“Beach Blanket Babylon,” pictured in 2014 with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown on its 40th anniversary at City Hall, morphed from its ragtag origins over the years. (Ming Vong/S.F. Examiner)

Bye-bye ‘Beach Blanket Babylon’

The City’s iconic musical revue with hats changed a lot over the decades

By Jim Van Buskirk

Into a private party in 1972 burst Santa Claus, a Christmas tree, a piano-playing poodle and “Carmen Miranda.”

After the campy troupe performed “Brazil” and other old songs, the poodle came up and introduced himself to me as Bob Bendorff. As we began dating, I started meeting his friends, including Nancy Bleiweiss. Her sister Roberta (whom everyone called “Bug”) played the singing Santa Claus, while Steve Silver, the leader of the pack, was the dancing Christmas tree. Calling themselves Tommy Hail Group after the name on an old suitcase they had found, they later became Rent-a-Freak.

When Steve opened a show in a back room at the Savoy-Tivoli restaurant and bar in North Beach, I was at opening night. “Beach Blanket Babylon” featured Nancy as Glinda the Good Witch from “The Wizard of Oz,” surrounded by singing and dancing Christmas trees, M&M’s and a Mr. Peanut. Mary Cleere Haran performed “Put the Blame on Mame,” wearing an exact replica of Rita Haworth’s sexy gown from “Gilda.” My picture, laughing with Nancy, even ended up in the June 2, 1974 Sunday Chronicle magazine.

“Beach Blanket Babylon” moved to Club Olympus on Columbus Avenue before finally landing at Club Fugazi, an old Italian social club on Green Street. Now there was an entire orchestra of poodles. The headdresses had evolved from replicas of Carmen Miranda’s pineapples, bananas and feathers to spectacular constructions featuring hot-fudge sundaes, Christmas trees, even the San Francisco skyline. Now the star was Snow White, and my pal Jim Reiter, dressed as a cowboy, popped up from the pocket of an oversize pair of jeans to sing “Me and My Shadow.” He complained that Armistead Maupin, who wrote many of the early shows, would pinch his butt.

After the bars closed, we often stopped at Pam Pam West, a 24-hour coffee shop at Geary and Mason. In a corner booth, Steve, Nancy and Roberta would be carrying on like teenagers at the malt shop, brainstorming for the show, eager to share their latest wacky idea with us. The hats became larger and more numerous, the skits and musical numbers more outrageous. Rather than spoofing classic movies, the show began parodying current celebrities, slowly becoming self-referential.

Bob left to pursue other activities, and Steve and Nancy and Roberta had a nasty falling out over ownership of the show, and what had started out as kids having fun ended up in court and in the papers.

For the 10th anniversary in 1984, Jim and Mary Cleere stayed in my Green Street apartment, a block away from Club Fugazi.

On May 24, 1994, Jim invited me to the San Francisco Opera House for the 20th anniversary show. As I sat in the very last row of the balcony, I found myself remembering the fresh, fun frolic that once was “Beach Blanket” and wincing at the excessive exercise it had become.

In June 1995, Jim and I attended Steve’s memorial service at Grace Cathedral. A strange, surreal quality pervaded the event, apparently every detail of which had been planned by Steve. No mention was made of his sexuality or the fact that he had died of AIDS. His surviving wife played the part of grieving widow and San Francisco’s chief of protocol eulogized a man I had never met, in a spectacular obfuscation of the truth.

Sometime later I met playwright, director and stage manager Allen Sawyer, who in 2003 started managing the “Beach Blanket Babylon” box office. He invited me to a dress rehearsal of the 30th anniversary celebration, where I sat upstairs at Club Fugazi, watching the parade of parodies and chapeaux.

When it was announced that “Beach Blanket Babylon” would end on New Year’s Eve, Allen invited me to attend the 2019 final performance. As the show started, I was flooded with memories.

From the stage, Willie Brown, Charlotte Shultz and Michael Tilson Thomas all commended Steve for his vision and talent, suggesting that he single-handedly conceived of every aspect of the show: writer, director, producer, costume designer, creator of hats. None of the former cast members were invited to attend. No mention of Nancy and Armistead’s early collaboration, of the many people, including Val Diamond, who brought their creative talents to the show over the years.

In my mind’s eye I saw Jim popping out of the jeans pocket, Nancy in Carmen Miranda and Glinda drag, Mary Cleere shimmying and shaking at the Tivoli. I recalled former cast members’ stories about Steve’s vindictiveness, the divisive lawsuit, the years of pervasive pettiness. The show, which I’d long appreciated for its silly campiness, felt stale and vulgar.

Everyone involved with the venerable revue would be out of a job with scarcely a thank you, as The City lost yet another of its iconic treasures.

Jim Van Buskirk is a book group facilitator, writer, editor, exhibit curator and collections manager who often speaks at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and the San Francisco Public Library on topics related to Jewish, film and/or queer history. His blog is at https://jimvanbuskirk.wordpress.com/.

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