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Beach Blanket Babylon - San Francisco's Biggest Treat

By Mark Glass
Mark Glass is a journalist trapped in a lawyer's body, balancing his practice with
writing and broadcasting on travel, entertainment and professional sports.  

Mark Glass - Click to Enlarge I've made so many trips to San Francisco though the years, I feel like an aficionado, rather than a tourist by now. We all know about the usual landmarks - The Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, Coit Tower and the Transamerica Building, with its distinctive pinnacle. Not to mention the city's well-deserved reputation as the culinary capital of the country (Rice-a-Roni, notwithstanding).

But there's one theatrical offering that is every bit as special and uniquely part of the topography - the long-running musical comedy revue Beach Blanket Babylon. For twenty-four years, this San Francisco confection has been drawing crowds of locals and tourists, who rejoice in this celebration of the city's special panache.

The plot never changes. Snow White, with the help of a larger-than-life fairy godmother, searches the world for her Prince Charming, only to find - as did Dorothy from Kansas - that good ol' San Fran has everything a girl could want.

Into this thin premise has flowed a never-ending succession of comical songs and outrageously elaborate costumes that not only delight the crowds, but have made their way to the Smithsonian. The hats, particularly, are the stars, as much as the talented performers these monstrous creations all but dwarf.

Scenes change quickly as the energetic cast assumes numerous roles and performs a wide variety of blackouts or song-and-dance numbers. In the early years, a debonaire, dancing Mr. Peanut (about the size of pro baseball mascots) acted as emcee (or, perhaps, ringmaster) of these hilarious proceedings. More recently, they handle their transitions without him.

Cast members come and go, but Val Diamond has locked in the fairy godmother job for eighteen years. This big woman, with bigger eyes and a yet bigger voice has plenty of ways to get laughs, and can stop the show with a serious number, too. Longtimer Renee Lubin, whose Tina Turner impression packs all the punch of the original, does the same.

But what keeps customers like me coming back every couple of years, or so, is the constant revision of the script, replete with current political and social references. There’s a few regional jokes, since there are always more locals in the house, but even as a Midwesterner who drops by when he can, I never feel I'm missing anything. No matter who is in the White House, or the news, someone in the ensemble cast will do a song or other send-up at his expense.

The tunes are standards and rock 'n roll numbers, with lyrics altered for comedy. Or sometimes the actual words will get twisted for laughs by the staging context. The result is an evening that is accessible to every segment of the culture.

For most of its life, Beach Blanket has held court in Club Fugazzi, a cabaret style theater, with drink and snack service before and during the show. Located in the North Beach district, it's a short walk from a wealth of fabulous restaurants and the strip of more famous night clubs on Broadway. Although Fugazzi is limited to patrons over 21 because of the liquor service, there's nothing bluer than risque-level in the show. It's far cleaner than pay-cable comedy specials, and a lot funnier.

Even after all the laughs and the visual delights of the costumes - especially the famous skyline hat in the finale - there's one more treat. The closing song is always "San Francisco, Open your golden gates...", with the crowd raucously and joyfully joining in. From the first time I heard that two-story hall resounding with its denizens' pride in where they dwell, I was hooked for life on the show and the city. I've never felt that in St. Louis (except after Game 7 of our 1982 World Series victory), or anywhere else.

Whenever I get the chance to visit the Bay Area, Beach Blanket Babylon is a priority. This summer was my seventh, or so, viewing. I continue to delight in the now-familiar elements, while marveling at the skillful stir-in of updates. The other must on these occasions is the unparalleled creme brulee at Hayes Street Grill... but that's another story.

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Mark Glass is a Mark Glass is a freelance writer and broadcaster, based in St. Louis, covering travel, entertainment and professional sports for his readers and listeners. Mark was travel editor for "St. Louis Connoisseur", and now have that role for "Life in the Midwest", based in Indianapolis. For the last fifteen years, he's written and broadcast features on travel, entertainment and sports, while maintaining his law practice in the St. Louis area. (More about this writer.)


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