Beach Blanket Babylon and Me

Originally published in  Love, Castro Street: Reflections of San Francisco (Alyson Publications, 2007)

I felt awkward seeing so many handsome men. They all seemed so sure of themselves, so comfortable in their gay identities. I was trying to make my way through the crush when suddenly the front door flew open and in burst Santa Claus, a Christmas tree, a poodle playing the piano, and “Carmen Miranda.” With her bugged-out eyes, her over-the-top Brazilian accent and outrageous headdress, Carmen Miranda and her campy troupe performed “Brazil” and other old songs. The crowd loved it, and so did I. Was this what being gay in San Francisco was? I silently sang a chorus of “if they could see me now.” I was Gwen Verdon playing Sweet Charity.

I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. How had little Jimmy Van Buskirk from Buena Park ended up in the big city?

I had dropped out of classes at the University of Washington, given notice on my room in the apartment shared with two guys from the bookstore where we worked, and loaded my Toyota with all the belongings I could fit. I hadn’t given much thought to where I was heading. I just needed to move away from my family friends, and go somewhere new, become someone new. I drove to San Francisco and got a hotel room. Within a week I moved the southern suburbs of Belmont to a job and a free apartment Every weekend I drove up the peninsula into the city and wandered around, looking at male couples.

I told myself I liked the cappuccino and the foreign films. I had no idea that I was one of a large wave of men immigrating to what was becoming the “gay mecca.”

It was 1972 when I finally moved to San Francisco with a boyfriend, who soon returned to his former partner, leaving me adrift in the city, as it was self-satisfyingly referred to. I had never lived in a city, only suburbs: of Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco. I knew no one. I was excited and scared to be on my own. I couldn’t quite believe I had achieved my dream of living in San Francisco.

I delighted in my furnished one-bedroom apartment at the Lucerne, 766 Sutter Street. I worked two blocks away at Scott Martin Books, 527 Sutter Street. I had been hired by Scott Martin to develop a new paperback book section in the small bookshop catering to the carriage trade. Our customers included the libraries of the local private clubs (Pacific-Union, Metropolitan, Olympic) as well as many of their high-class members. Their names—a who’s who of San Francisco society—with private phone numbers and addresses, appeared in the Social Register, the slim black volume kept at each telephone. I was the shop’s token “real person.”

One afternoon a large, not particularly attractive woman browsed the tables. She had scarcely closed the door behind her when the bitchy store manager sniffed: “Hard to believe that Audrey Hepburn came out of that.” How had he recognized Audrey Hepburn’s mother? Celebrity sighting seemed a natural trait to gay men, at least the witty ones. I listened attentively to his gossip about the cocktail parties, the dinner parties, and the goings-on of the tony customers.

The small staff at Scott Martin Books, mostly gay men, frequently socialized with the staff of Williams-Sonoma, the gourmet cookware shop directly across the street. Scott and the owner, Chuck Williams, were old friends. Daniel, who ran our shipping and receiving department, lived with Terry, who worked at Williams-Sonoma. Shortly after I started working, Daniel and Terry invited me to a party.

That Saturday night, I nervously entered the apartment full of good-looking men. In the middle of the room was a film projector through which spooled a sixteen-millimeter print of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I had never seen a Hollywood movie projected in someone’s private home.

Previously, most weekends I had explored my new town: up Nob Hill, through North Beach, across Aquatic Park, along Polk, and back to Sutter. To alleviate my loneliness, many nights I wandered through the Emporium department store on Market Street, usually ending up at Club Rendezvous, at 567 Sutter. It was my Sutter Street triangle: home, work, bar. I wasn’t yet twenty-one, but perhaps some combination of my youth, my height and my looks motivated the doorman to wave me in without asking for ID. Night after night, I ascended the steep staircase to the dark bar on the third floor, where a background of Barry White, Roberta Flack, and Al Green sang about love.

