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SF Bay Area treasure nears the end

Just a few hours have passed since news came of President Donald Trump’s impeachment and the exuberant audience packed into San Francisco’s cozy Club Fugazi for “Beach Blanket Babylon” has already chortled its way through a madcap menagerie of goofy impersonations, fractured pop songs, glorious costumes and outrageously humongous headgear.

But the energy level soars even higher when cast member Jacqui Heck takes the stage as a cartoonish, big-haired version of Nancy Pelosi — clad in black leather and a snug red bustier, and appearing oh so fierce.

“We did impeach!” she declares as the crowd roars its gleeful approval.

It’s an example of how the campy musical revue keeps things fresh with a ripped-from-the-headlines sensibility. But now the show itself is making news. After 45 years and more than 17,000 performances, what has been hailed as a San Francisco treasure will take its final two curtain calls on New Year’s Eve.

“There will be a lot of tears that night,” says longtime stage manager John Camajani. “We’re going to need buckets.”

Producer Jo Schuman Silver, who decided in April to end the run, will be among those blubbering the most. The 74-year-old widow of “Beach Blanket Babylon” creator Steve Silver has been running things since he died in 1995.

“There was no rhyme or reason. I just felt it was time,” she says of her decision. “The show is never going to be better than it is now. But things change and the city changes. It could be changing for the better … but I just feel that it’s different.”

Different or not, it will be difficult for many to imagine San Francisco without “Beach Blanket Babylon,” which is as much a part of the city’s fabric as the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower. Featuring an anything-goes narrative that follows Snow White as she searches the world for her prince, the show spoofs pop culture and political celebrities — everyone from Barbra Streisand to Kanye West, and from Hillary Clinton to Trump.

“Democrats or Republicans — it doesn’t matter. We happily zing them both,” says Camajani, who describes the show as “nutso and off-the-rails.”

Since Silver launched “Beach Blanket Babylon” in June of 1974, tourists have flocked to it. Residents celebrate birthdays and anniversaries with it. On impeachment night, the audience included 10 female friends who have made the show a raucous holiday tradition for 15 straight years since graduating together from San Francisco’s St. Ignatius High School.

“We’re all very sad to think that we’ll never get to see the tap-dancing Christmas trees, or the singing poodles, or King Louie,” says one of the women, referring to some of the production’s zany fixtures.

For Greg Knoblock, a North Beach resident, “Beach Blanket Babylon” represented a date night every few years.

“I die laughing every time,” he says. “So much so that my side hurts. My cheeks hurt.”

Julie Morandi saw “Beach Blanket Babylon” for the first time in the ’90s, when she lived and worked in the city. Over the years, she returned “about a half-dozen times” and introduced her two kids to the craziness. Now living in Sacramento, she came back with friends to see it one last time because she felt “the need to say goodbye before it went on its merry way.”

“It’s weird to think that it won’t be there anymore,” she says. “It changes the city a little bit.”

As the end nears, cast and crew members are in a reflective mood. Camajani, who has been with the show for 40 years, says rehearsals have “had a lot of wistfulness and are quieter than usual.” Renée Lubin, a cast member of 33 years, insists that she and her fellow performers have needed extra time to process their emotions.

“Now people in the audience are not only laughing, but sobbing,” says Lubin who rifles through 14 costume changes per show. “It’s been really difficult, but we somehow pull together. And we’re still bringing it every night.”

What will Lubin miss the most? The camaraderie.

“Not having that connection with these people is going to be the hardest thing,” she says. “When you work every day with people in their underwear, you get to know them pretty well.”

Lubin not only grew up with “Beach Blanket Babylon,” she met her eventual husband — Addison Holmes — through it.

“He was in the audience one night and I spotted him and said to myself, ‘Oh, he looks like a teddy bear!’ I wonder if he’s as nice as he looks?’”

Lubin later met Holmes outside the theater, and 27 years later, she’s “still madly in love” with the man she calls her “sugar cube.”

Schuman Silver apparently considered handing off “Beach Blanket Babylon” to a successor, but was hard-pressed to think of anyone who was thoroughly familiar with Steve Silver’s sensibility.

“I would kill myself if someone came in and ruined it,” she says.

For now, she’s bracing for a wild, sold-out New Year’s Eve celebration that will feature some “fun surprises” and an audience peppered with cast alumni and San Francisco dignitaries. She expects it to be “absolutely nuts.”

As for the future, much of Schuman Silver’s efforts will be focused on finding museums and other outlets to house the show’s colorful props, including those enormous hats.

“‘Beach Blanket Babylon’ is never going to die,” she says. “It’s too important to the city.”


Contact Chuck Barney at cbarney@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.



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