American Times: San Francisco - This one has run and run longest Snow White's odd adventure

American Times SAN FRANCISCO
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EIGHT TIMES a week for the past 25 years, Snow White has set out from San Francisco on a magical adventure around the world in search of a marriageable prince.

Along the way she encounters a bunch of disturbingly priapic bananas, a line of dancing Christmas trees, a bar full of musical rabbis, a Latin lover who closely resembles a bottle of beauty cream, and a whole host of all-singing, all-dancing celebrities.

That, at least, is the world according to Beach Blanket Babylon, the quintessential San Francisco cabaret, and the longest-running music review on earth, which is celebrating its first, wildly successful, quarter century.

Using the Snow White story as an excuse to send up the politicians and showbiz personalities of the day, the show is a camp, deliciously outrageous mix of popular culture and a comic sensibility all its own.

Everyone sports outsize hairpieces and even more outsize hats - from an Italian waitress with a giant pizza on her head to the entire city of San Francisco perched upon the formidable head and shoulders of the longest-serving cast member, Val Diamond.

Beach Blanket Babylon (or BBB for short) - named after a cheesy movie series called Beach Blanket - has been packing the 400-seat Club Fugazi, in the North Beach district of San Francisco, every night since the year it began. Its loyal fans keep coming back for more, not least because the songs and costumes change constantly.

At its 25th anniversary bash a few days ago, San Francisco's dapper mayor, Willie Brown, sent himself up in an emperor's costume. The former US Secretary of State, George Shultz, appeared as Superman.

The show began life as a piece of street performance art improvised by its creator, Steve Silver, and his friends from the city's celebrated American Conservatory Theater. It evolved into a freelance party service called Rent-a-Freak for anyone interested in hiring a dancing tree or a gorilla on roller-skates.

BBB took its first bow at the Savoy Tivoli theatre on 7 June 1974 and moved to the Club Fugazi soon afterwards. It has become as immovable a fixture in the city as the Mousetrap has become in London, loved by locals and tourists alike.

The show has done stints in Las Vegas and turned up on Oscars night. Two years ago it came to London, effortlessly incorporating the Royal Family and Mr Motivator into its routines. But above all, the show belongs to San Francisco, for Steve Silver's great talent was in cultivating the political, artistic and social scene in his home city.

As a result, BBB has become something of a salon for local politicians, philanthropists and socialites - celebrity audience members range from Lauren Bacall to Billie Jean King, from Kurt Vonnegut to the members of Village People, by way of the Kennedy clan, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

Silver died of Aids in 1995, but his spirit has been kept alive with astonishing reverence by his widow and long-time collaborator, Jo Schuman Silver. "He is still very much running this show," she says. "Everything we do is prefaced by the question, `How would Steve do it? Is it worthy of Steve?' "

Mostly, she and the show's director, Kenny Mazlow, haven't had to worry. A remarkably loyal and talented cast by now has a sure feel for what will work and what won't.

As soon as this month's round of anniversary charity shows is over, new additions will include an Austin Powers reference (in acknowledgement of the new film featuring Mike Myers' secret agent) and a send-up of Ricky Martin, the Latino pop heart-throb currently sweeping America.

Not that the basic plotline will change: Snow White will still morph into Madonna and marry a reincarnated Elvis in the end. It couldn't really happen any other way, could it?