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Hats off to 'Beach Blanket Babylon'

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Courtesy of Rick Markovich
The loud and proud musical revue is now marking four decades of bringing big spoofs

The hats are bigger than ever. So is the show. “Beach Blanket Babylon” is turning 40, and it's still one of San Francisco's greatest hits.

The City's own beloved musical revue marks its birthday Saturday, but the party's already getting started. “It's going to be fabulous,” producer Jo Schuman Silver says. “We're all so excited.”

Of course, every night's a party at “Beach Blanket Babylon.” Created in 1974 by Schuman Silver's late husband, Steve Silver, the show is a laugh-a-minute, nonstop spoof of everything we love about contemporary culture.

Fast-paced, relentlessly funny and buoyed by a steady stream of musical numbers, the 90-minute revue follows Snow White as she travels the world in search of Prince Charming. It's an effervescent cocktail of song and dance, puns, politics and celebrity, with long-running characters such as Glinda, Mr. Peanut and Louis XIV rubbing shoulders with an ever-changing roster. A recent performance brought “BBB” standbys Elvis and Madonna alongside Bill and Hillary, Bieber and Beyoncé, Kim and Kanye.

According to Schuman Silver, the show is one of a kind — the unique vision of Steve Silver, who died in 1995.

“He was an artist,” she says. “He would sketch the show rather than writing it — he always thought of it in visual terms.”

“BBB” premiered June 7, 1974, at the Savoy Tivoli before moving to its current location at Club Fugazi in North Beach. Over the years, it's been tailored for the times. Audience members have included Bob Hope, Rudolf Nureyev, Yoko Ono, the Queen Elizabeth II, and, of course, San Francisco's own Herb Caen.

As producer, Schuman Silver starts work each day at 4:30 a.m. She reads the newspapers, then meets with director-choreographer Kenny Maslow and music director Bill Keck to tweak the show. “It's very topical,” she says.

“If there's something we think the audience is going to love, we put it in.”

Keck, who joined the show in 1993, presides over the five-piece band.

“It never gets boring,” the pianist-conductor says. “The music is the energy that drives it. It's like 10 cups of coffee.”

The team starts with an idea about whom or what they'll spoof.

“It could be a celebrity, a politician, a situation,” Keck says. “We like to mix it up, so that people never know what's coming next.”

It takes versatile performers to keep up, and Tammy Nelson, who joined the show in 1993, says that's part of the fun.

“Until you get used to the changes, it can be a little nerve-racking,” says the big-voiced singer, who started as an understudy for the legendary Val Diamond. “But that's what keeps it fresh.”

Nelson, who plays characters from Adele to Paula Deen, is still amazed by each day's behind-the-scenes work.

“Bill and Kenny are creating the new numbers, Bill is adjusting keys for us. The creativity between the two of them is amazing.”

The audience is part of the chemistry, Nelson adds.

“The live aspect of it really makes it happen. The constant changes, the audience response — it all plays into what makes it great.”

Keck agrees: “I've never had such a good time coming to work. I was lucky to work with Steve Silver. He'd be at the back of the house, and I always remember him coming up to me after the show. He'd say, 'Well, how do you feel? Are you having a good time?' That was so important to him.”

According to Schuman Silver, the fun factor is what makes “BBB” a hit. People often ask her to explain the secret of the show's longevity.

“The only secret is that Steve Silver created it, and we were lucky to keep it going,” she says. “We followed his formula. If we'd changed it, it would have closed in a week. He created it to last.”


Beach Blanket Babylon 40th Anniversary Celebration

Where: City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, S.F.

When: Noon Friday

Admission: Free

Contact: www.beachblanketbabylon.com.

Note: “BBB” runs Wednesdays-Sundays at Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Blvd., S.F.; tickets are $25-$100. For tickets, call (415) 421-4222.

S.F. honors 'BBB' with City Hall party and hat tour

“Beach Blanket Babylon” is the show that knows how to celebrate, and this year — the 40th anniversary — is no exception.

The main party starts at noon Friday at City Hall with a “BBB” show featuring appearances by Mayor Ed Lee, former Mayor Willie Brown, philanthropist Charlotte Shultz and others. There will be surprises and treats, including free ice cream from Humphry Slocombe, which created the limited-edition flavor Beach Blanket Babylon Goes Bananas.

Big hats are a “BBB” trademark, and this year brings a Bay Area-wide hat exhibition. You've never seen so many hats — literally.

A self-guided tour includes more than 20 on display. Check out the show's 29-foot-tall San Francisco Skyline Hat at Davies Symphony Hall. The de Young Museum is showing the World and Washington hats, while the SFJAZZ Center has the original Banana Carmen (Miranda) Hat. Others are on display at the Fairmont Hotel, Ghirardelli Square, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and various Macy's stores. A complete list is available at www.beachblanketbabylon.com.

Visitors can tag photos of themselves with the hats using #BeachBlanket40 and post them online for chances to win a pair of tickets to the show. Winners will be chosen at random June 20.

“Beach Blanket Babylon” and the Steve Silver Foundation have a long tradition of presenting scholarships. Finalists for this year's Scholarships for the Arts awards were announced May 5, with nine Bay Area high school seniors selected in three categories: Annabel Hope, Camron Jones and Marvin Velasco for acting; Clark Griffin, John Viernes and Jennifer Wang for dancing; and Marisol de Anda, Alexander Gallo and Nathan Myers for singing.

At the finals Monday at “BBB's” home, Club Fugazi, performers will appear before celebrity judges including David Gockley and Michael Tilson Thomas, heads of the San Francisco opera and symphony, respectively, choreographer Val Caniparoli, composers Gordon Getty and Jake Heggie, SFJAZZ Center founder Randall Kline, American Conservatory director Carey Perloff, California Shakespeare Theater director Jonathan Moscone, singers MC Hammer and Paula West, actress Rita Moreno, and radio maven and roving critic Jan Wahl.

'BBB' through the years

June 7, 1974: “Beach Blanket Babylon” opens at the Savoy Tivoli

1975: Herb Caen sees the show, calls it “a grand slam”1975: “BBB” moves to its current home, Club Fugazi

1977: The famed San Francisco hat makes its first appearance

1979: Val Diamond joins the cast

1981: Annette Funicello appears in “Beach Blanket Babylon Goes to the Stars and the Beach”

1982: Jo Schuman Silver sees the show for the first time, calls it “brilliant”

1982: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip see the show

1988: The de Young Museum stages an exhibition of “BBB” hats and costumes

1989: “BBB” goes to the Oscars

1993: Steve Silver creates the Top Hat Awards; recipients include Tommy Tune and Carol Channing

1994: 20th anniversary show at the War Memorial Opera House; guests include Charles Pierce, Tune and Funicello

1994: 20th anniversary show benefits the AIDS Memorial Grove and new San Francisco Main Library

1995: Steve Silver dies of AIDS

1996: Green Street between Columbus Avenue and Powell Street is renamed Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard

2004: “BBB” turns 30

2009: Val Diamond leaves the show

2014: Happy 40th birthday!

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