Donald Munro

August 2, 2014

Munro: Hats off to 40 years of 'Beach Blanket Babylon'

SAN FRANCISCO — It's become one of the iconic images of theater in this city: the San Francisco skyline, complete with AT&T Park and the Transamerica Pyramid, squeezed onto the biggest hat you've ever seen.

SAN FRANCISCO — It's become one of the iconic images of theater in this city: the San Francisco skyline, complete with AT&T Park and the Transamerica Pyramid, squeezed onto the biggest hat you've ever seen.

Tammy Nelson is wearing that hat on stage in the final scene of "Steve Silver's Beach Blanket Babylon," and what a feat it is. The thing weighs 300 pounds.

Did we mention the moving cable cars?

The show, a quick-moving comic musical romp stuffed with garish costumes and a slew of current pop-culture and political references, is celebrating its 40th anniversary year. In June, the cast was welcomed by San Francisco Mayor Mike Lee to a big party at San Francisco City Hall.

Nelson, as the "skyline lady," got to steal the show walking down City Hall's ornate staircase.

"It was amazing to be embraced by the city like that," she says.

As long as we're throwing around the "A" word, it's even more amazing for a show to run for 40 years — or more than 15,000 performances.

Sure, "Beach Blanket" is constantly adding new material. (Creator Steve Silver died in 1993, and the show is now updated by producer Jo Schuman Silver, his wife, and director Kenny Mazlow.) At the show I saw, "Jerry Brown" announced that with one more term he'd be older than God, and an appearance by "Pharrell," complete with hat, got some big laughs.

Other jokes and personages last for years. Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin and Barbra Streisand — wearing the longest fingernails you've ever seen — still have comic currency.

The basic structure of the show remains the same. The wispy plot involves a Bay Area-based Snow White traipsing about the world to find her prince, only to discover what's special about her own San Francisco.

Is "Beach Blanket" silly fluff? You bet. But the comic timing is impeccable, the biting lyrics have sass to spare and many of the vocals — including Nelson's throaty boom — are fiercely good.

And it's worth seeing simply because it's an institution. I can't think of another city that could support such a quirky, long-running show. I always tell people: You have to see it at least once, if only to be in the San Francisco know.

Nelson has been with the show for 22 years, more than half its history. She spent most of those years understudying her role, in which she plays a variety of characters from a French prostitute to a cowgirl. For the past five years, she's been a principal in the show, performing as many as eight shows a week.

Talking with her by phone about a week after seeing her perform, I bring up the skyline hat — and Nelson is ready. It's her most popular question. Folks always ask: How does it work?

She can't give a detailed answer because it's a trade secret. (But it seems clear that a combination of lightweight materials and some sort of support system does the trick. That, plus some strong neck muscles.)

You'd think that wearing those big hats would mean a big chiropractic bill. But Nelson insists that it's no big deal.

"Does it hurt? No, not at all. I will say it takes awhile for the muscles to get acclimated to the added weight. If I take more than a week off the show, it takes me a couple of days to get back into shape."

As for playing the same role for 22 years, Nelson says the show is updated enough to keep it interesting.

An example of how quick the show is to incorporate current events: After L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling made his racist remarks, there was a joke in the show days later.

But jokes have short shelf lives, and the Sterling bit didn't last long. The show's creative team is quick to pull or replace a line when audience response starts dying off.

Nelson sometimes gets same-day notice for line changes, and while new musical numbers get a rehearsal or two, there's never much time before changes go live.

Her performance in the show always includes a "non-joke" singing moment in which she gets to let loose on a big, powerful musical number. (I heard her sing a wonderful version of "How Do I Live Without You?")

It's clear she has musical theater chops to spare and could pursue a lively career outside the walls of Club Fugazi, but after all these years she prefers her intimate relationship with the San Francisco skyline.

"It's just an honor being in that hat," she says. "I think 'Beach Blanket' should go forever."

'Gorgeous' at Asian Art Museum

If you're in San Francisco for a day, here's a recommended museum exhibition: the mischievous and provocative "Gorgeous" at the Asian Art Museum. Between attraction and repulsion can be a fine line, say the curators of this high-concept joint exhibition between the Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (closed for renovations).

Consider Marilyn Minter's "Strut," a large photorealist painting in enamel on metal of a bruised foot squeezed into a bejeweled Dior stiletto. These are the kind of shoes you'd think would immediately convey an aura of gorgeousness — a sure-fire way to proclaim to the world an elegant, conspicuous sense of style. But there can be pain to beauty. The marred heel of the woman's foot is a shock, like confronting a black eye. No wonder that critic Nirmala Nataraj calls Minter's work a "distinctive juxtaposition of glamour and grisliness."

The 72 eclectic artworks, from a decorated Qur'an from 16th-century Persia to Jeff Koons' ceramic sculpture of "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," span over 2,200 years and dozens of cultures. These paintings, sculptures, decorative objects and photographs have been yanked from their historical and cultural contexts. There they prod, tease and say: Do you think I'm pretty?

"Gorgeous," through Sept. 14, Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco. www.asianart.org.

— Donald Munro


"Beach Blanket Babylon," open-ended run, Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd., San Francisco. www.beachblanketbabylon.com, (415) 421-4222. $25-$130

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About Don Munro

Don Munro

@DonaldBeeArts

The leading authority of theater, performing and fine arts in the central San Joaquin Valley. Everything you need to know about new shows, exhibitions and cultural events, plus insights into Fresno's cultural scene. Phone: 559-441-6373. Twitter: @DonaldBeeArts. Email: dmunro@fresnobee.com

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