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TBA Online: News & Features: May 2014

Hats Off to Beach Blanket

Monday, May 19, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Lisa Drostova    

Some of us slow down at 40, but Beach Blanket Babylon is still a mile-a-minute mashup of glittery costumes, elaborate, gravity-defying hats and clever dancing to popular music rewritten to reflect current affairs. It's the longest-running musical revue in the country and probably the world; six million people have seen it over the course of 15,000 shows. It's been to London and Vegas and has a small touring company for special and corporate events. The 394-seat Club Fugazi regularly sells out seven shows a week. The show has regulars who make a point of coming at least once a year to see what's new; people come back every generation with children and then grandchildren, and performers from the show (many of whom stay for years or decades themselves) are honored guests at civic events. Stage manager John Camajani, who's been with the show since 1979, affectionately calls it "a monster, a steamroller." 

Kirk Mills, Jacqui Arslan Heck, Shawna Ferris McNulty and Phillip Williams in Beach Blanket Babylon. Photo: Rick Markovich

And Beach Blanket gives back, donating to several local organizations and sponsoring a highly competitive college scholarship program for high school seniors who want to study theatre. There's a Steve Silver/Beach Blanket Babylon room at the library and a similarly named gallery terrace at SFMOMA.

Where does a beloved monster like this come from, and how does it survive and thrive for so long? The answer's in the details. Four decades is long enough to get the kinks ironed out. Camajani joined "this wacko show in North Beach" as assistant stage manager after spending a year and a half working cruise ships, figuring, "I'll take this job until something better comes along, but nothing better came along. I was having fun; I didn't want to move along." Over 35 years he's had time to learn how to handle the nearly 50 people (cast, crew and musicians) who show up to work every night. "For the last 10 to 15 years, when we hire a new person, I take them aside for an hour and a half and bore them with all the policy and what pertains to them. I try to instill in them the fact that this show has been running forever, and will run forever and ever; we all work together very well and we get to play. All your energy should be put towards that. I have an open door policy; come talk to me—I've probably come through that particular angst with someone else. I would rather have things run as smoothly as possible. We're supposed to be having fun while we're working, but we are a business."

A business, and a detail lover's playground. Camajani gets passionate about microphones, one technology that's improved dramatically in the last 40 years. "At first most of the numbers used corded mics; that was just a nightmare with all the dancing the kids do on stage. Now we have six cordless handheld mics people can go anywhere with. They're all color-coded, they have patterns, they get handed off; the performers have to know the traffic patterns. We have these little plastic cups screwed into the walls backstage, and they plop the mic into the cup when they come off. The stuff floats around backstage. The caveat is that if someone makes a mistake, it can be a domino effect. They think, "it's a mic, they're all on," but they're only on for the person who's supposed to be on. I have to get on the headset and talk to the sound person; I have to wait until someone is out doing a solo and fix the pattern. Now two of the girls also wear E6, the kind that clips over the ear. They're very easy to deal with; the battery pack goes in a pocket of the costume so they can gesture."

Along with the mics, all of the performers juggle characters; Renee Lubin, who joined the cast in 1986 meaning to stay five years, tops, before heading to Europe, says that "right now I play about 10 [roles]; I think I do 13 costume changes. I think everyone has at least 10 changes per person. I wish I could move that fast at home. Or maybe not!" And it's a fun show to do. Lubin, who married an audience member and whose 16-year-old son grew up with the show, has a hard time choosing a favorite of the 30 to 50 characters she's played, but finally goes with Anita Hill. "I love 'em all, but the funnest was playing Anita Hill when I got to punch Clarence Thomas; that was the best! And I got to sing "Respect" while I dragged him all around the stage by the collar. I'm very happy with what I do. Lady Macbeth, how boring. Who wants Lady M when I can do 30 other people? Please."

A 2014 Beach Blanket Babylon finale. Photo: Rick Markovich

Nearly four decades has also been time enough for Alan Greenspan, the man they call the Mad Hatter, to bring the art of monster millinery to new heights. Describing himself as "basically a hippy high school dropout who doesn't know any better to think there isn't a way to do something," Greenspan started with the show in 1978 when his roommate, who worked at Tower Records, asked a record-buying Silver how the show was going. "Part of Steve's process was to talk about every idea he had with everyone who would listen, edit it and then talk to someone else. He told my roommate that he wanted a SF skyline hat that would light up and glow, and my roommate said I could do it and gave Steve my number." Greenspan obviously made the hat work, because he's still there, keeper of the mysteries. He will admit that foamcore, which was just coming on the scene at the same time he was, has been his trusted friend in the elaborate sculptures that defy the word "hat." He professes a weakness for Crystalina glitter, which sculpture supply heaven Douglass and Sturgess refers to as "precision cut iridescent glitter" and Greenspan sums up as "blinding in the sunlight."