I would order a beer and assume a posture that I simultaneously hoped and feared indicated my availability. I would wait for someone to initiate the insipid bar chat that sometimes segued to sex. I wasn’t looking for sex as much as love and, the Waylon Jennings song title to the contrary, I had no idea that I was looking for love in all the wrong places. I got involved with a variety of men whose skills at establishing a relationship were as rudimentary as my own.

Now, at this party with Carmen Miranda and her friends, I was even more impressed with the unexpected entertainment that had happened so spontaneously. After the madcap performance, the poodle came up and introduced himself to me as Bob Bendorff. I felt special as we chatted briefly. I must have mentioned where I worked, because a few days later he appeared at the bookstore. I was both excited and embarrassed to see him there. I hustled him out of the shop by agreeing to go out with him. As we began dating, he proudly paraded me, his new boyfriend, around town, introducing me to his friends.

One morning he dragged me to a small apartment on Union Street. What now? I wondered uncomfortably, as he rang the doorbell. His friend, a woman still in her bathrobe, was obviously humoring Bob when she invited us in. That morning Nancy Bleiweiss looked more like a Jewish hausfrau than a Brazilian bomb shell, and it took me a while to recognize her as Carmen Miranda. Then I met Nancy’s sister Roberta, who everyone called “Bug” and who had a crush on Steve Silver. She had been the singing Santa Claus, while Steve, the leader of the group, was the Christmas tree. For a while they called themselves Tommy Hail Group after the name on an old suitcase they had found. Then they became Rent-a-Freak. I felt I was meeting major celebrities, thrilled at being granted entrée to the backstage theater world.

Daniel and Terry invited me to a holiday party at Williams Sonoma, where Chuck Williams always made sure there was plenty of food and alcohol. Everyone seemed to drink a lot, and so I followed suit. When I got home, somewhat tipsy, I felt like I was still camping it up, just as I had been at the party. I called an old friend for confirmation.

“Do I sound gay?” I demanded.

“Not at all,” she assured me.

I didn’t believe her. I was leaving to visit my family the next morning, and I was afraid my transformation would be obvious to everyone. Apparently, I managed to hide my newfound sexual orientation. I was happy to return “home” to San Francisco.

Bob Bendorff supported himself by playing piano in gay bars. For a while he accompanied a young, zaftig performer named Sharon McKnight at the House of Harmony on Polk Street. In those days “Polkstrasse,” between about O’Farrell and Washington Streets, was the heart of the gay neighborhood.

Sometimes I would walk the few blocks from my apartment at Sutter and Taylor to the bar to hear the buxom brunette sing “Hard Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah” and “My Funny Valentine.” I didn’t know these old songs, not even from my parents’ LPs on the blond hi-fi. I immediately responded to their witty lyrics and sophisticated melodies.

Other times, because the Lucerne had no street buzzer, Bob would call me at two A.M. from a pay phone on the street. I would groggily pad down the stairs from the second floor to let him in, then listen to him recount the events of the evening as I slowly fell back to sleep.

Bob was eager to introduce me to more of his friends: Angela, the lovely Irish lass who sang at the Sea Witch in Ghirardelli Square; Judy, the vivacious actress who worked in improv; Jim, the handsome singer; Mary Cleere, the beautiful redhead with the silky voice; Greg, finishing his degree in directing at San Francisco State; Randy, also studying at State, who later became a jeweler. I was impressed to be on the periphery of show business. When Steve Silver and his troupe opened a show in a back room at the Savoy-Tivoli restaurant and bar in North Beach, of course I was at opening night. I wouldn’t have missed the irreverent fun of the newly named “Beach Blanket Babylon” for anything.

