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Hats off to Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon

by Gloria Lenhart

Celebrating 40 Years of Madness, Mirth, and Mayhem

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Since the premier of Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon in June 1974, the show has racked up over 15,000 performances and been seen by nearly six million people, including Queen Elizabeth. Yes, that Queen Elizabeth…of England. The Queen and Prince Phillip were so enthralled with their command performance of the show in 1983, which included a specially-designed hat with the skyline of London, that they later said that San Francisco was the highlight of their trip.

The show is loosely based on a story of Snow White, an innocent girl who travels around the world to find her Prince Charming, encountering various pop culture icons and zany characters along the way. The script changes regularly to reflect current events and lampoon well-known figures from the worlds of entertainment, politics and current events. It plays six times a week, including a special matinee on Sunday for those under 21 who are not allowed in the nightclub at other times.

The Creator: Steve Silver

Steve Silver grew up in San Francisco in a family that wholeheartedly supported his creative instincts. He graduated from Lowell High and by the 1960s was enrolled in San Jose State as a fine arts major. During this time, he transformed a run-down house he was renting with friends into a theatrical stage set, using a combination of second-hand furniture and bold paint. Then he used the space to throw lavish theme parties. He created a beauty contest for grandmothers and staged a mock wedding circa 1928. His attention to detail in creating a virtual world inhabited by an assortment of odd characters began to be noticed.

After graduation, Silver opened Rent-A-Freak, a service that employed up to eighty offbeat performers creating what we would now called performance art. To Steve Silver it was just good fun. He began to get high profile jobs. For the opening of the San Francisco Opera, he re-created a medieval Spanish monastery complete with wandering minstrels. For the director of the American Conservatory Theater he organized a birthday bash in Golden Gate Park filled with a variety of wood nymphs and treat-throwing elves. And Silver was making friends with influential people in the art and theater world.

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The Christmas Party

In 1970, Steve Silver was hired as an art director on the cult movie Harold and Maude. He designed the set for the boxcar where Ruth Gordon’s character lived. For the final cast party, Silver created a Christmas theme in March by hauling in truckloads of snow and hundreds of Christmas trees. Afterwards Silver and two friends reused costumes from this Christmas extravaganza to develop a street performance troupe. Silver dressed up as a Christmas tree, Roberta Bleiweiss wore a Santa outfit and her sister Nancy was decked out as Carmen Miranda complete with an extravagant hat topped by a pineapple. The trio staked out high traffic street corners and performed comical versions of popular songs.

Word of mouth spread, and their performances began to attract hundreds of people. Soon they were drawing crowds so big that the police threatened to shut them down. It was then that Silver approached the owner of the Savoy Tivoli, a North Beach club.

The Beach Party

Steve Silver fell in love with beach party movies of the 1960s, including the 1963 classic Beach Blanket Bingo, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. So shortly after he moved into Savoy Tivoli, he recreated his show using a beach party theme. But Silver did more than simply dress the stage and the actors. Every inch of the theater carried a beachy feel. The ushers wore tee shirts and a thick coating of zinc oxide covered their noses. The lighting crew wore swimsuits and sat perched on lifeguard stands. The audience was encouraged to come dressed in vacation wear. To add a level of zaniness, members of the band wore French poodles costumes.

Beach Blanket Babylon premiered on June 7, 1974. Charlotte Mailliard Swig, a prominent socialite, who would later become San Francisco’s chief of protocol. bought out every seat in the house and invited all her important friends. Nancy Bleiweiss appeared as Good Witch Glinda in a pink satin and tulle fairy gown with an enormous glittery crown. She also reprised her role as Carmen Miranda. The press took notice. The reviews poured in. The show was an instant, unqualified hit.

