Tonight marks the final night of Beach Blanket Babylon's 45-year run in North Beach, and both the local media and its fans have been pouring out their tributes for the last couple of weeks.
The country's longest running musical revue announced its end-of-year closure back in April, with producer Jo Schuman Silver saying there was "no reason" for the show needing to close other than the fact that she just felt it was time. Many have noted that the constantly revised show seemed to have gotten an injection of fresh energy with the election of Donald Trump and our current dystopian moment, with recent musical numbers featuring the Trump clan as the Von Trapps of Sound of Music fame, KellyAnne Conway, and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
This week, BrokeAss Stuart spoke to longtime sound designer for the show Tom Schueneman, who spoke candidly about the fact that Ms. Silver had the option of selling the show to another production company, which she opted not to do. And he admitted that the show had been struggling financially. According to statements he heard from the show's general manager, the 400-seat Club Fugazi venue needed to be 75-percent sold for the show to break even, and that had not always been the case in recent years.
Known for its elaborate, gargantuan hats featuring city skylines and more, Beach Blanket Babylon survived through five decades of incredible change both in the city and the country, commenting on all of it light-heartedly through song and dance, vaudevillian humor, and a brand of tongue-in-cheek political street theater that sprang from the mind of founder Steve Silver. The show grew out of the same ragtag North Beach theater scene that was also home to the much more chaotic and counterculture-embued shows of The Cockettes — with Beach Blanket Babylon taking a similar, drag-inspired spirit and making it more palatable for tourists.
Schueneman further tells BrokeAss Stuart that the announcement of the show's closure to the cast left a bad taste in everyone's mouth — the press had already been told when they had a cast meeting, and the embargoed stories were all set to run.
"[The press] knew before we did, and people came out shellshocked," Schueneman said. "Press, already?... I’ve never been through this sort of thing — every other show I’ve done, we’ve known the show was going to close on this date. There could have been a little more tact."
Alas, the show is having its swan song, and it certainly has had a good run. In addition to entertaining many celebrities and dignitaries over the years — serving as theatrical ambassadors for San Francisco — Prince Charles and Camilla attended a show in 2005, and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip saw a special version of the show as part of a San Francisco Symphony performance in 1983. The Queen, seated next to then Mayor Dianne Feinstein, notably cracked a smile after one of the performers came out on stage with a hat depicting the London skyline — with Big Ben opening up to reveal portraits of the Royal Family including an infant Prince William.
Longtime stage manager of the show John Camajani talked in 2012 with sometime SFist correspondent Beth Spotswood about the performance for the Queen. As Camajani says of the Queen, "She'd never seen anything like Beach Blanket before, and she likely never will again."
Prince Philip also got a big kick out of it.
See footage of the performance, and the Queen's reactions, in the video below.