Now, Nancy was Glinda the Good Witch from Wizard of Oz, surrounded by multiple singing and dancing Christmas trees, M&M’s and a Mr. Peanut. They sang a mix of standards like “Stardust,” “Twilight Time,” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” juxtaposed with more contemporary compositions like “Hello, Dolly” and the Carpenters’ “Close to You.” Mary Cleere was the ultimate cosmopolitan as she performed “Put the Blame on Mame,” wearing an exact replica of the sexy gown from Gilda. Even though I had never seen the movie, I knew from the crowd’s hooting, as she slowly tugged off her long glove, that she accurately captured Rita Hayworth’s persona. The evening ended with a rousing rendition of “San Francisco,” simultaneously invoking Judy Garland, Jeannette MacDonald, and the others who had sung about “comin’ home again, and wanderin’ no more.” At that moment I felt I, too, was coming home.

A few Sunday mornings later, on June 2, 1974, Judy called and woke me up. “Have you seen the Chronicle magazine section today?”
“No. Why?” I was still asleep.
“Run down and get one.”
I immediately turned to the four-page spread on Beach Blanket Babylon, not noticing that it was written by Armistead Maupin. There on the last page amid photos of the cast, was a picture of me laughing with Nancy on opening night. I had arrived.

Vintage news clipping about the opening of Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco

I  hadn’t quite realized that the show had likely been inspired by the short-lived but much more chaotic and countercultural acid, drag, and sexually revolutionary troupe the Cockettes, which —  some say — Steve Silver watered down and made more palatable for tourists.

Mary and Bob put on some cabaret shows at the Eureka Theater, in the basement of a church at the corner of Market and Noe. Mary Cleere was sensational, especially singing Sondheim’s “And I shall marry the miller’s son.” Then she starred in a production of Dames at Sea. When I recognized her one New Year’s Eve at the intersection of Columbus and Broadway and Grant, I considered it a good omen to have seen a star in San Francisco’s version of Times Square.

Shy and insecure, I was overwhelmed by Bob. He was bright, sensitive, and a talented musician. He was also childish, manipulative and an alcoholic. But none of that mattered: he liked me. Bob got invited to parties, and insisted I accompany him. We moved in together and threw festive dinner parties. I thought I should be having fun, but I wasn’t. As his drinking worsened, his jealousy increased, and he became abusive. We fought frequently. I threatened to leave him. At one point I ended up with a broken hand, later a black eye. Always he coaxed me back, promising it would never happen again. I wanted to believe him. I didn’t recognize my role as the typical “battered wife” until long after we broke up.

I noticed another pattern: I seemed to have a propensity for piano players. I slept with Mike, accompanist for Charles Pierce, the “male actress” famous for his impersonations of Jeanette Mac Donald and Bette Davis. Then I had a brief affair with Barry, a pianist who played at the Sea Witch, among other local spots. This was all new for me. I was trying to find my way in the world as a gay man. I didn’t understand that this was new for a lot of other people, too. They all appeared much more adept with this newly found freedom, sexual and otherwise. I stayed on the periphery, uncomfortable and awkward.

Occasionally on the 38 Geary bus I ran into Mary Cleere. Fresh from therapy appointments, her face was tear-stained, and she looked nothing like her stage persona. I couldn’t imagine what this beautiful, talented star needed a therapist for. Even admitting having one seemed chic.

Beach Blanket Babylon moved to Club Olympus on Columbus Avenue before finally landing in Club Fugazi, the old Italian social club on Green Street. Now there was an entire orchestra of poodles. The headdresses had evolved from replicas of Carmen Miranda’s pineapples, bananas, and feathers to spectacular constructions featuring hot-fudge sundaes, Christmas trees, even, in the finale, the San Francisco skyline. Now the star was Snow White singing “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” a longing I could relate to. My pal Jim Reiter was in the show, dressed as a cowboy and popping out of the pocket of an oversize pair of jeans to sing “Me and My Shadow.”

I didn’t see Beach Blanket Babylon all that often. I was busy dancing at Buzzby’s on Polkstrasse and the End-Up, south of Market. After the bars closed, we would often stop at Pam Pam West, on the corner of Geary and Mason. In a corner booth of the twenty-four-hour coffee shop would be Steve, Nancy, and Roberta, sipping sodas and carrying on like teenagers at the malt shop. Brainstorming new ideas for the show, no doubt.

