Backstage with Beach Blanket Babylon's John Camajani

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“House lights out.”

That simple statement begins John Camajani’s night as stage manager of San Francisco’s “Beach Blanket Babylon.” Those words set in motion a zany live production that has been going on since founder Steve Silver launched the popular revue in June of 1974. On March 6, Camajani will hang up his clipboard and retire after having worked for Beach Blanket Babylon since 1979. He retires on his 70th birthday.

John Camajani lives in Sonoma, having moved here in 1999 after he and his wife Felicity drove up for the day and fell in love with the place. They raised their three children here: Dan, Jenny and Joseph. Daughter-in-law Julia and grandaughters Olive and Daphne round out Camajani’s supportive family.

For the past two decades, he has been making the trip to Club Fugazi in the colorful North Beach neighborhood five days a week, arriving there mid-afternoon, and leaving sometime around 11 p.m.

“I like to get here about an hour before anybody else to collect my thoughts and make sure everything is organized,” Camajani said, during an interview in the basement work and storage area of Club Fugazi.

“People tell me that I am really going to miss this. I haven’t done anything else for 40 years,” Camajani says.

Camajani is not the only Sonoma resident who made the trek across the Golden Gate Bridge every day. Sonoma resident Ellen Toscano was a cast member of BBB for 10 years. Sonoma residents Steve Salgo and Bill Keck are current cast members and play in the house band. Salgo serves as a horn player, and Keck is the musical director and conductor. “I have been here only 25 years,” Keck remarked. “I am not in John’s class.”

Sonoma resident Val Diamond is an ex-BBB star. She and her husband Salgo made the drive to North Beach, where she participated in over 10,000 performances. Sonoma Valley resident Paulino Duran was also a cast member for many years. The late Steve Silver also lived in Sonoma.

Other current county-resident cast members of BBB are Doug Magpiong and Kelly Brandenburg, who both live in Santa Rosa.

In a Facebook post, Camajani’s daughter Jenny said, “I’ve watched my dad going to work and coming home late for as long as I can remember. He has been a great example to me for what hard work and dedication really means and looks like.” Later she added, “Steve Silver would be really proud of my dad with all the hard work and dedication he has put into working for his company for 40 years.”

Toscano fondly remembers working with Camajani, or “Big Daddy,” as she calls him. “He is so thoughtful and really funny. He loves to bring smiles to people’s faces.” Asked about his impending retirement, Toscano said, “I am so happy for him, we all love him so much.”

Beach Blanket Babylon producer Jo Schuman Silver said, “John is one of the most important people ever to be in the show. He runs it like no other.” She pleaded: “Tell him not to leave.”

In what can only be described as an understatement, Camajani says: “I just deal with the backstage area.”

What he actually does is orchestrate the movements of 10 singing and dancing actors, two costume workers and the 90 costume changes they execute, two stage hands, a four piece band, and the light and sound crew. That is just during the 90 minutes of the show.

Those 90 minutes are unbelievably action packed. Camajani has a place to stand stage right. Cast member JM Appeleby calls it the “Black Hole”, but Camajani is rarely found actually standing there. During a recent performance, Camajani stood still for no more than about 15 seconds. That’s because the stage manager is “pulling flats,” opening and closing curtains, wiping down and placing microphones in their strategic locations and cracking world class backstage quips.

His backstage area during the show is a cross between a bustling restaurant kitchen and a NASCAR pitstop. There is a blur of activity – no motion is wasted, everything used is returned to its place, and every second counts.

“7 p.m. – warm-up time.” Camajani’s recorded voice, or “dulcet toned voice” as Camajani prefers, booms throughout the backstage area, green room, orchestra pit and dressing rooms. The announcement tells all concerned that things are kicking into gear. Soon the cast gathers to ready their bodies and voices.

“Everyone pretty much warms up at their own pace,” Camajani says. Despite this casual statement, all are softly singing in unison, while they stretch and begin to focus on their parts in the production.

He also oversees the theater, from cast substitutions to new set construction to plumbing repair. Just before show time, Camajani returns to his upstairs office.

“How many times have I climbed these stairs?” he asked rhetorically. “About a gazillion.” His office might only be 40 square feet, but it contains all he needs to run the ship. There is his computer and some office supplies, a phone and walkie talkie, calendar, and a black-and-white photo from his first days on the crew. There is no window.

He remembers one year the cast gave him a framed photo of a lovely landscape to act as his window. But it is gone. No time to gaze and ponder for this stage manager.

Upon retirement, he is looking forward to spending time with his family. He speaks of driving for Lyft after retirement, a great job for him, as he is a happy and loquacious fellow.

Camajani discovered theater while in school when he was part of a production of “A Christmas Carol.”

“It sparked my interest in theater,” he said. “I had such a blast doing it.” He started to work backstage at a few theater houses and later landed a gig as assistant stage manager on a cruise ship. There he met Felicity, who was working on board in the beauty salon. “We sailed the world together before we got married,” Camajani said.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” he said about landing a job at Beach Blanket Babylon. “In a bar around the corner.” That’s where a friend told him about an opening with BBB, and he jumped at the chance. Now, some 40 years later, he oversees a seamless production.

He grew wistful as he told about the time the actor Sidney Poitier was in the house and came backstage after the show. “He walked through the door and came right up to me, shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Great job. I had a good time.’ It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Other career highlights for Camajani include taking the show to London for two weeks in 1997. They played before the royal family and impressed the locals with their unique brand of cultural and topical humor. They also traveled to Maui for a performance that lasted, by design, for 15 minutes. Camajani fondly remembers the fancy Hawaiian hotel and relaxing by the pool.

But watching him work backstage, it is clear that Camajani loves his work and his role with Beach Blanket Babylon, no matter where he is. He is the elder statesmen, the confidant, the quiet leader, the teacher. Camajani is revered by cast and crew.

During a quiet moment on the set, this writer whispered to him, “You’re the big daddy.”

He leaned in and said, with a gleam in his eye, “I AM the big daddy.”

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