CURTAIN CALL

Pulling Back the Curtain on Beach Blanket Babylon

Tammy Nelson performs the finale of Beach Blanket Babylon wearing a San Francisco skyline hat and Alan Greenspan, the show’s longtime hat designer and maker.
PETER PRATO
After 45 years in San Francisco, Beach Blanket Babylon will close the curtain on its campy cabaret show on December 31, 2019.
After a wild—and wildly successful—45-year run, the camp classic Beach Blanket Babylon ends this December. Robert Ito compiled an oral history of a beloved San Francisco spectacle.

The story line was always simple: Snow White travels the globe in search of Prince Charming and meets assorted mythical, political, and pop culture figures along the way; hilarity (and big, splashy musical numbers) ensues. But what the cast and crew of Beach Blanket Babylon did with that bare-bones premise has become the stuff of San Francisco—and theater—legend: The ever-changing cast of guest characters, from Darth Vader to Taylor Swift. The royalty in the audience, from Queen Elizabeth to Sidney Poitier. And the hats, those glorious, gravity-defying toppers, adorned with everything from tropical fruit to city skylines.

This New Year’s Eve at Club Fugazi, after more than 17,000 performances seen by a total of 6.5 million attendees, the show is ending its 45-year run. Here, seven veterans recall what it was like to be onstage and in the trenches of the iconic revue.

A former painter and street performer, Beach Blanket Babylon creator Steve Silver staged the first performance of the show in 1974, figuring it would run for six weeks or so. When he passed away in 1996 from complications related to AIDS, his wife, Jo Schuman Silver, took over as producer.

Beach Blanket Babylon finishes each performance with the cast onstage singing the Judy Garland hit “San Francisco.”PETER PRATO
Beach Blanket Babylon finishes each performance with the cast onstage singing the Judy Garland hit “San Francisco.”

TAMMY NELSON (performer, 1993 to present): It’s such a hard show to explain. We take topical and current events and make a number out of them. Imagine SNL, but the sketch is being sung and danced.

JO SCHUMAN SILVER (producer and writer, 1995 to present): It’s very, very fast. We say it’s Steve Silver’s attention span. If something is in the news this morning, we can get it in the show by tonight. That’s how good our people are.

JOHN CAMAJANI (stage manager, 1979 to 2019): We want to buoy people up, just for an hour and a half.

RENÉE LUBIN (performer, 1986 to present): The real truth is, Beach Blanket is mindless fun. The best part of my job is knowing that people come in with burdens, they’re going through tough stuff, and they can watch the show and forget about all those things.

John Camajani (top), who has served as stage manager for 40 years, poses with Alan Greenspan, the show’s longtime hat designer and maker.PETER PRATO
John Camajani (top), who has served as stage manager for 40 years, poses with Alan Greenspan, the show’s longtime hat designer and maker.

Over the years, the cast and crew have become something of a family. Many have stayed for decades.

BETH SPOTSWOOD (costume mistress, 2000 to 2003; Alta digital editor, 2017 to present): I was kind of weird in that I was there for three-plus years. People are there either for a year or for 30.

CAMAJANI: Val Diamond [a performer on the show from 1979 to 2009] and Steve Salgo [principal trumpet] met there. I think I saw their first kiss, in the parking lot across the street.

ALAN GREENSPAN (hatmaker, 1978 to present): A man came to see the show and was so taken by Renée Lubin, he kept coming to see the show over and over again until he finally asked her out, and they married.

LUBIN: I’ve been married to this wonderful man for 27 years.

The show’s creator, Steve Silver (right), backstage, 1978.COURTESY OF BEACH BLANKET BABYLON
The show’s creator, Steve Silver (right), backstage, 1978.

SPOTSWOOD: Everyone was in each other’s lives, because you work these weird hours. Your days off are Monday, Tuesday, and you work nights. We fought like family; we loved each other like family. A lot of these people are still in my life, 20 years later.

