Beach Blanket Babylon continues to thrive after 39 years


The M.H. de Young Museum’s 1988 11-week exhibition titled “Beach Blanket Babylon: 15 Years of Hats and Costumes

Marney Kline, Staff Writer

“Beach Blanket Babylon” is a theatrical tribute to what makes our city beautiful: the absurdity, the freedom, and the flamboyance. As New York Times reporter Michael Janofsky proclaimed in 1998, “Beach Blanket Babylon” is no less a part of San Francisco than the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and fog.”

“Babylon” was created by Steve Silver in the North Beach neighborhood in 1974, and has performed to sold-out audiences for the past 39 years. Today, ticket prices range from $25 to $130. A ticket grants the holder entry to a “zany musical spoof of pop culture with extravagant costumes and outrageously huge hats.”

The hats — giant, mechanical, gravity-defying hats – are a crowd-drawing spectacle in their own right. In 1988, San Francisco’s M.H. de Young Museum held an 11-week exhibition titled, “Beach Blanket Babylon: 15 Years of Hats and Costumes.” With its signature hats, the show nourishes the imagination of not just theater enthusiasts, but also those interested in engineering and aesthetic design.

As enchanting as “Babylon” is, if you’re under 21, you’re mostly out of luck. For people 21 and over, tickets are available every day of the week except Tuesdays. At Sunday matinees, however, “Babylon” opens its doors to those below the legal drinking age, with matinee performances at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.

As the fast-paced hilarity whizzes past, viewers sit within North Beach’s Club Fugazi, where the show moved in 1976. The theater itself connects visitors with a vibrant slice of San Francisco history by giving ample reference to the show’s creator, the late Steve Silver, and to the performances of bygone eras. The actual performance, in tandem with the ambience of the theater, strikes an impeccable balance between old and new.

“Babylon” is a comedy revue, meaning it provides goofy satire on a-la-mode topics through a compilation of musical numbers and short sketches. It owes its timeless nature to impeccable editorial instincts: Monica Lewinsky and the Spice Girls are two examples of American media stars once parodied but now phased out of the script.

The show has kept what works (the gigantic San Francisco skyline hat, the Beatles), but never stops discarding and renewing what is timely.

The 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Jan. 20, for instance, ended with a spirited reference to the San Francisco 49ers victory in the NFC championship game, which occurred at the same time as the performance.  According to cast member Rena Wilson, the stage crew affixed the 49ers banner to the San Francisco hat and inserted the celebratory line into the script “backstage, while we performed.”

The show lives up to two artistic maxims. One, timing is everything in theater. And two, as expressed by Leonardo da Vinci, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” With a last-minute shout-out to the San Francisco 49ers, “Babylon” demonstrates a penchant for staying on top of the times without a moment’s hesitance, leaving no time to even consider abandoning its artwork.

In 2013, “Babylon” tickles many a rib by taking the audience on an international journey led by Snow White, who is searching for her one true love. Snow White’s plot premise has prevailed for 39 years, but never wears thin because she’s constantly stumbling upon the brazen demigods of our modern-day media. Her acquaintances include the cast of Glee, Oprah Winfrey, General David Petraeus, Blue Ivy (daughter of Beyoncé and Jay-Z), and of course, America’s First Dog, Bo Obama. Meanwhile, Bo’s owner, Barack, preaches to his San Francisco-based choir with quips like, “Republicans? If I’m causing them depression, they should try Obamacare!”

Yet the coolest aspect of “Babylon” is that it never ceases to convey the intangible, yet essential, charm of San Francisco. It’s a salute to creative expression that makes one proud to be from San Francisco. In 1975, New York Times theater critic Richard L. Coe cited “Babylon” — back then, a wee one-year-old production — as a glittering example of West Coast theater. “San Francisco is achieving its long-sought theatrical independence from the East,” he wrote. “With Oregon’s Ashland, Washington’s Seattle, and Northern California’s queen of cities, the Great Northwest is a lively and potentially livelier area for the performing arts. P.S. the clean air’s great.”

Remarkably, Coe’s words couldn’t be more relevant today. Even more remarkably, the ensemble embraces the pacing of a professionally-edited YouTube video. We live in an era of shrinking attention spans. Today, young folks must make a concentrated effort to get their news through 30-minute episodes of “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart.

So today, in particular, it’s important to engage with the relics of past eras, especially when those relics conveniently make us forget they are relics. Beach Blanket Babylon keeps up with the fast-paced, ever-changing 24-hour news cycle that seems to bury what happens today under the avalanche of all that’s going to come down tomorrow. But it also lets us remember and celebrate icons of the past.

At Club Fugazi, Madonna’s cone bra and Dancing Poodles never get old. “Beach Blanket Babylon” proves that laughter never dies.