Beach Blanket Babylon’s Sound Guy Says the Show Doesn’t Have to Close
Sam Jordan’s Bar wasn’t the only long-running San Francisco institution whose street got renamed for it that closed in 2019. Tonight, New Year’s Eve, marks the final curtain call for Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon, which has been running at North Beach’s Club Fugazi since 1974. The world’s longest-running musical revue — known for its thin plot loosely based around Snow White, its periodically updated jokes that go down easy, and its architecturally complicated hats — is one more victim of a radically changing city. Its block of Green Street has been known as Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard since the 1990s, shortly after Silver’s widow Jo Schuman Silver took over.
And Tom Schueneman, Beach Blanket’s chief sound engineer and sound designer for 31 years, says it didn’t have to end this way.
“Jo has said in the press that we’re going out at the top, but it depends on how you define the top,” he says. “They’ve been struggling financially to keep the show going, and that’s probably one reason. … “She’s had offers. Other people wanted to buy the show. I can’t name names, but there was an effort to make it a company-owned project and she rejected that out of hand. Her narrative was that it won’t have the spirit of Steve Silver, and my reply to that is that the spirit of Steve Silver is all of us who’ve been doing this every day.”
When the announcement came this spring, people were taken by surprise, especially as the lease runs another five years and many of them hoped Beach Blanket would make it to 50. At the meeting itself (which Schueneman was not present for) people were crying. This was right before a Wednesday show, and it was hard to have dinner and take a break.
“The press was waiting,” he says. “They knew before we did, and people came out shellshocked. Press, already? That put a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouth. 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.”
As a non-union company, Beach Blanket pays about half the union rate for doing the same kind of work, Schueneman says. He and his partner, who is also involved in the show, largely get by because of his side gig as a writer and the fact that their apartment is rent-controlled. People stay involved because they love it, not because they’re going to get rich.
“It’s a 400-seat house, so you gotta pack it in pretty much every night to make any significant profit,” he says.
While admitting he’s not privy to the financials, the former general manager had told him that 75 percent of the house has to sell for the show to break even — and in recent years, that had not been happening. Still, the staff hung on, out of love and respect — which patrons reciprocated.
“For months now, I’ve been in the back running sound,” he adds, “and people see me as they’re walking out and they want to give me a hug, tell me how much they’re going to miss it. It’s a very emotional thing, and what is lacking right now is moral leadership.”
Several members of the crew have been with the show for decades, Schueneman says. He remembers his exact start date: Sept. 7, 1988, back when Steve Silver had “essentially leased the whole sound operation.” Schueneman was the first sound employee, and the show was as scrappy as ever, with his equipment in “dire need” of upgrades.
“I didn’t have a dedicated understudy,” he remembers. “If I had to call out, the lighting guy had to move over and do sound and somebody had to go up and do the lights.”
Schueneman says he burned out around the time of Beach Blanket’s 20th anniversary show at the opera house in 1994. He left for a stint at the Magic Theater, and enjoyed it, but “Magic Theater doesn’t pay shit, God bless ’em.”
So he returned, and almost a quarter-century later, he’s witnessing what might be the longest set strike in theater history, as props are distributed and equipment “haphazardly” sold off. There’s a warehouse full of stuff that people have been going through since April, but his partner will be working into the new year.
“As the show closes, I want to give people the due they deserve. Everyone that’s been in the show that’s made it happen. Tuesday, there’s going to be an homage to Steve. They’re going to trout out Michael Tilson Thomas. He came to the show last year for some event, and he was miserable. He put his hands in his ears and I took complete offense at that. I respect his talent, but he’s not a very nice person. I wish he wasn’t going to be there.”
“There are plenty of people who would like to rake me over the coals for saying that. … He’s obviously a very talented person, but he might not be as talented as he thinks he is. I would counter that Bill Keck, our musical director, is just as talented as he is.”
Writer and director Kenny Mazlow hasn’t gotten his fair share of praise, either, Schueneman believes. (“We have our differences on how we approach our work, but he’s the one who writes the show. If anyone says that anyone else is the writer, I would disagree.”) This is part of a disconnect between the reality of the show’s last months and the way its closure been lauded. On days when Schuman Silver is present for rehearsals, people tighten up.
“When she does show up, it becomes ‘There’s something wrong,’ ” he says. “She’s said to me, ‘It’s sounding great,’ but then the next day it sounds awful and it’s not that much different than it was last night.”
Schueneman says that Beach Blanket’s crew and band work hard to stay on top of their craft, but management has not always taken the issues they bring up seriously. Equipment is a major concern. The front-of-house soundsystem is modern, but the stage monitors are not.
“That’s the biggest problem with sound in Club Fugazi,” he says. “They’re flown up in the ceiling, so the physics of that is you have to get the sound down to the stage, 20 feet or so, and then everybody is wearing at least a wig — if not a huge hat — so they have to be much louder than they should be to make them effective at all, for the performers to hear themselves.”
The lack of solutions was “always kind of my fault,” he adds. “It was that I wanted to complain. Or if I try to go to an explanation, it becomes mumbo-jumbo. I’m the nerd.”
Trying to explain EQ curves on the console resulted in blank stares, part of the same culture of disregarding the staff’s collective experience that, Schueneman believes, underlay the refusal to let them take over and continue running the show.
“I’ve heard from the people who were trying to put together a plan and keep Jo on the board of directors,” he says. “She allowed that to go as far as it did so she could say no.”
For her part, Jo Schuman Silver is very happy that the show is ending when it is.
“Of course, it could have gone on. But I didn’t feel it would have gone on the way Steve Silver created it, and it wouldn’t be the fabulous show it is. We’ll close now when we’re on top. Everything is still the same and everyone loves it. Since it was left to me, and Steve trusted my judgment, I thought this was the right time to close.”
She is adamant that the timing is not a financial consideration.
“Not in the least,” she says. “Everything is changing. North Beach is changing. I made the decision three years ago … I know change is good, but I felt we ran the show the way Steve wanted, and that was the most important thing to me. And he said, ‘You’ll know when it’s time,’ and for me, it’s time.’
Schuman Silver won’t reveal what’s happening to the costumes, but hints at “wonderful opportunities” ahead that seem to imply that Beach Blanket Babylon will live in as more than a museum set piece from a time when San Francisco could sustain a true bohemia. And it’s not just Michael Tilson Thomas who’s showing up tonight, either.
“We have Gavin Newsom and Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi,” she says. “Willie Brown is performing. Everybody that has really cared about the show and been there for us, they’re all coming back. I really think we did it the right way. I would kill myself if anything happened to the show.”
In the end, Schueneman is proudly wistful of Beach Blanket Babylon’s decades-long achievement.
“It’s not obviously everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s good for what it is,” he says. “It’s a great show for what’s expected and what we have to work with. It’s amazing that we pull it off, frankly.”
BBB New Years, 2018: