Backstage @ Beach Blanket Babylon Goes Bananas
by Glenda Glayzer
A show is just a show.
I mean, you rehearse for long hours, sometimes for months, grinding out dance steps, learning vocals and lines, trying on costumes and wigs. By the time you get to performance, it's just "The Show." The same thing happens every night from the first note of the overture until the last curtain call. It's what happens before and after and backstage which stands out in my memory.
Beach Blanket Babylon is the world's longest-running musical revue, still running today. In 1974, The Show took the stage at the Savoy Tivoli in the North Beach district of San Francisco. In 1975, it moved to what was then known as Fugazi Hall and became Beach Blanket Babylon Goes Bananas, the bedrock upon which Steve Silver built his fortune.
The streets of North Beach are littered with the ghosts of performers who gave their sweat, tears, ideas and bad comedy on behalf of the "team" ...... believing that's what we were. Upon his own talent for using others to get what he wanted, and the brilliance of those others, Steve Silver built his dynasty. I was cast in the role of "the short girl singer who wears black wigs."
My audition for the part took place in the basement of a club in North Beach and was attended by Steve Silver, the accompanist, his star performer and her sister. At the time, I was working in the kitchen of a health food store on 19th and Castro, owned by a school chum of my husband, John. He and my daughter and I lived in a tiny apartment upstairs above the place.
How did we get to that time and place? We had been living in Europe for the past ten years, when John got the itch to relocate. We were scraping along on his unemployment and my $2 an hour when John saw the classified ad in the Chronicle: "Auditions for Beach Blanket Babylon Goes Bananas."
Imagine this. My last singing gig had been as Maria in the German language production of West Side Story at the Volksoper in Vienna. My head was spinning from abandoning a successful career, coming back to the United States, taking care of a three-year-old and working as a cook. I'm pretty sure I said something rude to John about my auditioning for a show called, of all things, Beach Blanket Babylon!
I signed a six-week contract to perform in seven shows a week for a percentage of the gross. Pretty smart of Steve, right? If nobody came, it wouldn't cost him anything in salaries, and it still wouldn't cost him very much to pay us if people DID come.
I was so excited to be performing again that it didn't worry me to be paid next to nothing. That was better than $2 per hour at the restaurant and, who knew; maybe The Show would catch on.
We rehearsed zillions of hours; rewrites were a daily event. Costumes, hats and props were being built by someone, somewhere. I didn't know or care because I had enough to worry about. Collaboration was the name of the game. When we hit a snag, when something wasn't funny enough, when a song wasn't working or the dance steps were too hard, we would brainstorm until Steve decided what might work best. When one of the costumes arrived which was supposed to be a tumbleweed and looked like a giant gray potato, my idea was to glue excelsior packing material all over it. My solution was adopted and mitigated the "gray potato" look, but didn't go over well with the backstage crew, since the tumbleweed shed, and all the debris had to be swept up between numbers.
Backstage at Fugazi was tiny and there were no bathrooms for the cast to use on that floor. The solution was for us to run upstairs and use the ones on the third floor. Anybody who ever saw BBB Goes Bananas knows that there was just enough time between scenes to change wigs and costumes. There wasn't any extra time to make the bathroom sprint. But we did. I don't know how, but we did.
In the beginning, there were chairs in the hall around tiny round cafe tables, and a shallow balcony on two sides. Of the 300 seats, none were reserved. Steve was a nightly fixture in the stage left balcony, from which he studied the audience with great concentration. This was his way of deciding whether or not a number was working. If the response wasn't big enough, it would be changed before the next performance. He never watched the stage.
Bananas had no Sunday matinees, so nobody under 18 was allowed because we sold wine and beer. Keeping minors out was never because The Show was risqué, it was squeaky clean. The costuming was very conservative and the language was pristine. The dialogue (what there was of it) held nary a swear word. One thing I have to say on his behalf, I was never embarrassed to be in Steve's show.
Those tiny round tables, people stuffed into every spare inch of floor, cigarette smoke making it look like the audience was behind a scrim - this is what we saw when we took turns peeking through the small hole cut in the wall stage right next to the prop table.
It was time. Opening night - June 27, 1975.
Naturally, we were crowding around that small hole in the wall, looking at the row where Steve had decided to put special guests. We wanted to see if there were any celebrities in our audience. Since this was the first public showing, all the "special" seats were filled with locals. Nobody had foreseen the future of The Show, but from word of mouth, the Gay Community was there to support us, regardless of how good or bad we turned out to be.
We were Camp. We were a Happening.
The rest, as they say, is history. We couldn't have paid for better reviews. Word raged throughout The City. Lines outside the tiny box office curved around the corner and circled the block. It became almost impossible to get tickets to The Hottest Show in Town. The Show has been sold out every night since then. Over the years, Steve became a very wealthy man.
And the Cast? We were such a success that when our original contracts ran out, Steve and his lawyer presented us with an alternative: sign new contracts for a flat salary or leave the show. We all signed. The next day he raised the ticket prices.
That first year was phenomenal.
Throughout the year, I peeked out at Celebrity Row and saw many famous people in our audience, among them:
The entire cast of Happy Days
And the list goes on and on.
Some of them I remember with particular fondness. Brenda Vaccaro took the time to wait outside for me, and there between the parked cars she took my hand and encouraged me, "Just keep on singing."
Carol Channing was there, all shining in white, looking like a caricature of herself.
Rock Hudson was there one night, wearing his white shirt and red cardigan, and when I finished my big number (Am I Blue), he sprang out of his seat to give me a standing ovation. He waited so that I could meet him and to encourage me, too. He returned to see us many times.
I remember standing in place behind the flats, waiting for my solo, knowing that I was about to sing for the amazing Beverly Sills, thinking, "Maybe she can't do THIS."
At least once a week, Cyril Magnin, "Chief of Protocol" for the City of San Francisco, was ensconced in his seat, the only one which was ever labeled. Cyril was a huge fan and supporter.
In 1976 the local union began to hound The Show. I didn't belong to any American unions, but several of our cast members, including the star, were union members. They were forced to resign or lose their standing.
So that was the end of Bananas, but certainly not the end of the franchise. Those of us left went to work on a new concept built around the Disney character Snow White, in which Snow was in search of her Prince in Hollywood.
Next chapter: Beach Blanket Babylon Goes to the Stars.
Bio: Born Glenda Bell in July of 1945, Glenda Glayzer spent her early years as a musical prodigy. She made her first vinyl record at the age of 13, singing with her parents and siblings (The Bell Family Gospel Singers). Married at 18 to John Glayzer, she moved with him to Europe in 1965. There she began her professional stage career in the Nuremberg and Vienna opera houses, doing American Musicals in the German Language. Returning to the United States in 1974, she became an original cast member of the longest running musical review in the world, Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco, California. Over the years, she has added many skills to her career bag including sculpting, painting, photography, location sound recording, writing, and culinary arts certification. For the past decade, she has been designing and building websites while continuing to write articles and fiction for various online sites, including three previously published here in The Greensilk Journal.