Beach Blanket Babylon’s Club Fugazi

By Damon Lewis clubfugaziIn the heart of the North Beach region of San Francisco there is a cultural phenomenon known as Beach Blanket Babylon. Beach Blanket Babylon is a theatre group that has been running for over 34 years here in San Francisco and is as much a part of the city’s culture as is the Golden Gate Bridge and the fog that envelopes the city every night and burns away in the morning. This San Francisco tradition takes place inside the famous Club Fugazi, a four hundred-seat venue that has been dedicated solely to presenting the public with the Beach Blanket Babylon show year in and year out. While the fabled “beat” generation of such heroes as William S. Burroghs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Lawrance Ferlinghetti no longer haunt these back streets on the north-east tip of the San Francisco peninsula; Club Fugazi stands as an alter to their influence and also as a shrine to the great Italian immigration that took place in this part of San Francisco as far back as the Gold Rush era. Club Fugazi was generously donated to the City of San Francisco by Mr. John Fugazi, founder of an Italian company which was eventually taken over by A.P. Gianni and turned into the Transamerica World Copration. The Club Fugazi was built for his banking empire sat unused until it was gladly picked up by the initial brains behind the just forming Beach Blanket Babylon crowd. Just prior to after the sale of Club Fugazi, the great “beat writers” of our time stormed upon the location and read into the night their various existential prose and poetry until the early morning sun crept over the looming Sierra Nevada mountains to the east. Perhaps the most well-known reading that took place at Club Fugazi was Allen Ginsberg’s infamous poem “Howl.;” “Noon in desolate Fugazi’s, Listening to the crack.” Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” sent shock waves all across white America for it’s unsavory literature and awoke a whole generation that would gently coalesce into the “hippie” genertation many years latter. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s Club Fugazi was a common venue for poetry readings by most members of the flourishing “beat” community. This notoriety no doubt laid the foundation for what was to come several years later. Beach Blanket Babylon has been going strong at Club Fugazi for over 35 years and is considered by many to be a part of what makes San Francisco the great city that it is. It seems a right of passage for many in San Francisco to grace the floors of Club Fugazi and take in a performance of Beach Blanket Babylon, and many enjoy the show more than one time a year. When attending a show, it is not uncommon to brush shoulders with many of the San Francisco business and political elite. Regular attendees such as Mayor Gavin Newsom and his wife Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, Mayor Willie Brown, San Francisco District Attorney Kamela Harris, Paul Pelosi, Danielle Steele, and San Francisco Giants managing general partner Peter Magowan have all been known to take in a show whenever possible, as well as many elite figures from across the country and the World. Perhaps two of the more distinguished guests at Club Fugazi in recent years were Charles George, Prince of Wales and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwalla. In 2005 both attended a showing of Beach Blanket Babylon and were reportedly thrilled by the performance that occurred at Club Fugazi that evening. This seems proof that everyone who visits San Francisco should probably consider attending a showing, whether blue-collar or blue blood. Another great reason to make your way down to North Beach and Club Fugazi is the concentration of  many great restaurants around the area of Beach Blanket Babylon if your desire happens to be grabbing something to eat before or after the show. North Beach is well know to be the Italian Culinary Mecca of San Francisco, so you can expect many Italian-themed eateries spread throughout this quaint little neighborhood. Within just a block of Club Fugazi are many reputable restaurants that fit into any budget or satisfy any craving. One of my favorite places to grab a quick bite in North Beach, and all of San Francisco for that matter, is a just a few blocks from Club Fugazi called La Boulange. La Boulange is a rustic, French inspired Café that serves awe inspiring blended coffees, an impressive selection of artisan sweet and savory pastries and soups and sandwich combinations for a very reasonable price. And since this is a café environment, there is obviously no need for reservations or dedication of an entire afternoon for dining. La Boulange is located at 543 Columbus Avenue just around the corner from Club Fugazi and primarily serves breakfast and late lunch. If simple café food is not what you are looking for before or after Beach Blanket Babylon, Calzone’s at 430 Columbus Avenue may be a bit more to your liking. With a very expansive menu offering everything from calzones, pizzas, salads and pasta, you are unlikely to not find something appetizing at this San Francisco eatery. If these simpler establishments are not up to par with what you are looking for, Joe Dimaggio’s Italian Chophouse at 601 Union Street may be more to your liking. Although commonly criticized for being a bit over-priced, one would be hard-pressed to find a decent restaurant in San Francisco that does not share the same problem. And with it’s amazingly close proximity to Club Fugazi, the extra price is worth the convenience if you are eating in conjunction with seeing Beach Blanket Babylon. Lead by the culinary skills of Executive Chef Brian Moran, the kitchen team at Joe Dimmagio’s consistently produces an eclectic mix of traditional Italian fare with an American twist. Dishes such as the Veal Braciole and the Scampi Classico with Braised Spinach certainly make for a great pre-show meal, and the wine list has over 125 selections which are paired surprisingly well by the attentive wait-staff. Other restaurants like Cinecitta at 663 Union Street and The Stinking Rose at 325 Columbus Avenue are North Beach favorites, and their close proximity to Club Fugazi make them very conducive to a night of dinner and theater. As any San Franciscan can attest, one of the most frustrating parts of living in The City is the daily challenge of trying to find a place to park. While some neighborhoods like The Panhandle or The Mission are possible to find a place to park the car, finding a spot in places like Russian Hill or the Financial District are more challenging than a Masters Degree dissertation. Luckily, the area around Club Fugazi is ripe with public parking facilities. There are three parking lots on Green Street as well as two more on Powell Street. Also, there are two parking garages on Vallejo Street as well as the distant possibility of landing a public spot “off-street.” And if like many Bay Area residents you choose not to drive in the City, the Powell/Mason Cable Car line runs very near the area of Club Fugazi. Just be sure you don’t refer to it as a “trolley” or risk the inevitable reprimand by the bell-ringing conductor. There is also the option of taking the MUNI buses, as the 9x, 20, 30 and 45 bus-lines all run within a few blocks to the door of Club Fugazi, where they have appropriately renamed Green Street Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard to honor the shows’ accomplishment as a staple institution in San Francisco. Beach Blanket Babylon has been going strong for over 35 years, and it is certainly no coincidence that it is the longest running musical review in the world. By focusing on the many spectacles of contemporary modern culture, the show has remained fresh throughout the years and has continued evolving along with the environment it chooses to play with. Since the construction of Club Fugazi, it has remained a fixture of its community and no doubt will continue to be for years to come.