Many moons ago, a San Francisco institution, Beach Blanket Babylon, celebrated its 20th anniversary in the San Francisco Opera House. The evening was everything I had hoped for, but it contained one big surprise, in what was perhaps the simplest and most heartfelt moment of the show.
Suddenly the raucous audience was hushed to silence. It was as if we had all been transported, through some race/genetic memory, back to prehistoric “cave man” days when our ancestors sat transfixed watching a shaman create shadow pictures on the wall.
I had seen Beach Blanket Babylon about a dozen times. The show is a cross between a satirical cabaret and Carmen Miranda on acid … a witty show with over the top costumes (some headdresses are about 20 feet high), satirical lyrics and lots of local insider jokes. Each performance ends with a show-stopping version of “San Francisco”, sung by a woman with a “hat” the size of a Rose Parade float.
The 20th anniversary fund raiser at the Opera House encouraged attendees to come in either formal or “beach” attire. Naturally, I came in flip flops, swim trunks and a robe. When would be the next time you could dress like that in an Opera House? The lobby had huge piles of sand, artificial palm trees, and oiled down body builders (male and female) to add to the festive mood.
The show was long, with all of the show stopping numbers that had become popular over 20 years. Each costume and production number seemed more elaborate than the last. But there was one prodution in the show that literally silenced the audience; it was a profound experience I will never forget.
Beach Blanket Babylon began in the early ’70s as a street performance, with very simple and silly costumes. One of the first characters in the show was a dancing Christmas tree. The 20th anniversary had reunited many former cast members. Suddenly, all of the color and mardi gras atmosphere was gone. The stage was light by a lone rehearsal light, and three little dancing Christmas trees came out to do the simple routine that the show had started with.
The back of the huge Opera stage had three perfectly defined shadows of Christmas trees dancing this simple dance. Suddenly the raucous audience was hushed to silence. It was as if we had all been transported, through some race/genetic memory, back to prehistoric “cave man” days when our ancestors sat transfixed watching a shaman create shadow pictures on the wall. The brief time watching these dancing trees and their shadows somehow united us all in a very naked, basic aspect of our humanity. The elaborate trappings of the Opera House (and most of the show) seemed to melt away as we focused on this simple, primal image.
What did I come away with? Sometimes the most effective and memorable means of presentation is the simplest. Sometimes, black and white works better than color. Sometimes silent images work better than performances with dialogue. Sometimes something as simple and “inane” as a dancing Christmas tree can mean worlds more than a huge production number.
It was wonderful having the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in an Opera box wearing casual beachwear. But what I will always remember about that night is being united with over 3,000 strangers, transfixed by three simple moving shadows on the wall.
For the holidays, I offer my favorite holiday poem, “Little Tree” by e.e. cummings: