In 1979, when John Camajani got a theater job behind the scenes at “Beach Blanket Babylon,” he had no idea it would turn out to be a career.
“Never in my wildest dreams,” says the stage manager for San Francisco’s beloved, wacky hat-filled musical revue, who’s retiring from the show this week after 40 years. His last show is March 6, his 70th birthday.
When he first got the assistant stage managing gig, thanks to a lead from his City College of San Francisco classmate Simon Levy, he thought it might be a fun “nothing” job he could do until he found real employment.
“It turned into real employment,” says Camajani, who adds that he’s been with the show longer than most of the current cast members have been alive.
He attributes his longevity to his optimistic spirit and sense of humor, which aligned with “BBB” late creator Steve Silver’s craziness.
“Steve appealed to my inner child, and every year, he topped himself,” says Camajani, describing how the satirical revue routinely gets refreshed with topical material and people in the news.
Yet one of his favorite bits, not a current event, was when longtime lead Val Diamond, decked out in a hat with Gucci and other designer bags on it, brought the house down singing “Shop Around.”
On the other hand, Camajani remembers how one costume, a cocktail glass with a big olive on it, was returned to the giant warehouse after just one or two shows because Silver didn’t like how the number sung by a supposedly drunk performer panned out.
Some of Camajani’s fondest memories involve travels from the show’s home at Club Fugazi in North Beach. A visit to London’s West End was a huge highlight — his wife is English — as were trips to Maui and Tampa.
An invitation to the White House when Ronald Reagan was president (at the time, the show featured him in his jelly bean glory) famously was withdrawn because “BBB” doesn’t employ union workers.
If the show ever goes to Broadway, Camajani, who lives in Sonoma, hopes he’ll be invited to join the fun.
Officially stage manager since 1980, Camajani says much of what he does involves “making sure people are where they’re supposed to be,” comparing the choreographed action backstage during a performance to “a game of Tetris.”
His team includes a cast of 10 performers, 13 crew members and five musicians, as well as understudies for everybody to ensure that seven shows per week go on smoothly, as scheduled.
There have been a few rare mishaps. Once, a giant sundae hat with a banana on it came off its mooring, landing in the lap of a front-row patron, who wasn’t hurt.
Another time, Camajani suffered a knee injury falling off a ladder while trying to fix a piece of scenery. As firefighters and paramedics rallied to carry him down a cramped back stairway (he refused to go through the house during a performance), he was amused by six tap-dancing Miss Piggys simultaneously coming offstage.
Camajani, leaving his duties in the “quite capable hands” of seasoned staffers Michael Anderburg and Ty Yamaguchi, won’t be leaving the workforce. He’ll be looking for a job with regular daytime hours (“something like Costco or the post office”).
Having called for “house lights out” some 12,000 times, he says, “After 40 years in the dark, I want my Saturdays and Sundays back. And I want to be around for my grandkids.”
IF YOU GO
Beach Blanket Babylon
Where: Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 6 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 5 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $30 to $130
Contact: (415) 421-4222, www.beachblanketbabylon.com