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Beach Blanket Babylon Salutes San Francisco Ballet

by Mary Ellen Hunt

June 6, 2004 -- Club Fugazi, San Francisco, CA

Never one to settle for the merely unconventional, Beach Blanket Babylon, the longest running musical revue in the US, has been celebrating its 30th anniversary this month with a grand gesture: giving away $100,000 each to four major arts organizations in the show’s hometown of San Francisco, not to mention several other smaller donations to other theater troupes in the Bay Area. After all, the late Steve Silver, the imaginative cabaret guru who founded Beach Blanket Babylon in 1974, was arguably as well-known for his charitable support of other arts efforts as for the outlandish shtick of his wildly popular show.

At this point, I’m going to have to admit that, even after years of living in the Bay Area, I had never been down to visit Club Fugazi, the show’s permanent home in North Beach. I’d seen those famous huge hats in exhibitions, heard about the Planter’s Nut, but I’d never gone, and now I’m sorry I waited so long, because this was, without a doubt, the most entertaining evening I’ve had in years.

For those of you unfamiliar with this San Francisco phenomenon, Beach Blanket is a hilarious, fast-paced, and ever-changing cabaret extravaganza, filled with topical one-liners and snippets of song parodies sung by some of the best belt voices in the area.

Think the Moulin Rouge in Paris, but better. Think Ethel Merman at the Moulin Rouge. Think Ethel Merman in a 20-foot hat, accompanied by Louis XIV and James Brown.

You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. And all this is done on a medium-sized music hall stage with about 15 singers, accompanied by half a dozen musicians.

The San Francisco Ballet tribute show opened with a spoof on “My Fair Lady’s” “Ascot Gavotte” that led into a brief film of the history of Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket, from its humble beginnings as a bunch of pals in “Rent-a-Freak” costumes. To call Silver’s humor zany or offbeat would be a classic understatement. How did he come up with the ideas? Some things were just part of a human response to silliness. In the film, he explains that there’s just no way that “If you knew sushi like I know sushi,” is not going to make you laugh.

The show is all about the manic vaudeville energy and sly wit the performers bring to the show. It would be impossible to recount every moment of the hilarity, which ranges from kimono-clad players singing “YOOOO-kohama, where the wind comes whistling down the plain….” to four guys dressed as French poodles punching out “Runaround Sue.” There are briefly funny bits that are guaranteed to make the locals guffaw – memories of recent rolling blackouts in California are still too fresh for us not to laugh at a Pacific Gas and Electric workman singing “Hello darkness, my old friend…” And no one in pop culture is safe, not Bill and Hillary Clinton, not Oprah Winfrey, and certainly not Paris Hilton. For that matter, neither is ballet.

For the special one-night only show on Sunday, Beach Blanket stayed with the theme of Snow White’s search for her prince. But in a dream sequence, Muriel Maffre bourreed out -- decked out in red pointe shoes and “helmet hair” wig -- to dance a pas de deux with her prince, Helgi Tomasson, in his own red sequined jacket.

The audience -- mainly made up of SFB aficionados -- went nuts, and the subsequent “Swanee” bit, in which “ballerinas” took the stage with swans on their heads -- or Bjork-like, wrapped around the torso -- had everyone in stitches. Maffre was her own regal self, and Tomasson a solicitous partner, and underneath, both of them seemed to be having nothing but pure fun.

It is perhaps a mark of a person’s sense of humor, whether or not they’d be willing to get out onstage at Beach Blanket Babylon. The anniversary performances also included guest shots from San Francisco socialite Charlotte Maillard Schultz, gussied up as Wonder Woman and her husband, the former Secretary of State, George Schultz dressed up as Clark Kent/Superman. Really, where else could you see Mrs. Schultz in tights and boots and a cape, suspended from a harness and flying above the audience? Only in San Francisco.

If you're in San Francisco, I have three words for you: Go see it. And if you've already seen it? Go see it again. I know I sure will.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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