The roll-up garage door in an industrial section of San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point opened with a metallic clacking, revealing a trove of ridiculously colorful props and hats you couldn’t imagine venturing outside of Broadway.
Jo Schuman Silver zipped past teams of folks in costumes and a wig master, explaining the madness of the items and the warehouse to a visitor.
“Everything he made for over 40 years, we still use it,” she said, pointing out a gargantuan hat bearing San Francisco's skyline. “They’re all in the best shape -- he built these things to last.”
This sacred site is the workshop for San Francisco’s iconic variety show, Beach Blanket Babylon – and the revered “he,” is Schuman Silver’s husband Steve Silver, who founded and shepherded the show before his death in 1995.
On Friday, the show will celebrate 40 years since Steve Silver gathered-up a collection of costumes and friends, and began performing on the street to make extra dough. With an almost-instant following, the show soon moved into the Savoy Tivoli bar on Grant Street in North Beach, where he cut a deal with the bar’s owner.
“He said if you take the bar, I’ll take the door,” Jo Schuman Silver said. “Maybe at most we’ll run six weeks - that was 40 years ago.”
The show has since been performed for two generations of British Royalty, a cadre of celebrities and visitors from across the globe who regularly fill Club Fugzai, the former North Beach Italian community center that has served as the show’s ornate home base since 1975.
But even though Steve Silver has been gone almost two decades, his visionary fingerprints still guide all aspects of the show’s trajectory. Schuman Silver, who took over as artistic director following her husband's death, said workers still refer to the founder’s spot-on sketches to create outlandish costumes, musical numbers and hats that have become the show’s trademark.
“When we’re thinking of stuff to throw in the show we kind of give it the ‘what would Steve do?,’ said longtime stage manager John Camajani. “How would Steve look at it?”
Even though the show often works in unfolding news and pop-culture into its production, Silver’s opinions still serves as the barometer.
“If we took the show that he created, which is so brilliant, and took a left turn – it couldn’t work," said said Jo Schuman Silver. "It has to always be his vision and we just keep evolving it and evolving it.”
The work of crafting a hat of bananas, or one with an entire city skyline, falls on a team of devoted workers, some who knew Silver – and others who came after.
“You get to create things you only dreamed of,” said wig master Tim Santry, “four-foot hairdos - afros that are four-foot wide.”
The production will mark its anniversary with a free public party at San Francisco City Hall at noon on Friday. The stately edifice will be awash in giant hats, campy musical numbers and wigs of all sizes. And though Steve Silver won’t be on hand to witness it, his original vision will loom as large as the skyline hat.
“If people from his college or high school, or have known this show for 40 years come to this show they say to us, 'It’s like Steve Silver was still here.'” Jo Schuman Silver said.