"It’s such a hard show to explain."
October 29, 2019 7:43 PM   Subscribe

The story line was always simple: Snow White travels the globe in search of Prince Charming and meets assorted mythical, political, and pop culture figures along the way; hilarity (and big, splashy musical numbers) ensues. But what the cast and crew of Beach Blanket Babylon did with that bare-bones premise has become the stuff of San Francisco—and theater—legend.
An oral history: Pulling Back the Curtain on Beach Blanket Babylon. This New Year’s Eve at Club Fugazi, after more than 17,000 performances seen by a total of 6.5 million attendees, the show is ending its 45-year run.
posted by Lexica (28 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Not a theatre person so never heard of this, but from my Brit perspective it sounds like a glorious living pantomime. Shame I'll never get to see it.

Also, tut-tut Kenny Loggins!
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 8:19 PM on October 29, 2019

(here in UK the second link is 451 Unavailable For Legal Reasons 🙄)
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 8:21 PM on October 29, 2019

I feel like British panto is a bit closer than most things in American theater, but add in the pop-culture topicality of an American late night TV monologue, Broadway influence, and enormous hats.
posted by redct at 8:25 PM on October 29, 2019

I like musicals a lot and live fairly close to San Francisco but I've never heard of this. Sounds neat, though.
posted by one for the books at 8:27 PM on October 29, 2019

Oh yeah it hems much closer to musical hall and revue traditions, loose skits based around musical numbers and with shifting bits and acts to reflect current events and again, big hats. A throwback to how stage shows went when it was much more common to just pop in to a random one an evening.

Shame really, but glad to know it;s going on it's own terms and not cause of rent and unpopularity.
posted by The Whelk at 8:52 PM on October 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

I saw it a few years ago, definitely an SF classic.
posted by tavella at 9:07 PM on October 29, 2019

Sigh. That’s it. With this, the SF I fell in love with... is now truly gone.

(Ok fine yes I said the same thing when La Rondalla shut down. And no that thing that came back is NOT La Rondalla)
posted by armoir from antproof case at 9:11 PM on October 29, 2019

The most amazing thing to me is when I saw it I went with my Mom and Stepdad, and while I was laughing at all the topical references I thought “aww man, they aren’t going to get all these jokes!”. After the show though my Mom turned to me and said “I didn’t realize the humor would be so oriented to my generation, that must have gone over your head!”

Truly I have no idea how they wrote a show that let all of us have a good time and not know what we were missing.
posted by lepus at 9:34 PM on October 29, 2019 [9 favorites]

ALAN GREENSPAN (hatmaker, 1978 to present):

Oh, for a world in which Alan Greenspan spent his entire career making ridiculous hats for a topical musical comedy revue in San Francisco...
posted by Naberius at 10:44 PM on October 29, 2019 [15 favorites]

Oh for a world where George Schultz was not involved with a musical comedy revue in San Francisco.
posted by sjswitzer at 11:14 PM on October 29, 2019

On reading the second article... while I appreciate that she feels it's too personal to pass on, it does seem a little hard on her employees. There are people who have worked on it for decades who are losing their jobs, despite the show still being financially successful.
posted by tavella at 11:27 PM on October 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm bummed I'd never heard of this until now. Work used to take me to SF several times a year, I'd have definitely planned to see this had I known about it. It sounds amazing. I hope the cast & crew that have been on the show so long find other gigs quickly.
posted by jzb at 11:56 PM on October 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

They're sold out, but I need to figure out how to get over there before it closes. I've seen it a couple times here and there, but the show is one of those things that you just feel better knowing it exists, perhaps when a cast member in a giant hat turns up to sing the national anthem someplace. But most importantly, it's just reassuring to know that 5-9 times a week, someone is standing on a stage singing "San Francisco," as it should be.

That song is a key part of the city's earthquake preparedness kit. We need the practice.
posted by zachlipton at 1:54 AM on October 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

British panto …, but add in the pop-culture topicality
Glasgow panto — which I'll admit is all I know, and supposedly quite different from other cities' productions — usually has topical bits.

But the hats, no; we couldn't do those justice.
posted by scruss at 5:03 AM on October 30, 2019

I lived in North Beach for 11 years and went to BBB once, maybe in 2006 or 2007. I remember a woman wearing a Coit Tower hat and lots of old references that had clearly been re-tooled for relevance. It was... OK. Something pseudo-cultural for the Fisherman's Wharf set to do after a day of funnel cake, tchotchke-buying and seal-staring.

