Slouching towards Babylon
Big hats, warmed-over hits, and a healthy dose of San Francisco sarcasm
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on 06.09.1998. Re-intro 6.13.2018 here

IN THE EARLY ’70s, MFA student Steve Silver had left his job tearing tickets at the Hungry i Nightclub in San Francisco to pursue theater as a career.

His Rent-a-Freak performances on the street in North Beach drew audiences of up to 400. After pressure from the cops to maintain crowd control, Silver moved his show indoors to the back room of the Savoy Tivoli.

As part of the revue, the stage of the 214-seat venue was covered with two tons of sand, lifeguards took tickets and applied Coppertone to patrons, and middle-aged housewives hula-danced and performed card tricks.

The show was supposed to run for six weeks. That was in 1974, and Beach Blanket Babylon, still here, is now the longest running musical revue in theater history.

beachblanketbabylon-1

Located on Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard, the sand-free Club Fugazi is a cabaret-style theater that’s exclusive home to the musical revue.

Although the term “musical revue” usually inspires wincing in solemn theatergoers and snooty critics, this show bites harder than most, the usual warmed-over songs convoluted in 30-second sound bites with snide lyrics, caustic cultural commentary, and impressive comic timing. And the plot doesn’t have a thing to do with Annette Funicello.

The premise: Snow White, unable to find a prince in San Francisco, sets out to travel around the world, armed with a suitcase labeled “Prince or Bust www.snow.com.” A grinning fairy godmother appears in an explosion of pink taffeta, wearing an enormous translucent crown, to give advice in song form.

who even knows what's going on here

who even knows what’s going on here

A silver crescent moon with legs and arms trots onstage to smack Snow White in the eye, and she sets off for Rome to the tune of “That’s Amore.” (Get it? The moon hit her eye …) The lavish yet relatively small production only gets more surreal from there.

We see a trio of French poodles singing “Ma Vie en Rose,” a Carmen Miranda lookalike with a five-foot pineapple stack on her head, and a yodeling geisha girl.

These vigettes are tweaked regularly by the late Silver’s widow, Jo Schuman Silver, so that no nonpartisan current event is spared — Bill Clinton sings “Me and Mrs. Jones” while brandishing a giant bottle of Viagra, Snow White raps with the Spice Girls (including a life-size bottle of Old Spice), Ellen DeGeneres appears with a rack of clothes attached to her back, and a big-assed Fergie sings “I’m a Weight Watcher.” Ouch.

ahaha

ahaha

And yes, the costumes attest to the creative power of hallucinogenic drugs. Massive wigs parody Elvis’s pompadour, Whoopi’s dreds, and Tina Turner’s mid-’80s car wash.

The trademark hats, sometimes twice as big as the people, contain accessories not normally associated with headwear: trash cans, pizza boxes, a rake, a streetlight, a wedding cake, bananas, and (for the finale) the city of San Francisco.

Thanks to light materials and engineering savvy, even the most massive hats weigh only a few pounds, but that doesn’t negate the narcosis of seeing a woman with an entire city on her head.

Beach Blanket Babylon represents the pinnacle of theater prestige in this town: the cast is expert, the tickets are expensive, and actors who get roles don’t give them up easily — the iron-lunged yodeler and street-lamp wearer, Val Diamond, is in her 20th year at the show.

one assumes the moon is sitting on the curb in handcuffs at this point

one assumes the moon is sitting on the curb in handcuffs at this point

The song snippets, all recognizable, aren’t creative as much as they are necessary to keep the mostly-tourist audience strung along. But with rapid-fire sound bites, postmodern elements, and trippy wardrobe, Beach Blanket Babylon may be the boomers’ answer to MTV. It’s light theater fare, but tasty all the same.

Next week: Ladies’ night at a South San Francisco shooting range …

ok here's the money shot

ok here’s the money shot

This is the twelfth piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here

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