No less a San Franciscan institution than the Golden Gate Bridge or the cable cars is Val Diamond, the heartbeat for thirty years of the world’s longest running musical revue, Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon.
Valeria Adriana Maria Francesca Diamond was born, the daughter of a Jewish father and Italian immigrant mother, in Oakland in 1951 and raised in Castro Valley. Attracted to the theatre from a young age, she started her acting career in high school, playing the lead role in Medea and Anna in The King and I. For the next eight years she was lead singer in a rock band called the Sounds of Joy that toured the country.
Becoming tired of life on the road she accepted an invitation to join the cast of Beach Blanket Babylon. Despite initial reservations that a zany topical revue in which she had to wear increasingly gargantuan hats whilst attempting to hold a musical number, did not fit with her ambitions to be a serious actress and musician, she became one of its most enduring and beloved icons. Her first of around 11,500 performances came on 17th January 1979 when her roles included that of a singing waitress with a giant Coca-Cola bottle on her head and a singing envelope exhibiting just legs and face.
She made many other parts her own during her thirty year residence, including her favourite, a French whore, Jewish mother, cowgirl, Japanese maid, Marie Antoinette, the Singing Nun, the Queen and a tap dancing Yankee Doodle Ghandi.
But it should not be forgotten that the outlandish costumes and often surreal scenes were not able to mask a great voice too. Janet Lynn Roseman, in her book Beach Blanket Babylon - A Hats-Off Tribute to San Francisco’s Most Extraordinary Musical Revue, referred to her as the “queen of the belters” and John F. Kennedy Jnr exclaimed ”the one with husky voice, boy, can she sing”. Amongst her show stealers were “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, “Lili Marlene”, “City Lights” and “Coroner Man”.
The image, however, that audiences will most readily conjure up of Diamond, is of, as Miss San Francisco, her gliding serenely onto the stage at the end of the show in her magnificent, three hundred pound San Francisco landmarks hat to lead them in joyous renditions of Happy Trails to You and San Francisco (pictured above and contained in video at end of this article).
Perhaps her most treasured night was a seventeen minute Beach Blanket Babylon performance for Queen Elizabeth II at the Davies Symphony Hall in 1983. At the end she appeared wearing an enormous London hat, containing replicas of Buckingham Palace (complete with marching guards), the Tower of London and Big Ben which opened to reveal photographs of the Royal Family. The Duke of Edinburgh is reputed to have been particularly entranced by this moment, and the Queen claimed that visiting San Francisco was the highlight of her trip to the United States.
She also played before the Prince of Wales, Rock Hudson, Rudolph Nuryev and Mikhail Baryshnikov as well as countless American public figures and celebrities, and was invariably in the show’s welcome party for visiting dignitaries. When the 1989 World Series resumed at Candlestick Park following the Loma Prieta earthquake, she led a singalong of San Francisco, wearing a giant (no pun intended) baseball themed hat. More recently, she sang the national anthem at the Giant’s new home of Pacific Bell Park (now AT & T Park) (below).
Mindful that the huge hats she wore might have diverted the audience’s attention from the skill in her performance, she derived immense satisfaction as she explained in Roseman’s book: “when you really feel fine is when you’ve sung some touching ballad wearing something crazy on her head, and you’ve gotten the audience to stop laughing and listen to you sing, and then they give you an ovation. That’s when it feels great!”.
Even when surgery in 2001 to treat nodes on her vocal chord nerves threatened her career, she was back onstage within five months.
Diamond’s departure from Beach Blanket Babylon has never been adequately explained and provoked much anger and bewilderment amongst fans. Her final performance was on 23rd September 2009 when she knew was leaving, although it was not announced to the public for more than a week afterwards.
Nonetheless, producer Jo Schuman Silver, widow of the show’s creator Steve Silver, paid tribute to her by saying that she was “one of the most versatile and professional performers to ever grace the stage at Club Fugazi“, and that Beach Blanket’s long running success was “in part, due to Val’s immeasurable contributions”.
She married the company’s trumpet player, Steve Salgo, in 1987 and still lives in Sonoma.
The following short video gives a flavour of the show and features some iconic Diamond moments: