Dilettante 12: Beach Blanket Babylon

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Spectacle. It can be a need. Sometimes, the cheesier the better. Just bring on the ridiculosity.

My editor John Paczkowski, a scarily intelligent weirdo whose everyday disguise was an intimidatingly large jock’s body, agreed. In the late ‘90s Paczkowski was to make the Bay Guardian a vanguard presence on the Internet, which so far, the rest of us figured, was only good for email and Craigslist and maybe Citysearch.

We yet had little concept of the idea of hanging out in a virtual space all day long, sitting on one’s behind and reading instead of going around doing stuff in real life (a space called “IRL” now). We had no idea what was coming, but my online editor knew. We didn’t question him and felt it unwise to disbelieve him.

Paczkowski was given a small budget for online columnists and that’s how I broke out of the reviews and listings world into the title of COLUMNIST. So what if it was only online. I was a *columnist*.

That hadn’t taken too long either. Maybe a year and a half. First as an unpaid intern waiting tables at night, then part-time, then a little bit of overachieving for a different editor et voila! I moved up the ladder while those before me got picked off for more lucrative jobs at listen.com and other ultimately doomed pioneering “content” websites.

The newspaper was the real job, even if one had to side-hustle for supplemental cash and watch colleagues get paid twice as much in the burgeoning internet world. We in the newsroom observed the dot-com defectors among us exit the Bay Guardian, become corporate slave labor, and then find themselves to be unemployed ex-writers soon enough.

Working at the country’s oldest family-owned paper made me feel proud by association. By osmosis, I thought myself a badass once-removed. Or, more like an impostor who had somehow snuck in to see the magical inside of a hallowed process that makes democracy democracy.

These badasses in the cubicles around me were fighting dirty politics and extraction-energy industry monopolies while I was going through demo tapes and sorting endless art press releases into baskets on shelves for our listings system.

Then here comes the new action figure of an online (?) editor, who often politely hid his confoundment that nobody realized how important “online” was about to be. We couldn’t all think about that, not in the affable-but-constant din of a weekly paper on deadline.

So in between picking listings to preview or review, I learned to finagle free tickets for myself and the eternal plus-one friend to shows which would otherwise bankrupt a part-time journalist on a meager salary …and make a column of it.

This meant my plus-ones and I could attend concerts, search for dopamine and adrenaline hits via spectacle, AND save money. Truly, a lifelong dream was realized. Free shows and drink tickets! To Beach Blanket Babylon, even.

And thus, a dilettante’s hobby was born: Living the high life on a low budget.

So sometimes, if Beach Blanket Babylon offers comps, and you were never going to go otherwise, you sort of have to go.

 

Scroll down or click through to read “Slouching Towards Babylon,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on 06.12.1998.

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

 

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

by Summer Burkes, 06.09.1998

 

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.

 

This is the 12th entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).

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ok here's the money shot

ok here’s the money shot

 

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