In a sense it was to the SF theater scene what Law & Order is to NY in that it provided reliable work but wasn't going to make anyone a star.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:00 AM on October 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Whoa, those hats! That's some fine engineering right there.
posted by BeeDo at 7:03 AM on October 30, 2019

The tragedy of local institutions. I always meant to see this when I lived in the area, but it never happened. I figured it would always be there, so no rush.

Now I live on the opposite side of the country and will have missed my chance.
posted by Badgermann at 7:13 AM on October 30, 2019

Oh! Those hats show up somewhere in Tales of the City (without much explanation, IIRC) and I've been utterly confused about what the hell their situation was.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:39 AM on October 30, 2019

I'm curious if the hats were merely comically large at first and if this is the result of 45 years worth of More Hat.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 7:57 AM on October 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Arms Heads race.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:07 AM on October 30, 2019

I'm so sad this show is leaving my beloved city. Also recognize it as inevitable. I only went to see it once and loved it, and would gladly take visitors again. But it also felt kind of old fashioned and difficult to keep going and I respect the showrunner's desire not to try to pass it on to someone.

There was a whole world of entertainment like this in the Old Days, the classic variety show. TV shows like Lawrence Welk or Hee Haw or Smothers Brothers, drag shows, weekend talent revues, comedy shows at Borscht Belt resorts. Are those mostly gone now? Some of the Late Night talk shows tap into it with a sketch or two but I can't think of the last time I saw anything as magnificent as Lawrence Welk turning out a new show of comedy and music every damn week.
posted by Nelson at 9:03 AM on October 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Honestly the thing we've got now that seems to fill the same niche as variety shows is social media, with memes instead of sketch comedy. It's definitely a loss. But I think that's where that cultural energy is going.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:40 AM on October 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's weird to say that TikTok is becoming the variety show of our time, but it kind of is really, at least for a moment.
posted by zachlipton at 10:11 AM on October 30, 2019

I'm curious if the hats were merely comically large at first and if this is the result of 45 years worth of More Hat.

¿Por qué no los dos? Beach Blanket Babylon: 40 Years in Photos: the original 1975 San Francisco skyline hat was big, the 25th anniversary one in 1999 was bigger, and this one from 2005 is at least as big (and has a working cable car).
posted by kirkaracha at 11:56 AM on October 30, 2019

I saw it for the last time a month or so ago when friends were visiting from out of town (it was a reliable enjoyable thing to take tourists to.) We'd bought our tickets a while ago.

The show doesn't make a ton of sense - why go on a trip around the world, but keep running into US politicians? And though it's supposedly updated, in the BBB universe, Willie Brown is still mayor of San Francisco -- no wait, actually that's accurate.

A friend who works in the box office has posted about the calls from people who are in the bargaining stage about trying to get tickets for a show that has a firm closing date and is sold out.

Also I think worth noting is that Beach Blanket Babylon started in 1974, a couple years after San Francisco's Cockettes (active 1969-72), and BBB is a sort of sanitized version of the Cockettes gender-fuck drag shows.
posted by larrybob at 12:49 PM on October 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also worth noting is that the recently deceased Project Runway alum Chris March worked for BBB for 10 years as a costume designer before his appearance on Project Runway.
posted by larrybob at 12:51 PM on October 30, 2019

I heard they're going to resurrect the show anyway but this time the whole thing is going to be staged on a giant hat but they're still figuring out who is supposed to wear the giant hat. But they're working in a great skit about the giant hat where someone's on the giant hat stage wearing a slightly less giant hat and it's a recreation of the truly giant stage hat and on the less giant hat there's someone wearing an even slightly lesser giant hat exactly like the really giant stage hat and it's just hats all the way up.
posted by loquacious at 11:07 PM on October 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I saw this over the summer, specifically because I was going to be in San Francisco and knew it was closing. It was... odd. And a little disappointing. It's cute and a little bizarre, but pretty random and not nearly as racy as I expected it to be. And there were a few terribly cringy moments -- white actors playing black celebrities, an over-the-top gay stereotype, etc. The performers were great, but the show itself was just... unsatisfying.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:27 PM on November 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

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