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Club Fugazi

Seeking a more permanent home, Beach Blanket Babylon moved to a theater space at 678 Green St. in June of 1975. It’s been there ever since. The 1913 building was built as an Italian community center by John Fugazi who had launched a travel empire by selling steamship tickets to Italian immigrants in early San Francisco. He later founded both the Columbus Savings and Loan Society and Banca Popolare Operaia Italiana, both of which were eventually merged into A.P. Giannini’s Bank of America. In the 1950s and 60s, the venue was called Fugazi Hall and was often used for poetry readings. Jazz legend Thelonious Monk recorded a live album Thelonious Alone in San Francisco there in 1959.

Silver retitled the show Beach Blanket Babylon Goes Bananas and when the initial run sold out, he signed a 20-year lease on the 400-seat club. It has played to sell out crowds there ever since. In 1978 the show was retitled again, Beach Blanket Babylon Goes to the Stars, and a new character was added. Legend has it that Penny Hamilton was the 700th audition before she landed the part of Snow White, the character that still forms the core of the show today. The show was retitled several times (going to Broadway, Las Vegas, and Around the World) until 1990 when it settled for being simply named Beach Blanket Babylon.

The Hats

Outrageous, outlandish and out-sized headgear has been part of the show since the beginning when Nancy Bleiweiss wore a pineapple hat to play Carmen Miranda, a twenty-pound beehive wig to spoof Tammy Wynette, and of course the golden crown of Good Witch Glinda. The original San Francisco skyline hat which became a symbol of the show debuted in 1977. It was the creation of Silver and animator and puppeteer Alan Greenspan, who helped Silver bring his sketches to life.

The hat to end all hats was a San Francisco skyline created for a 1987 benefit performance of San Francisco Opera’s Fol de Rol. At 20-feet wide and 33-feet tall, it was the largest hat ever to appear on any stage. To wear it, actress Susan Parks had to be assisted by two characters dressed as Groucho Marx.

Over the years, the elaborate designs have included trash cans, cheeseburgers, trays of dishes, lamp posts, and entire skylines. In honor of the show’s 40th anniversary, a selection of some of the most famous hats will be on display around San Francisco.

Famous Friends and Favorite Causes

The enormous success of the show can be attributed to the talents of Steve Silver as a showman and in part to the support of several famous friends. Charlotte Maillaird Swig became a great supporter of the show and used her considerable influence to help promote it. Cyril Magnin, the department store heir, also became a close personal friend of Silver’s and supporter of the show. A nightclub under Club Fugazi was named Cyril’s in his honor. It closed in 1997.

Celebrities of all stripe flocked to the show, but perhaps no big name was as dear to Steve Silver as the original beach movie stars. For the show’s 7th anniversary, Silver convinced Annette Funicello to come out of retirement and be part of the show. Both Funicello and her co-star Frankie Avalon were guests of honor at the 20th Anniversary show.

Over the years, Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities, notably the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park, Project Open Hand, the San Francisco Main Library and many school music and theater programs. The Shakespeare Garden gates in Golden Gate Park were Silver’s gift in honor of his friend Cyril Magnin. When performer Bill Kendall, who originated the roles of Mr. Peanut, Superman, and John Travolta, died of AIDs in the 1980s, Silver dedicated the Bill Kendall AIDS Research Center at the University of California at San Francisco to his friend and collaborator. Silver and his show gave much more to San Francisco than just a few laughs, and his legacy continues.

The Show Goes On

Forty years later, Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon is still drawing sell-out crowds and making people laugh. When Steve Silver died of AIDS in 1995 he left the show to his wife, Jo Shuman Silver, who brings the same dedication to keeping the show fresh, lively and relevant. Don’t wait for friends from out of town to visit to see it and be part of a true San Francisco legend.

Thanks to Charles Zukow Associates LLC, and the book Beach Blanket Babylon by Janet Lynn Roseman (1977, Chronicle Books) for background and information on Steve Silver and his amazing show

See the Show Under 21 allowed at Sunday Matinees only when no alcohol is served. Due to liquor laws, no one under 21 allowed any other time.

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