Which probably also sums up Steve Silver, by all accounts the sort of guy who made sure everyone had fun. At San Jose State, he got his master's in painting, but he was also a gifted host and raconteur. "Everyone wanted to be around him," explains his widow, Jo Schuman Silver; "he made everything a party." After college he did various gigs, including being assistant art director on Harold and Maude and taking tickets at the hungry i before it went strictly strip club. But it was his Rent-a-Freak, where costumed characters would sing on street corners, that put him on the Beach Blanket path. Silver himself would dress as a Christmas tree and joked about saving up all the money (rented freaks got paid $90 a gig) to get to Hollywood and Vine. But instead Rent-a-Freak brought him to the attention of American Conservatory Theater, where he became an associate director; it also laid the groundwork for the show that would eventually lead the city to rename a block of Green Street in its honor.

Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, with Curt Branom, Charlotte Shultz, Val Diamond, George Shultz, Renee Lubin, Christa Noel Hunter and Stirland Martin, 2005. Photo: David Allen

So when Silver had the idea for a musical revue inspired by his love of the Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon beach blanket movies, the owner of the Savoy Tivoli on Grant let him use the bar with the deal that the show would run for six weeks. The owner would keep the bar proceeds, while Silver got the door. Silver dumped two tons of sand on the floor, dressed his ticket-takers up as lifeguards with zinc on their noses, and put his performers in crazy hats because, while the room in the Tivoli was small and narrow, the ceilings were high. When Beach Blanket opened on June 7, 1974, tickets were two and a half bucks and the show was 45 minutes long. The follow spot was a Folger's can with a light in it. 

There was only space to go up from there. San Francisco's chief of protocol Charlotte Swig threw a Beach Blanket party for her friends, and then everyone who was anyone had to come. The show kept extending until Silver's father found Club Fugazi, an Italian music hall, and BBB moved there in 1975. It stayed a family operation for a while, with Silver's father at the bar and his mother wiping down the tables, and Silver's father was instrumental in the logistics. He was the one who suggested Greenspan make not just the hats, but some of the other outsized props—rainbows and palm trees, cigarette packs, "a lot of crazy stuff." Silver changed the show regularly, with themes like Beach Blanket Goes Bananas, Beach Blanket Goes to the Stars and Beach Blanket Goes to the Prom for the 10th anniversary, although he eventually settled on Beach Blanket Babylon

Camajani tells me, "1986 was the year that we shut down for two months when we installed the center balcony, the longest time we'd shut down. It was also the first time we'd put two finale hats in instead of one. We wondered, is the public going to forget about us? Is this going to fly? And there's all this banging and clanking with the balcony and welders in there. Is this thing really going to open? We opened the first week of March in '86, and it was even better than before, dancing garbage cans and poodles and the big finale hats were all over the place; he amazed us all as he always did."

Jo Schuman Silver and Steve Silver in 1986. Photo: Courtesy of Beach Blanket Babylon

Beach Blanket Babylon became a San Francisco institution. Silver got his dream of befriending Annette Funicello (who performed with the cast once) and Frankie Avalon; Prince Charles and Camilla have seen it, as has Queen Elizabeth in a command performance. Silver became known as well for his philanthropy. When he died at 51 in June 1995, the cast and crew were devastated and wondered if the show would survive. Camajani says, "Every year Steve would make big changes. We would take a hiatus in January and he would introduce the new stuff. Every year I'd think, 'How's he going to top this?,' and he would come up with something new. It was kind of amazing he could do that every year. It was very sad when Steve passed away, and things were feeling shaky because we weren't sure what was going to happen. We were all glad the show has continued through Jo and [director] Kenny Maslow. They've done an absolutely excellent job of keeping this show alive."

"Jo" is Jo Schuman Silver, a former adwoman and theatrical agent from New York who found "pure escapism" in the show and artistic inspiration in Silver. When she saw it the first time in 1982 with her then-husband and his friend Cyril Magnin, she thought, "This show was written for me! I wrote this four-page fan letter, I'd never done that before. And it went to the wrong address and it came back. My husband opened it, said, 'Are you sure you want to send this? You sound like an idiot.' I reread it and saw it was preposterous, but a month later we met and become soulmates."