NELSON: It’s not like you’re just running a six-week show and then you’re shutting down. You have to work out the relationship issues. When people come in initially, we tend to say, “Let’s see if you can hang before I get any closer. Let’s see if you can hang with what Beach Blanket demands of you.”

The Lena Horne Hat, 1987.COURTESY OF BEACH BLANKET BABYLON
The Lena Horne Hat, 1987.

In the show’s tiny, cramped backstage area, performers have been known to transform from Jennifer Lopez into Martha Stewart in 60 seconds.

NELSON: It’s synchronized chaos. It’s a show unto itself back there.

KENNY MAZLOW (director and choreographer, 1988 to present): People have two changes, sometimes within one number. And everyone has a pattern to walk backstage: you need to be here, lift your arms up, the costume-and-props person will strike that costume off of you, stay right there, we’ll put the brace on you, turn your head this way, the hat goes on.

A height-defying chapeau known as the Dish Hat, 1978.COURTESY OF BEACH BLANKET BABYLON
A height-defying chapeau known as the Dish Hat, 1978.

LUBIN: If there’s an extra person back there that’s in the wrong place, I’m sorry for you, because you get taken out.

CAMAJANI: We actually have little white lines drawn on the floor so that when a woman comes offstage wearing a giant hat, as long as she steps on that line and follows it to the center mirror, she won’t bump anything on either side of her.

There’s no room to just drop something on the floor and leave it there. We have a loft where we store the props and costumes, and the dresses hang overhead on a pulley system.

NELSON: It’s a little sitcom back there. We have our little banter going back and forth. Somebody’s getting into a costume that they’ve worn all the time, and somebody will say, “Are you really gonna go out in that again?” Or “You know that makes you look fat, right?”

SPOTSWOOD: Hazing is the wrong word, but it was very sassy.

Tammy Nelson performs the finale of Beach Blanket Babylon wearing a San Francisco skyline hat, which includes a cable car and the Transamerica Pyramid.PETER PRATO
Tammy Nelson performs the finale of Beach Blanket Babylon wearing a San Francisco skyline hat, which includes a cable car and the Transamerica Pyramid.

The show’s giant hats, wonders of outrageous style and “trade secret” engineering, have become one of Beach Blanket’s most indelible symbols.

GREENSPAN: Well, that’s lovely to say, thank you. But if the hats were out onstage without the kids singing and dancing, I don’t think anybody would come to see it.

CAMAJANI: When we brought out our Washington, D.C., hat, all the offstage lights would go out, the hat lights would go on, the very top of the Capitol building would pop straight up, and 13 American flags would rotate around the top of it. The only thing it didn’t have was fireworks.

Paul Hovannes as the Iron Chef.PETER PRATO
Paul Hovannes as the Iron Chef.

GREENSPAN: The globe hat had buildings sticking out at odd angles to represent Paris, London, and D.C. An airplane would go around the globe, and the globe would rotate in the opposite direction, and the cities would light up. Then a hand would come out of the United States, and a hand would come out of Russia, and they would shake.

NELSON: When I’m backstage, I’m very much aware of the hat, but when the curtains open and you get onstage, you forget about it. You forget that you have a 300-pound hat on you.

MAZLOW: Because materials became lighter, the hats became lighter. And then Steve figured out that some of the hats that used to be worn on the head could be placed on a brace, which is like a corset that gets worn around the waist.

GREENSPAN: People have told me that their favorite thing is when the cable car goes around the brim of the hat. It has never done that. But people swear they’ve seen it.

Amanda Blatchford as Madonna.PETER PRATO
Amanda Blatchford as Madonna.

During its 45-year run, the show has attracted scores of well-known attendees, from David Bowie to Jerry Brown, Lauren Bacall to the Village People.

MAZLOW: The list of people who came to the show was a who’s who of Hollywood. Everybody from Jimmy Stewart to Mary Martin to Carol Channing. I remember Bob Hope came.

