With Beach Blanket Babylon Closing, What Becomes of its 100 Person Crew?
It is said that all good things must come to an end. With the announcement that Beach Blanket Babylon is closing in on the end of its amazing 45-year ride, three questions arise: Why kill off such a successful and beloved production? What becomes of the crew who so brilliantly interpret the creator’s genius? And are there bright lights on the horizon to fill the culture void after the show is gone?
The show’s producer, Jo Schuman Silver, inherited her husband’s legacy when he died in 1995 but credits its ongoing success to Steve Silver’s “brilliance.” When times change and new characters are added, she still refers to her late husband’s sketches and continues to rely heavily on the “have fun with, don’t make fun of” maxim that drove the tone behind Beach Blanket Babylon. It was Steve Silver’s creation and Jo Schuman Silver does not believe anyone else can simply step in and impart the same zeal and justice.
According to her count, it currently takes nearly 100 talented people, on and off stage, to pull off the BBB production that changes on the fly to keep up with changing tides in news and pop culture. Many have come and gone since the first curtains rose in 1974, but many have also remained, some for as long as three decades. Whole lives and lifelong careers, and in some cases, marriages, have been built around the show that is uniquely tied to San Francisco’s history and cultural story spanning several eras.
“Everything evolves,” Silver said.
“This city has gone through so many different changes and I’m sure it will evolve again.”
Before his passing, Steve told Jo she would “know when it’s time” to give it up – she believes now is that time. For Jo, it’s not that she worries the show will struggle to remain relevant, in fact, she sees today’s news and pop culture as a creative motherlode.
“There’s more to write about now than ever before,” Silver said.
“I can’t take credit for what’s going on in the world or for Trump, but Trump was made for us because he’s such a jerk.”
The producer says that in over 40 years, audiences have never reacted to a personality quite the way they regularly react to the Donald J. Trump character. “We’ve never seen boos like when Trump comes out, and I just tell them to play into it,” she said.
She praises the talents of people who make Steve’s and her visions come to life, with constantly changing concepts and scripts. When she gets an idea, she meets with the crew and after some collaboration, the idea becomes a seamless part of the production.
“Like, if something happens today, I get it in the show tonight,” Silver said. “That’s how fabulous our people are.”
The people she refers to, who make up the meat of the production that goes live five nights a week, are facing some anxiety about what comes once the last curtain closes. Remembering many have been dedicated to BBB for unheard of periods of time in theater terms, it stands to reason that several crewmembers are not only seasoned professionals, but seasoned in age as well.
One member of the crew, who chose to remain anonymous, said that after the dramatic meeting where they were told of the show’s ending, many were “in shock, horrified, and scared for their futures.”
The source was clear to state how lucky they felt to be part “of such an amazing San Francisco institution.”
“My favorite memories have been when I’m alone in the dark theatre before anyone has arrived,” they said. “That space has an extrasensory magic to it and standing on that stage always feels like a privilege.”
There is worry that with the production closing down, opportunities for such privilege and reliable work will go with it.
“It’s a reality of working in theater that jobs are often transient and that’s unavoidable, which has made Beach Blanket such a unique opportunity for so many people for so long,” the source said.
They explained that as the city has become nearly impossible to afford living in, many crew members moved hefty distances from the theater, but commitment gets them up before the sun to make the long commute, because what they do with BBB is more than a job, it’s a community and a sense of purpose. “This all makes the news of Beach Blanket’s closing that much more tragic,” they said.
The source continued:
“Beach Blanket’s closing will pour hundreds of hard working theater talent into a job market that will have an incredibly difficult time finding work due to (ageism) in the industry and because jobs like…Beach Blanket simply do not exist anymore. These employees have given their best years to Beach Blanket…”
Silver responded to those concerns with a sense of empathy but also one of faith in the industry’s future. As she also ages, she’s come to believe it’s unfair to give less than 100 percent to the show her husband built from scratch. The producer expresses sadness at the upcoming loss but stands by her decision to call it time while they are at their peak.
“I wanted to do it forever because it was my connection to him,” she said, referring to her late husband. “Listen, it’s heartbreaking for all of us – I’ve been crying for them for days because it is heartbreaking and I’m not doing anything mean to them, but I don’t want this show to ever not be the best it possibly can be.”
Her late husband created what she calls a “special formula,” not very sophisticated, but funny, amazing and extremely topical. They don’t think twice about using props like chicken wire on stage and she worries that someone new coming in to take the baton would be hesitant to keep up the risk-taking, slightly campy but loved traditions – that essentially, it would become watered down and Steve Silver’s vision would be lost. She credits the success it’s had since his death on the fact that she does it “exactly like he did.”
“He always ran a top-notch show and that’s why I wanted to go out on the top… that’s where we’re at right now.”
The BBB producer expresses nothing but admiration and appreciation for the crew who make the show happen each night and believes opportunities to find work are more available now than ever before, especially for talent of their caliber. Silver speaks of places outside of San Francisco, in “the burbs, I think they call it,” places like Walnut Creek’s Lescher Center for the Arts, where the calendar is packed with robust productions.
On the subject of ageism in the industry, she just doesn’t see it.
“We have Renée (Lubin), she’s been with us since ’86, and every night is opening night to her. She’s fabulous and I don’t even think of age when I think of Renée. Tammy’s (Nelson) been with us for over 30 years and she could go anywhere – she has the best voice and she’s amazing. No, I don’t even think of ageism.”
Although BBB crew will have the benefit of listing the world’s longest-running musical review on resumes, the reality of financial stress and uncertain future is palpable. Silver assures us that those who stick it out until the last show, regardless of how long they’ve been with the company, will receive a “nice payoff” because she wants the show to be the best until the very end and because she “loves the people so much.”
In terms of where this generation’s thirst for theater goes, Silver is inspired by some that have left BBB to open their own smaller companies and hopes to inspire youth to be as brilliant as her husband was. The organization established a scholarship program that awards $15,000 to three Bay Area high school students each year in categories of acting, singing and dancing.
According to his wife, creator Steve Silver was extremely grateful to the city and surrounding area for the acceptance and success of his show and immediately found ways to start giving back through charities, as early as 1974. Commemorating 17 years, The Steve Silver Foundation & Beach Blanket Babylon “Scholarship for the Arts” will invite nine finalists to participate in the next scholarship competition June 3 at Club Fugazi.
Jo Schuman Silver promises to keep the scholarship effort in tact long after the last curtain drops, in hopes that some Bay Area youth will one day become the next iteration of Steve Silver. To her, the end of Beach Blanket Babylon is not the end of great theater, but just the beginning for another generation…because, as she says, “Everything evolves.”