Beach Blanket Babylon

Fol de Rol, created and designed Steve Silver in 1987

Fol de Rol, created and designed Steve Silver in 1987

Here’s a plot summary of Beach Blanket Babylon. Snow White (dressed like the Disney version) comes to San Francisco seeking love. She meets Glinda the Good Witch, Elvis, Justin Bieber, Paula Deen, members of the Duck Dynasty clan, Tina Turner, Miley Cyrus, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Beyoncé, a Pineapple Princess (a takeoff on Carmen Miranda), Gavin, Oprah, Kim, a leather-clad Nancy Pelosi and many more with dancing and music from dozens of pop hits.

Beach Blanket Babylon has a short attention span. And in that way the show, the longest-running musical revue in America, remains true to the late Steve Silver, the fun loving San Franciscan who created this pop pastiche forty years ago. He borrowed the name from the Annette Funicello – Frankie Avalon beach movies of the early ’60s.

Jo Schuman Silver and Steve Silver
Jo Schuman Silver and Steve Silver

“It never was about the money, the glory, the fame,” says Jo Schuman Silver, Steve’s widow “He just wanted to have a great time and bring all his friends along. His mother’s bridge club, his cousins. Everybody.”

Schuman Silver has been Beach Blanket’s producer since her husband died in 1995. She’s managed to keep the show fresh and funny, a sendup of pop and political culture without a mean bone in its body. It’s naughty, but nice.

“I’m really into popular culture.” Schuman told me in a recent interview at Beach Blanket’s cozy home, Club Fugazi. “And as soon as I get up in the morning, I read like 6 papers. I go online. I know what’s going on that minute. Like Steve used to say, ‘everything not worth knowing, I know.’”

Schuman Silver has changed a few things. The show is more politically topical. One scene features Washington figures like John Boehner, Sarah Palin, and the Obamas singing lyrics about Obamacare to the score from Les Miz.

But it still features extravagant wigs and the signature towering hats, first designed by Silver, including one with a telescoping Transamerica Pyramid, moving cable cars and its own power supply. Schuman Silver wouldn’t tell me how they work. “Audiences like the mystery,” she said. But she treats her late husband’s theatrical ideas like a museum curator.

“We still keep Steve Silver’s stock characters; that will never leave.” Schuman Silver says. “We still keep the flats (the stage backdrops) that Steve painted and put together in 1986. We update them.

“So people who knew him so well, which is so many people, they come today, even 20 years after he’s gone, and they say, ‘Oh My God, it’s like Steve Silvers’ doing the show.’”

Beach Blanket grew out of Silver’s love of silly stuff. He created “happenings” while a student at San Jose State in the early seventies, and then worked as a street performer in San Francisco. He was famous as a tap dancing Christmas tree.

Silver and some friends staged the first Beach Blanket Babylon in June 1974, expecting to close in six weeks. The company has done 15 thousand shows.

Renee Lubin is the senior member of the cast these days. “I’ve just started my 28th year,” she says.

Like the Snow White of Beach Blanket, Renee Lubin found her “prince.” She met the man who would become her husband when he came to see the show one night. And Lubin, who plays Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Oprah, Michelle Obama, Glinda and more has a simple explanation for the show’s enduring appeal for audiences. “When they come here, they can put all of their worries aside and have mindless fun.”

Audiences seemed positively giddy after a recent performance. “Mahvelous,” a woman from San Jose said in a thick Polish accent. “It was amazink. I been in loff with it so much for a very long time.”

Rex Cardinale was still humming a Beatles tune used in the show. “This is probably my sixth or seventh time here. I remember coming here with my parents in the mid-seventies, when I was in my twenties.” Cardinale was there with his daughter Camille. “Now she’s in her mid-twenties and here she is with her parent.”

“It’s very campy, very fun,” Camille said, “This was my birthday treat!”

Beach Blanket Babylon with the British Royal Family
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales (L) and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (centre, right) meets the cast at a performance of Beach Blanket Babylon November 6, 2005 in San Francisco. The Prince and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, are on the sixth day of their official eight day visit to the U.S. (Photo by Ken Goff – Pool/Getty Images)

Beach Blanket famously flopped as the opening act for the Oscars in 1989, but boffo on tour in Las Vegas, New York and London. The show also amused the Royal Family during a special performance at Davies Symphony Hall in 1983.

Schuman Silver says the secret to the show’s long run is simple: “If the audience sees it and they don’t like it, even if we think it’s brilliant. It’s out.”

Schuman Silver’s devotion to her late husband made me wonder she still feels his presence — like a ghost light — at Club Fugazi.

The question triggered a sniffle and a few sob. “He’s here. He’s there.” Schuman Silver said. “I mean Shirley MacLaine came to the show a few years ago, and you know she’s into the afterlife. And she went backstage and said to the kids. ‘Okay, I just spoke to Steve. He is so proud of all of you.’

“I mean I always feel Steve on my left shoulder.” Schuman Silver said. “When you’re that close, you feel the person.”

Schuman Silver says Beach Blanket’s future seems secure for now.

“But if the show, any part of the show ever goes down. It’s not up to his standards. There’s no reason to keep this going,” So far I think we’re doing a pretty good job. I’m so proud of everyone who works here. So hopefully it can go on forever.

Or as long as there is pop culture.

Author

Cy Musiker

Cy Musiker co-hosts The Do List and covers arts and politics for KQED News and The California Report.  He loves good theater, roots music, Berlioz, Mahler and serving the people. Cy has an MJ from UC Berkeley's School of Journalism, and got his BA from Hampshire College. His work has been recognized by the Society for Professional Journalists with their Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service in Journalism. When he can, Cy likes to swim in Tomales Bay, run with his dog in the East Bay Hills, and hike the Sierra.

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