GREENSPAN: One night I was sitting on the aisle, and directly in front of me was Rudolf Nureyev, and directly across the aisle was Tuesday Weld.

CAMAJANI: John Cleese became a big fan. He came back several times. He’s a wacko guy, so it was right up his alley. He would go to the bar after the show with the cast and crew, and they would hold court all night, till the bar closed.

NELSON: Sharon Stone was incredibly excited after seeing the show. I’m standing there, looking at her talking to me, and I’m thinking, “God, her skin is gorgeous.”

GREENSPAN: I wasn’t there that night, but when Rock Hudson was there, the audience went nuts.

SILVER: Sidney Poitier said this was the best show he’d ever seen. Are you kidding? I broke down in tears.

Derek Lux appears as President Donald Trump.COURTESY OF BEACH BLANKET BABYLON
Derek Lux appears as President Donald Trump.

LUBIN: Sidney Poitier? I bow at his feet. When he held my hand and looked up into my eyes and told me how fabulous I was, I melted.

CAMAJANI: Sometimes when you get somebody of that caliber, they can kind of cop an attitude. He was just the opposite of that. Talia Shire came to the show with two or three people, and she sat in the front row with her back to the stage and talked all the way through the performance.

SPOTSWOOD: Kenny Loggins was asked, “Would you like to come backstage and meet the cast?” And he said no. For months it was like, “Fuck Kenny Loggins.”

With cast members flying on wires, lightning-fast costume changes, and hats several yards wide, there are bound to be technical issues.

Amanda Blatchford plays Trashy Snow White.PETER PRATO
Amanda Blatchford plays Trashy Snow White.

SILVER: Once or twice, Snow White was flying and she got stuck, and we had to stop the show, get a ladder, climb up, and bring her down. The audience loved that.

NELSON: When I was playing the cowgirl, my whip wrapped around the Stetson on my wig, and I went to throw the whip down on the ground, and the wig came with it. It tumbled over near the band. I was bald-headed, but I kept singing.

SILVER: I’m always like, “That was supposed to happen.” You just keep going. You don’t stop; you don’t say “Oops.”

MAZLOW: One guy had loose tights, and his tights started to fall down. I think he was the Christmas tree.

Renée Lubin helps open the show as Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz.PETER PRATO
Renée Lubin helps open the show as Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz.

LUBIN: I was getting into costume, and the zipper just popped open. The whole back of my dress, everybody could see my underwear and my booty, everything’s out the back. Instead of turning around or doing anything, I just keep staring straight ahead, smiling. You just do what you gotta do.

On April 17, Silver announced that the show would be ending its historic run.

SILVER: Steve always told me I would know when it was time to close. I never wanted the show not to be at the top of its game. Most of the time, it’s been sold out, and it’s always been fabulous.

CAMAJANI: I was stunned. I never thought that would happen. I thought that maybe Jo, somewhere in her will, had willed it either to Kenny or to somebody, just to keep the thing rolling in perpetuity.

LUBIN: I walk through North Beach, and everybody’s hurt. They’re upset. They don’t want it to go. I don’t want it to go. I don’t think there’s anything else in San Francisco that really is San Francisco like this show.

Curt Branom plays an over-the-top version of Louis XIV.PETER PRATO
Curt Branom plays an over-the-top version of Louis XIV.

CAMAJANI: Forty-five years is an incredibly long time for a show to run. We’ve beaten everybody else’s record. We’re the longest-running musical revue in world history.

MAZLOW: It’s difficult to explain, the pull that Beach Blanket Babylon has on all the performers that have worked on it. I’ve seen so many people come back to the show or come back just to visit. To have that opportunity to perform for 400 people, every night, who are laughing and screaming and having the time of their life. It’s an incredible feeling.

Robert Ito is a journalist based in Los Angeles. He reviewed At First Light: The Dawning of Asian Pacific America in Alta, Issue 8.