Beach Blanket Babylon — San Francisco Lost

 

Richard Eber, California Political News and Views

Back in 1974 when Steve Silver assembled a motley crew of street performers to put together the first performance of what was to be Beach Blanket Babylon; no one ever dreamed this show would run for almost 46 years. Sadly, it is slated to close on December 31, 2019.

Its producer Jo Schulman Silver, who has taken over the helm since the show’s creator Steve Silver passed away in 1995, stated “I just felt this is the time was right to end what has been a long wonderful journey for me and all that have been involved with Beach Blanket”.

The Old Spaghetti Factory-Savoy locale, where it all began was one of my favorite hang outs back then.  Going to this place on a Saturday night involved waiting around a couple hours to be seated. This time went quickly as my group congregated in the courtyard drinking wine and inhaling smoke with others who were doing the same thing.  Jugglers, musicians, and artists congregated to contribute to the ambiance.

This was San Francisco in the mid 70’s where free love gave way to a honeymoon of hedonism in what was called Baghdad by the Bay.

Quite frankly I don’t recall much about the food at The Old Spaghetti Factory  (not the chain) other than being served  abundant  portions of salad, soup, spaghetti  and meat balls  along with a huge bowl of spumoni ice cream. Even worse I draw a blank on how I returned home to a flat on Clay & Taylor Streets where fictional character Frank Bullet once resided.

But this was San Francisco where one could “do their own thing” and not feel the wrath of elders who were still concerned that the “authorities” would be busting the lot of us.  In this environment of creativity, energy, and dreaming, Steve Silver, a native San Franciscan put together the format that was to become Beach Blanket Babylon.

In effect it helped the entire community to emerge whole from the hangover that persisted in San Francisco from the post World War II era.  In this militaristic environment rules and regulations reigned supreme in most households.  The smallest infractions led to a punishment and often in my case to being grounded for extensive periods of time.

Steve Silver offered a different vision that allowed people to laugh at themselves and not take things so seriously. He did this with a show (revue) that cobbled together 2 minute or less sketches and songs from past and present personages at the time including Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Annette Funicello, Frankie, Avalon, Elvis, The Beatles, Joe Alioto, along with a heavy dose of Snow White.

Nothing was too sacred. The audience loved it

This keep it moving format has similarities to what was found in Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In TV show which aired from 1967 to 73.  Songs and dances with satirical lyrics filled the air.  Before anyone could ever become bored or complacent, another spoof would emerge.  With new material being introduced every week, it has been possible to experience Beach Blanket Babylon several times without ever becoming bored.

Over the years the characters Silver depicted changed to bring us such notable political figures as The Queen of England, George Bush, The Obama’s, and now the Von Trump family.  Even Joe Bidden is mentioned.  All of these skits are in good humor and are not personal.   Unlike the polarizing left and right wing comedians of today, Beach Blanket Babylon is performed in the spirit of Johnny Carson and Jay Leno who were known to be equal opportunity jokesters.

One of the best known performers who has worked 33 years for Beach Blanket Babylon is Renee Lubin. When she started 4 or 5 characters were played during a performance.  Now Renee is up to around 10 for a show.  Her favorite impersonation was of Anita Hill dragging Clarence Thomas across the stage while singing the Aretha Franklin standard “Respect”.

After a third of a century doing this show Lubin has not had the time to contemplate what she will do next than saying “It’s been a lot of fun going along for the ride.”

At the forefront of the production can be found an array of lavish-absurd hats. They add to the ambiance and enjoyment of the song and dance routines.  This includes  everything from a 3 foot wide blond wig to a an oversized San Francisco skyline which includes everything from Coit Tower to large skyscrapers and the Coke Sign at Oracle Park.

Nothing is sacred.

The entire atmosphere at the show communicates what the spirit of what San Francisco wants to be.  When Silver started Beach Blanket Babylon, this was the time Harvey Milk came into prominence as an elected official on their Board of Supervisors.  Much like the goals that Steve Silver set forth, all Harvey desired was a chance to become himself without being harshly judged by society.

This happy to be alive spirit has been found in the production for its entire 46 year run.  Jo Silver explained “Steve gave us the most amazing gift as the show keeps evolving and stays fresh. We learned great timing from him and to write for everyone rather than for a specific group.

Unfortunately, the same has not been true in San Francisco. Since the 70’s it has continued on a path of liberalism with stringent rent control,  distrust of law enforcement, opposition to normal gentrification, crony capitalism,  and hate crime laws that discriminate against  many conservatives.  The City by the Bay which was once labeled to be “the City that knows how” has become a parody of itself..

While trying to be liberal and progressive at times San Francisco has become exclusionary by enforcing laws that are more to the right of the political spectrum.  There seems to be a sense of mean spiritness in London Breed’s administration that demonizes business while making criminals and the homeless appear to be heroes.  New taxes are concocted each year to make big government even larger.

This is not the place where I grew up and have fond memories of.

Fortunately, during this time of transition, Jo Silver has continued the tradition of making Beach Blanket Babylon an experience everyone can enjoy of all political persuasions’.     In closing down the show she says, “We learned great timing from Steve. I felt now was the best to end the show when it was still on top.”

The final performance of this iconic show is set for New Years Eve at North Beach’s Club Fugazi.  Those hoping to experience this San Francisco tradition are advised to reserve their tickets early as most dates are sold out in the 373 seat theater.

Whether Beach Blanket will resurface in some form is uncertain.  While some of the props, hats, and costumes are expected to be donated to museums, Silver says “as I have learned in life, you just don’t know what is to happen next”


Richard Eber studied journalism at the University of Oregon. He writes about politics, culture, education restaurants, and was former city and sports editor of UCSB Daily. Richard is president of Amerasa Rapid Transit, a specialized freight forwarder.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal.


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