When I did see Beach Blanket Babylon over the years, the hats got even larger and more numerous, and the skits and musical numbers became more outrageous. Rather than spoofing classic movies, the show began parodying current celebrities, ultimately becoming self-referential. The tourists and locals still loved it, but I had moved on.

Bob had introduced me to Bobby Short and Barbara Cook’s interpretations of the American Popular Songbook and the Broadway shows of Stephen Sondheim, and I continued my exposure to cabaret and theater. Bob left Beach Blanket to pursue other activities. Steve and Nancy and Roberta had a nasty falling out over ownership of the show. What had started out as kids having fun ended up in court, and in the papers.

By then I was back in college, getting a master’s degree in library sciences at UC Berkeley. There I met Doug, a French major. We moved to Paris after we both graduated. Returning from our year abroad, Doug and I moved into an apartment in North Beach-one block away, it turned out, from Club Fugazi. When the tenth anniversary rolled around in 1984, I invited Jim and Mary Cleere, who were both living in New York at the time, to stay with us. As an assistant buyer in Macy’s handbag department, Doug was especially thrilled to meet Mary Cleere, whom he recognized as the star of an industrial called “In the Bag.” Then I met Rob.

On May 24, 1994, Jim invited me to the San Francisco Opera House for the twentieth anniversary of Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon. As I sat in the very last row of the balcony, watching one hundred people celebrate the city’s longest-running theatrical revue, I marveled at the extravaganza spreading across the stage. As everyone around me laughed at the singing and dancing and the huge hats, I found myself reminiscing, unprepared for the long parade of characters dancing in my head.

From high in the balcony, I admired guest stars Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, figures from my youth. I remembered them from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club and the “Beach Party” from which Beach Blanket Babylon had adapted its name. I remembered the fresh, fun frolic that Beach Blanket had been, and winced at the excessive exercise it had become. Tears filled my eyes as I realized how it paralleled who I had been and who I had become. The show inadvertently celebrated my own coming of-age as a gay man in San Francisco.

Afterward, in the crowded lobby of the opera house, I noticed a familiar face, a man a little older than myself. As I walked over to greet the good-looking man, I tried to remember his name. I knew we had once worked together.

“Hello, Jim. It’s Daniel,” he said with a smile.

Of course—the shipping and receiving clerk at Scott Martin Books who had inadvertently changed the course of my life. We chatted briefly, then drifted apart. As I stood talking to Jim, I noticed Armistead Maupin across the room.

Just that morning I had made a photocopy of the first installment of Tales of the City, Armistead’s serial novel from the May 24, 1976, San Francisco Chronicle for an exhibit I was preparing at the San Francisco Public Library. I had brazenly called my exhibit “Tales of the City: Lesbians and Gay Men Since Stonewall,” and had written to Armistead requesting permission to use the title. I was too shy to walk over to meet him.

Little did I know that I would soon be chatting on the phone with Armistead, asking him to write a foreword for the book I was writing with Susan Stryker. When I made the cold call, Armistead was charming and gregarious, eventually penning the perfect preamble to Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. Published in April 1996 to coincide with the opening of the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library, it chronicled a history I had been only peripherally part of.

In June of 1995, Steve Silver died. Jim and I attended the memorial service at Grace Cathedral, knowing it would be a production. Apparently, every detail had been planned by Steve. But a strange, surreal quality lay at the foundation of the event. No mention was made of Steve’s sexuality or the fact that he had died of AIDS. His surviving wife, Jo Schuman Silver, played the part of his grieving widow, and Charlotte Maillard Swig, San Francisco’s Chief of Protocol, eulogized a man I had never met. Jim went on to the gravesite service, but I couldn’t take any more of what I perceived as hypocritical obfuscation of the truth.

