clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

45 true things about Beach Blanket Babylon before it closes after 45 years

New, 1 comment

Snow White’s camp journey will melt away after New Year’s Eve

A performer in a giant novelty hat of the San Francisco skyline, with a model of Salesforce Tower at center.
The cast of Beach Blanket Babylon helping to open Salesforce Tower in 2018.
Jakub Mosur Photography

After more than four decades, the quintessential San Francisco theater experience Beach Blanket Babylon will close forever on December 31, 2019, bringing an end to years of camp, kitsch, celebrity lampooning, and really, really big hats.

Created by street artist and designer Steve Silver in 1974, Beach Blanket Babylon (BBB) has been a part of the San Francisco scene for longer than many of the landmarks and cultural figures it features, being barely younger than the Transamerica Pyramid.

It’s hard to imagine what the city—or the world—will do without its longest-running live performance revue, but at least the BBB team can look back on 45 years of history and say there’s not much that they didn’t do:

  • BBB bills itself as “the world’s longest-running musical revue,” a laurel that it has promoted at least since 1984. In 2017, it advertised “nearly 17,000 performances” and an all-time audience of more than six million people.
  • The show’s longtime venue is Club Fugazi at 678 Green, though that portion of Green Street is now known as Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard. BBB has played Club Fugazi, a circa-1913 venue, non-stop for over 40 years, meaning that many people now simply refer to the theater by the title of the show itself.
  • The Club Fugazi building started as an Italian community center, named for Italian-American magnate John Fugazi. Previously, it was called Fugazi Hall and hosted the likes of jazz great Thelonious Monk.
  • The first, deeply unofficial performance of what would become BBB was on Union Street in 1973, when Silver and some friends made a quick buck singing alongside a busker, with the addition of some hastily retrieved costumes.
  • From that original, unwitting guitarist, the show has grown to include a five-piece band: trumpet, percussion, two synthesizers, and something called a flugelhorn.
  • Club Fugazi was not BBB’s first venue. The show opened at the Savoy Tivoli bar (still open for business) before briefly showing at the Olympus Club on Columbus Avenue. It took up its current residence in 1975.
  • As Silver tells the story, he began looking for an indoor venue after the police came to break up one of the street performances.
  • BBB was originally scheduled to show at the venue for six weeks. When that time was up, Silver signed a 20-year lease with the theater.
  • Heiress Charlotte Mailliard Shultz bought out every seat in the house on the first opening night.
  • Former Mayor Willie Brown, a longtime fan, says he gave the whole thing about six months after it first opened. Can’t win ‘em all.
  • Legend has it that department store tycoon Cyril Magnin saw the show 464 times.
  • The venue seats 373, down from the original 400. Tickets were originally $2.50—a little less than $13 in today’s currency. These days prices range from $23 to $135.
  • The first performances at Savoy Tivoli seated only 214 people.
  • The review performs seven shows a week, including two Sunday shows for minors who otherwise aren’t allowed entrance. Though the programs had a raunchy rep in the ‘70s, these days it’s considered pretty harmless. The age limitation is because of alcohol served on the premises rather than randy content.
  • Note that BBB still has four years left on its lease in the longtime space, creating a bit of a mystery about what the place will do after the show goes.
  • The “Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard” designation has been in place since 1996, after a 1995 vote by the Board of Supervisors “commending Steve Silver’s work and philanthropy and urging the Mayor to urge the Directors of Parking and Traffic and Public Works to designate all of the 600 block of Green Street as ‘Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard,’” about six months after Silver died.
  • The bust of Silver installed at the theater in 1999 was created by Piedmont-based artist Bruce Wolfe, who also designed the bust of now-Gov. Gavin Newsom at SF City Hall. The Silver bust is made of bronze, which is probably less expensive but still seems like a missed opportunity.
  • According to the show’s longtime costume designer, the backstage area at BBB is smaller than the stage itself.
  • The show has toured twice, once to Las Vegas and once to London. It’s also put in pop-up performances at various other venues over the years, including the War Memorial Opera House, the infamous 1989 Oscars, and the White House—quite a step up from the Union Street days.
  • For the record, the Oscar performance was poorly reviewed—Silver devised the widely panned opening number with Rob Lowe and Snow White—and Disney threatened to sue over the use of the Snow White character. Critics.
  • Originally replete with references to ’70s pop media and politics, the show constantly changes to add new political figures, celebrities, and references to San Francisco culture (and buildings) nearly every year.
  • For an idea of just how elastic the program is, Snow White, long the lead role for over 40 years, didn’t premiere until 1978.
  • The show has only 10 speaking parts but employs 85 people full-time.
  • The original cast included four people, plus a band and “a chorus line of hula-dancing middle-aged housewives.”
  • Current producer Jo Schuman Silver saw the show for the first time in 1982. She later married Silver and eventually took over the production. Which is quite a positive review.
  • The BBB title was not the show’s first, as Silver originally dubbed it A Valentine’s Show. The current show has also changed its title a few times over the years but inevitably reverts back to just “Beach Blanket Babylon.”
  • The signature San Francisco skyline hat wasn’t added until 1977, where it has proceeded to get bigger and more elaborate with each passing generation.
  • Silver designed the first hat himself, with a tiny Transamerica Pyramid that would grow out of it, but tapped puppeteer Alan Greenspan—no relation to the former federal chairman—to build it.
  • For the show’s 40th anniversary, past hats ranging up to 29 feet tall went on display at places like SF City Hall, Ghirardelli Square, and the de Young Museum.
  • Notably, the de Young first staged an exhibition of BBB hats in 1988.
  • In 1987, an Opera House performance featured a skyline hat 20-feet wide and 33-feet tall, which required three actors to get it on and off stage—one to wear it and two others to help keep it steady.
  • Schuman Silver says that the hats were originally a way to compensate for the show’s bar venue, which was so small that elaborate sets were impossible and costumes were the only way to “make a statement” because “he didn’t have space to go wide but he had space to go up,” though the pre-skyline, pre-Greenspan hats were less elaborate.
  • The original Savoy Tivoli staging also featured an actual beach—that is, two tons of sand spread all over the floor.
  • The original lighting setup for the show consisted of lights made from cans of Folger’s Coffee, operated by a single technician perched atop a lifeguard tower.
  • The first skyline hat was only four feet wide. Greenspan made it wider and wider over time because there was initially no way to build it higher and eventually just retired it in favor of a new one, and so the cycle began.
  • The most recently finished high-profile building in SF is usually the centerpiece of a new hat. The de Young Museum, Davies Symphony Hall, and Salesforce Tower have all taken top (hat) honors over the years.
  • The opening of Salesforce Tower itself featured a performance by the cast and (of course) a new hat with the tower at center. Although not nearly as big or elaborate as past creations, the Salesforce hat placed the tower squarely amidst SF’s other most recognizable icons like Coit Tower, the painted ladies, and of course the Golden Gate Bridge, angling to establish the new tallest building as an icon of similar significance.
  • Greenspan mostly works out of his home workshop, a 12-by-15-foot apartment bedroom. He says he moves to the BBB storage space to work if his current hat is too large for the premises.
  • His biggest challenge as a designer: How to get the hats into the building when they’re done.
  • An Opera House performance for Queen Elizabeth II in 1983 featured a hat with not only Buckingham Palace but also the royals themselves. The queen’s apparently pleased reaction is still talked about to this day.
  • The show still refers back to Silver’s original design sketches when designing or replacing costumes today, and the programs continue to credit him as costume, scene, and hat designer.
  • Bay Area singer Val Diamond sported the big hat for 30 years starting in 1979, racking up over 11,000 performances before departing under still vague circumstances in 2009.
  • Among Silver’s other work: Designing the sets for the 1971 cult SF film Harold & Maude.
  • The many philanthropic causes benefited by BBB over the year include the Golden Gate Park AIDS Memorial Grove. At the dedication of the grove’s entryway in 1995 Silver declared, “The Grove represents the spirit of the people who have left and the memories that will always be there.” Silver himself died of AIDS-related complications four months later.
  • Unlike virtually every other SF mainstay lost in recent years, BBB is closing not for financial reasons but creative ones; Schuman Silver feels it’s time to retire the routine once and for all.

Tickets for the final performance is, as expected, sold out.