San Francisco

Hanging Up Their Hats: San Francisco's ‘Beach Blanket Babylon' Prepares to Say Goodbye

Closing after 45 years, the show has given birth to its own style of wigs and hats, and given talented performers a dream job in the City by the Bay

NBCUniversal, Inc.

What to Know

  • Hailed as the world's longest-running musical revue, Beach Blanket Babylon is an ever-changing song-and-dance show with jokes ripped from the headlines
  • The show was created by Steve Silver, whose name still appears in the credits of every performance two decades after his death
  • Producer Jo Schuman Silver, Steve Silver's widow, announced over the summer that the show would be closing after 45 years

It was the 1970s, when San Francisco's street corners were dotted with busking musical performers — including Steve Silver and the small gaggle of friends who would ultimately form the first cast of Beach Blanket Babylon.

To hear Silver tell it, the show only moved indoors so that police would stop breaking it up. He struck a deal with the owner of North Beach watering hole Savoy Tivoli for what he assumed would be a brief brush with fame.

"Steve said, 'We'll put a little show on for six weeks. That's all it'll be,'" Jo Schuman Silver said, recalling her husband's account of the story. "That was 45 years ago."

Steve Silver created Beach Blanket Babylon in 1974. Upon his death in 1996, he left the show to his wife, Jo Schuman Silver, who continues to introduce new characters and costumes based on his original drawings.

Nearly half a century later — and two decades after the AIDS crisis claimed Steve Silver's life at age 51 — Beach Blanket Babylon is a San Francisco institution, and the world's longest-running musical revue, known for its outrageous hats and ever-changing topical gags.

The hats, Schuman Silver said, were born out of necessity: Savoy Tivoli's tiny stage didn't leave much room for scenery.

"It was very narrow and high," she said. "And because (Steve) could draw anything, he said the way that his characters are gonna be noticed is by going up. By hats."

Instead of elaborate set design, Beach Blanket Babylon's eye candy comes in the form of giant and fanciful hats, which have gotten bigger and more elaborate over the years. (Photo: Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area)

It wasn't long before Beach Blanket Babylon signed a long-term booking at its current home, Club Fugazi, a venue that's become so iconic that the street outside was renamed in the show's honor. The theater's balconies are lined with gilded silhouettes of Silver's original character drawings — among them, an over-the-top King Louis XIV, a dancing French poodle, an adorably innocent Snow White and a decidedly sassy Glinda the Good Witch.

"This is the best job for an actor — and a mom too," said Renee Lubin, who plays Glinda along with about a dozen other characters. 

Behind the scenes in 360: Take a look inside Beach Blanket Babylon's wig shop with wigmaster Tim Santry, who reveals some of the secrets behind the show's giant and hilarious headwear.

Lubin said the show has provided its performers with a rare opportunity to have full-time work in a production that runs indefinitely, year-round — eliminating the stress of pounding the pavement every few months looking for work. She seized that opportunity at a time when the line for auditions wrapped around the block — in a year she describes as "back in 19-wahoo!" — and has been with the show for 33 years.

"What's kept me here is the fact that the show remains fresh," Lubin said. "We make it new every time."

Renee Lubin has 14 costume changes during the show, including multiple appearances as Glinda the Good Witch. (Photo: Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area)

Schuman Silver takes pride in her contribution to the show's ever-changing script.

"Whatever is the news of the day, that's how the show goes," she said.

Over the years, characters have been added and removed, including two incarnations of Donald Trump — first as a reality TV star, and later in his current incarnation as president — and news headlines work their way into song lyrics with astonishing speed.

Any political figure is fair game for Beach Blanket Babylon's special brand of satire, whether it's the leader of the United States or the leader of North Korea. (Photo: Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area)

"We're able to get a news story in that night," Schuman Silver said. "That's how good our people are."

Those people include the heroes audience members don't see, building hats and wigs in a workshop directly below the small stage. 

"If Jo wants something in the show today … I will make up a wig for this evening, and that's a stretch wig," said Tim Santry, who's been the show's wigmaster for 14 years. "If it plays and they like it, the audience seems to care, then I'll take the time to make one of my larger wigs."

Beach Blanket Babylon's towering wigs can take on a life of their own, like this Tina Turner wig that's designed to shimmer and swoosh as Renee Lubin sings, "What's Love Got to Do With It?" (Photo: Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area)

Santry's large wigs, many of them several feet tall, can be made from pieces of as many as 30 "normal" wigs, often with a rigid internal structure and a flexible "helmet" molded to an individual actor's head.

"You put on the costume, and you go: 'I can't do this. I can't sing in all this,'" said Curt Branom, who wears high heels and a 15-pound wig to play King Louis XIV.

Branom, like Lubin, said he's stayed with the show for decades because it never gets old. The constant introduction of new jokes and new characters keeps the performers energized, he said.

Curt Branom plays King Louis XIV, a staple character of Beach Blanket Babylon for many years. But in between stints as the French monarch, Branom plays a host of modern-day office holders, from Bernie Sanders to Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area)

"We wait for the audience to tell us if the bit works. And that's the scariest part. Because we've all gone out there and died," he said. "We just look at each other, and we know we'll have another show."

But all too soon, that won't be the case anymore. On New Year's Eve 2019, the red velvet curtains at Club Fugazi will close on Beach Blanket Babylon's giant hats for the last time.

"Steve told me he didn't know it was gonna last this long," Schuman Silver said. "He left it to me, and he says, 'You're gonna know what to do with it. … You're gonna know how long it should last.'"

Jo Schuman Silver has been the producer of Beach Blanket Babylon since the death of her husband, Steve Silver, who created the show. She continues to update the script and add new characters based on current events. (Photo: Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area)

Schuman Silver said she began feeling it was time for the show to close about three years ago.

"I want the show to go out on top, and everything is changing, for the good and for the bad," she said. "If it didn't go out on top, I'd kill myself."

The performers admit they feel it too: a shift in local culture, and in the national headlines that make up the bread and butter of their jokes.

"San Francisco has changed," Branom said. "The political parties are not as fun as they used to be, because there's so much tug-of-war."

Beach Blanket Babylon features 10 performers, five musicians and a small army of unseen technicians, costumers and creative personnel. (Photo: Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area)

Still, for this small company of artists, saying goodbye won't be easy.

"We have dinner together almost before every show," Branom said. "We've watched our kids grow up. We've watched our kids go off to college. We have this bond — that's gonna be the hardest thing to leave, is my friends."

Tearfully, Schuman Silver said she'll miss the legacy and the family she helped her late husband build — but she knows San Francisco and its arts scene will continue to flourish after the performers hang up their giant hats for the last time.

"Nothing could get this town," she said. "It's San Francisco. It's gonna always be fabulous."

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