Sometime later I met playwright, director, and stage manager Allen Sawyer. According to his version of the story, we dated for a year without me knowing it. I wondered why he kept inviting me to lunch and the theater. When Theater on the Square closed in 2003, Allen landed a job managing the box office at Beach Blanket Babylon. I marveled at the coincidence.

Of course I accepted when Allen invited me to a dress rehearsal of the thirtieth anniversary celebration. As I sat upstairs at Club Fugazi, watching the parade of parodies and chapeaux, once again I had an odd perspective on the past, once again I sat alone with my memories.

Today, Steve Silver, Bob, and Randy are all gone, lost to AIDS. My friends Jim and Angela have stopped performing. I’ve lost touch with Judy but occasionally run into Roberta and Greg. Mary Cleere is a well-known cabaret singer in New York. I still manage the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library, one floor away from the Steve Silver Room. I write a regular column about San Francisco for Cabaret Scenes magazine and sometimes interview singers for the Bay Area Reporter, the local gay weekly. Ever supportive, Armistead Maupin blurbed my new book about sites from movies made in San Francisco, Celluloid San Francisco, which includes Club Fugazi because a scene from the Tales of the City series was shot there.

Recently, Allen confided that during a brief visit to the Bay Area, Prince Charles and Camilla were scheduled to attend a performance of Beach Blanket. I might be allowed to attend the special event, to which all San Francisco society and politicos were hoping to be invited. Allen worked for weeks with Jo Silver and Charlotte Maillard Swig Shultz, negotiating guest lists and planning seating charts. The more he regaled me with the inner machinations of the major event, the less interested I became in attending. I realized I had no interest in British royalty, San Francisco society, or the popular attraction that Beach Blanket had become. The popular show with its wacky headdresses would go on without me. The celebrity evening, from all reports, was a success. Beach Blanket Babylon is such part of me that I didn’t need to be there.

Coda: This essay appeared in Love, Castro Street: Reflections of San Francisco (Alyson Books, 2007), which Katherine V. Forrest and I co-edited.

Much has changed in the intervening years. A new version of Tales of the City debuted on Netflix, Armistead and his husband moved to London, Mary Cleere and Angela are now gone. And in Spring 2019, Jo Silver announced that Beach Blanket Babylon would give its last performance on New Year’s Eve.

Allen invited me to attend, and this time I couldn’t resist. I arrived in North Beach early and parked at the San Francisco Art Institute, where I had worked in the late 1970s and again briefly a few years ago. I strolled down Columbus Avenue, past shops I remembered fondly, boarded up storefronts, and new, trendy venues. Past my old Green Street apartment, Molinari’s Deli where I used to buy lunchtime sandwiches to eat in Washington Square, down Grant Avenue, where I helped a friend sell her knit hats at a street fair. So many ghosts.

The closing performance was the hottest ticket in town, and I was excited, if mildly melancholy, to be there. When the show started, I was flooded with memories. But, wait, what was this revisionism? From the stage Willie Brown, Charlotte Shultz, and Michael Tilson Thomas all commended Steve for his vision and talent, suggesting that he single-handedly conceived of every aspect of the show: writer, director, producer, costume designer, creator of hats. Really? No mention of Nancy and Armistead’s collaboration, of the many people who brought their creative talents to the show over the years? I imagined Jim Reiter pop out of the jeans pocket, Nancy in Carmen Miranda and Glinda drag, Mary Cleere shimmy and shake at Savoy Tivoli. It was as if my entire adult life was flashing before me. I recalled Meg MacKay’s stories, the divisive lawsuit, the pervasive pettiness. And the show, which I’d always appreciated for its silly campiness, felt stale, canned, verging on vulgar. By the finale I found myself weeping, not for the end of the show, but for myself, for San Francisco. No “happy trails until we meet again” tonight. Allen, as well as everyone involved with the venerable revue, is out of a job and the City has lost another of its “only in San Francisco” treasures. The show, the city as it once was, and my younger self are now gone forever.