Mad as a hatter

At “Beach Blanket Babylon,” you always hat the one you love.

The manic musical comedy revue, famous for its topical song parodies and sky-high headgear, turns 30 next month. To mark the occasion, the show’s producers are planning — what else? — a month-long party.

“Beach Blanket” is already the longest-running show of its kind. But that’s misleading: There is no other show of its kind. And to celebrate its 30th anniversary, the San Francisco institution will mount a string of charity performances to honor the city, its loyal audience and the late Steve Silver, the show’s creator and guiding light.

An artist by training, the San Francisco native started out as a street performer, drawing big crowds with his wacky high-voltage song parodies and acid-trip costumes. In 1974 he moved the show indoors for a one-month club run, which has yet to expire. Since 1975, “Beach Blanket Babylon” has made its home at Club Fugazi on Green Street and has recently surpassed 11,000 performances.

“The only sad part of the anniversary is that Steve is not here to enjoy his creation and the wonderful effect it has had on the Bay Area,” says Jo Schuman Silver, his widow and the show’s current producer. “He had such high standards, which is why the show is still at such a high level.”

That’s not hype. The 10 performers and smokin’ seven-piece band put on a great show. With the deliberately flimsy plot of having Snow White searching for a prince to love, the show moves at warp speed, blending hipper-than-hip comedy (satirizing everyone from Elvis to the Queer Eye guys) with Broadway-quality singing and dancing. But it’s the gigantic mechanical hats — the most famous being a 10-foot re-creation of the San Francisco skyline — that fans often cite as the Babylonian crème de la creme.

Schuman Silver readily concedes a subtle Jewish flavor to Beach Blanket Babylon, another part of the Steve Silver legacy.

Silver’s father was Jewish, his mother Catholic, but he eventually identified as Jewish. “Everyone thought he was Jewish,” says Schuman Silver, “and he did too. He felt everything. He was all things to all people.”

“He had a very haimish quality about him,” adds “Babylon’s” Jewish director, Kenny Mazlow, “and the show very much reflects that.”

To some degree, it’s right up-front. Among the most enduring bits in the ever-changing revue: the dancing Chassids and the kvetchy Jewish housewife played by Val Diamond, the show-stopping 25-year veteran.

In other respects, the Jewishness of “Beach Blanket Babylon” is subtle. The arch-ribbing of the rich and powerful is a hallmark of Jewish comedy through the ages. But beyond the stage, there’s another distinctly Jewish component to the “Babylon” legacy. Staggeringly successful from the get-go (every single show has sold out), “Babylon” enabled Silver to became one of the Bay Area’s most generous philanthropists. Like Silver, his heirs take tzedakah seriously.

“Steve was always so grateful that the Bay Area supported him,” recalls Schuman Silver, “and he wanted to give back to the community. So he started the ‘Beach Blanket Babylon’ charities as a way to say thank you.”

For the upcoming 30th anniversary performances, Schuman Silver is giving $400,000 to various local arts organizations including the American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Symphony, Marin Theater Company, Berkeley Repertory Theater and San Jose Repertory Theater.

New York native Schuman Silver grew up in a Jewish household, her father the president of the Oakland Jewish Center in Queens.

Mazlow similarly enjoyed a strong Jewish upbringing in Winnipeg, Manitoba, graduating from the Peretz Folk School, a Yiddish day school. Both Schuman Silver and Mazlow met Steve Silver under different circumstances, the former as a theatergoer, the latter as an auditioning performer, but both found “Beach Blanket Babylon” irresistible and stayed for the long haul.

Mazlow, who evolved from performer to director during his tenure with the show, remains passionate about “Beach Blanket Babylon,” even after years with the company. “Steve Silver said we should think of this show as a health spa,” he notes. “People come in and work out. Work out with laughter. The word ‘blessed’ comes into my head all the time when I think I get to carry on this man’s legacy.”

And after even more than 20 years, Schuman Silver still finds the show a thrill. “Every night I enjoy it,” she says. “I’m laughing out loud. I’m the show’s biggest fan.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.