Preserving the Legacy of ‘Beach Blanket Babylon’ One Hat at a Time
San Francisco is a town that prides itself on its quirkiness, sense of humor and colorful characters. Nothing captures that spirit quite like “Beach Blanket Babylon.” Created by Steve Silver in 1974, the musical revue tour de force featured parodies of celebrities and current events, poking fun at political figures on both sides of the spectrum and sparing no one. Tourists and locals alike loved the campy show that seemed to encapsulate some of San Franciscoâs zany energy. Over its 45-year run, it became synonymous with the city.
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“The locals would come and see it about 10 times and bring people, because it was never the same show twice,” said Jo Schuman Silver, owner and producer of “Beach Blanket Babylon.” Schuman Silver was married to the showâs creator, Steve Silver, who died of AIDS in 1995. Before he passed, Steve asked Jo to run the show and made her promise to keep it intact and true to his vision.
Schuman Silver said the audience was two-thirds local, one-third tourist, even though most people thought it was the other way around. When the British royal family visited San Francisco, they went to “Beach Blanket Babylon.” And numerous San Francisco figures, like former Mayors Willie Brown and Ed Lee, have made appearances in the show.
The musical revue’s first home was the Savoy Tivoli, a North Beach club.
“It was narrow, but very high,” said Schuman Silver. “And in order to fill the space [Steve] started building hats. Very small at first and they kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Steve Silver sketch of ‘Beach Blanket Babylon’ waitress costume next to the character on stage. (Courtesy Beach Blanket Babylon)
When the show moved to Club Fugazi, its home for decades, it had already become known for the fabulous costumes, sense of humor and humongous hats. Steve Silver changed the musical numbers continuously, aided by a 6,000-foot San Francisco warehouse full of costumes that could be repurposed to create fresh-feeling content in record time.
“We were very, very current,” Schuman Silver said. “If something happened in the morning that we thought was relevant and our audience would care, we would get in the show by that night.”
When Jo Schuman Silver took over producing the show, she tried to run it the way Silver would have wanted. But she admits, the show became a bit more political during her time. One of her most memorable skits was from 2003 when Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his run for governor of California. Schuman Silver happened to see him make the announcement on Jay Leno, “which was really unusual for me. I hardly ever saw that show,” she said.
She called a team member and told them to dig up the “Terminator” costume from the warehouse for a skit the next night. When Donald Trump got into politics, the “Beach Blanket Babylon” team already had the wigs and costumes to make him a central character of the show almost every night, sometimes more than once.
Steve Silver sketch of the Hollywood hat next to the on stage character. (Courtesy of Beach Blanket Babylon)
Schuman Silver announced that “Beach Blanket Babylon” would close at the end of 2019, not because it was in financial trouble, but because she felt it was time. Little did she know the coronavirus pandemic would hit just a few months later, completely changing the theater landscape for the next year and a half.
“How lucky were we that I closed the show a month before COVID came? I cannot believe how fortunate we were,” she said.
Since the show closed, Schuman Silver and her team have been organizing their warehouse and fielding requests to either preserve “Beach Blanket” memorabilia or lend it out. Much of that work stopped when San Francisco shut down to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but now she is picking it back up again.
Looking back at all the props, crazy wigs, 300-pound hats and other ridiculous costumes, she says itâs like looking at a history of the later part of the 20th century into the 21st century. Preserving it is her âlabor of love.â
The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., wants a few pieces. The last time Schuman Silver spoke with them it seemed like they’d get a dancing Christmas tree, a Mr. Peanut dressed as Santa Claus and probably some royals stuff from when the show went on tour to London. Theyâre still finalizing the list. Other treasures will go to local museums, including the de Young.
“The thing about ‘Beach Blanket’ that made it so visually beautiful is that Steve Silver is an artist, so everything was drawn so beautifully,â Schuman Silver said. âHe sketched everything; how he saw his show; how he saw numbers going in the show; and then we would give it to our makeup or costume designer and they would create what Steve had in mind.”
The famous sketch artist Al Hirschfeld made several drawings of “Beach Blanket” characters. Those, Schuman Silver said, will go to the de Young Museum among other things.
“We’re really careful where everything goes,” Schuman Silver said. She gets requests from all over the country, including local schools and theaters. She’s happy to help out by lending a hat or costume to a local group, but said when it comes to preserving the show’s legacy â and by extension Steve Silverâs legacy â she’s particular.
“It has to have a connection to the show, a connection to Steve Silver, a connection to the city. Everything in ‘Beach Blanket’ always had a reason why we did it. It looked like it didn’t have a reason, but everything has a meaning. So we have to decide where everything will go,” she said.
Young actors have approached her about reviving the show in some way, but she said no. She does, however, sometimes take requests for special performances at private events. Part of the reason “Beach Blanket Babylon” became so synonymous with the city was its inclusion of local celebrities and politicians. Steve Silver would often get requests for special musical numbers to commemorate an anniversary or wedding. Schuman Silver said if the cast who still live nearby want to do those types of events, sheâs up for it.
“Steve always wanted the show intact. And that’s how weâre keeping it,” she said. “I donât think the idea of ‘Beach Blanket’ will ever die. It will be in different incarnations. That’s how I figure it.”
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