As Silver's handpicked successor, she's been driving the show since his death. Besides producing it, she writes it, explaining, "Most of the ideas are mine, or I ask everyone for ideas, because we're not above asking everyone for ideas. We never take anything too seriously at the show. Everyone has a good time, everyone pitches in; if something doesn't work it's not a big deal, because something new always comes along." It helps that Silver remained a prolific artist to the end and left behind piles of sketches to which the team can refer when it's time to build a new character. "It's like he's still with us," enthuses Schuman Silver. When I saw the show mid-March, there were appearances by Duck Dynasty and Fifty Shades of Grey and a twerking conga line; while clearly things had been added in the past few weeks, visually the show was completely consistent.

And they're fast. "When William and Kate married, our costume designer was up at three in the morning. We were able to get it into the show that night. It was amazing; we couldn't believe it ourselves." According to Camajani, "Anything that shows up in the news or national magazine, we give it the Beach Blanket warp and see what happens; you never know until you put it in front of the audience and see what happens. It gets real quiet backstage [when a line change or new material is introduced] to hear how the audience reacts." Schuman Silver describes sitting in "the penalty box," a seat in the balcony that faces the audience, to gauge what they're laughing at; she'll also position herself at the door and ask people point-blank what they thought on their way out. The model demands that the team pay attention to what's landing and be brutal with what doesn't. Everyone has a story about something they loved that didn't fly. Camajani says that while "costumes are built to last, definitely, nobody knows how long a bit will last; it could die a horrible death in one night or last forever." He remembers carrying a champagne-glass hat to the warehouse after its one and only appearance, never to be worn again. Lubin loved a Nunsense-inspired bit, but the audience wasn't having it, so it never became a habit. Greenspan describes a marvelous hat: "a roach motel, and a roach would come out of it and a gun would shoot at it and it would turn over in the air." I can't imagine who wouldn't love that, but the hat failed its tryout and got mothballed along with the champagne glass. The Beach Blanket Babylon warehouse is starting to sound like a wonderland in its own right.

Ryan Rigazzi, Phillip Williams, Caitlin McGinty, Kirk Mills and Paulino Duran in Beach Blanket Babylon. Photo: Rick Markovich

Asked what has changed over time, Lubin says, "The show itself has gotten faster and bigger. You'll see a lot more characters than you did 10 years ago. We pack a lot more into that 90 minutes than we ever have." Schuman Silver concurs, "The numbers are tighter and shorter because attention spans are shorter; what could have been 10 minutes is now three. In the '80s, when MTV came, Steve made it more like MTV, more like the Internet; it's much faster. There also used to be a big difference between the matinee and the evening [Sunday is the only day guests under 21 are allowed in], but today the way kids are, there's almost no difference. Through the years as the show's evolving, mothers came up to me and said, 'Our kids get it; you don't have to change it that much.'"

Schuman Silver knows when not to push it. She quotes Silver: "We have fun with, we don't make fun of." There used to be a bit about Sonny and Cher; as fun as it was, it went away when Sonny died because audiences weren't ready. She was out of town for Princess Diana's accident, but the minute Schuman Silver learned that Diana was dead, she called the theatre and pulled the number while the show was going on. They've never gotten audience pushback for the political material. "[Former secretary of state] George Shultz loves the show; George has played characters! Even when he brings [Republican] friends and we make fun of Republicans, they love it. It's not mean-spirited; you can parody anyone. You can't be mean-spirited and last this long. There's a fine line, and you can't step over it."

According to Greenspan, "Beach Blanket Babylon has become part of the fabric of San Francisco, and being connected with it in any way is a treat." San Francisco concurs, and in honor of the 40th anniversary, there will be a big event open to the public at City Hall on June 6 with surprises and celebrities. Meanwhile, 21 hats, many of them custom jobs, are going on display around town; virtually every Macy's will have one, and many theatres and museums, including ACT, Berkeley Rep, Cal Shakes, the de Young and Davies Symphony Hall. The Westin St. Francis and the Fairmount each have one, as well as Tiffany and Wilkes Bashford. Most of the hats are only on display through the first week of June.

Lisa Drostova is the public engagement manager for Ragged Wing Ensemble and is an associate artist with foolsFury.