Prologue: Chapter One

The Last Production

San Francisco is unique; 
    if you were born there, you’re special, 
    if you live there, you’re lucky,
    if you die there, you are blessed . . .

The most celebrated theatre impresario in San Francisco, Steve Silver, had planned every detail of his own funeral, from the multicolored streamers dissecting the City’s most famous cathedral down its hallowed aisle to the four rousing musical numbers which held together the service. In his typical comic flourish, there was a floral arrangement over the altar in the shape of a Christmas tree and topped with a Santa cap. My brother never left anything to chance, least of all his final theatrical send-off. In a city of top-notch narcissists and histrionic drama queens, only Steve Silver could pull off a tribute to himself of such magisterial scale. 

Steve’s life story had been cinema-worthy, and those who knew him understood that his rise to fame and riches was more than meant to be; it was pre-destined. Steve’s crowning achievement in life had been the outrageous, ultra-outré revue show, Beach Blanket Babylon, which had already run for twenty-one straight years and showed no sign of losing any of its fabulousness. Just as London had the Mousetrap, with its decades of continued performances, San Francisco had the immortal Beach Blanket Babylon: full of burlesque humor, satires of pop culture icons, old and new standards, spirited cabaret anthems, and massive set-piece headgear. The distinctly San Francisco attitude of the show was its secret sauce, as the show was a beacon of the gay cognoscenti as well as mainstream audiences from around the world. 

There was only one place that Steve Silver could have held his service, only one church set high enough, loaded with enough local significance, symbolic enough of his proud achievements. Grace Cathedral was the crown jewel of Nob Hill, the historic center of power in this old gold rush town, and it proved the ultimate stage for Steve’s last campaign. It struck me how expertly Steve had always walked the fine line between honoring the sacred and mocking it. At times like this, during this funereal extravaganza, it was impossible to tell which he was doing—possibly both.

I sat in the front row next to my brother’s wife of six months, Josephine-Epstein- Schuman Silver. Jo clutched my hand tightly as the music subsided and I wondered if it was to hold me back from any unscripted movement on my part or to show the public façade of family unity she had carefully crafted.

My son, Nick, just fourteen, walked up to the pulpit to read from the Gospel of John. He was nervous, I could tell, but spoke with confidence. Though we hadn’t discussed it, I knew Steve had grasped completely that his nephew and nieces were part of his legacy, and the fact that he invited Nick to represent his family in this ceremony was a move laden with meaning. I, for one, was too much of a loose cannon to be trusted with such a role. . I stayed put in the pews, my digits squeezed blue by my sister-in-law’s pygmy hand as she scanned the crowd for VIPs. 

To anyone who knew my brother, Steve the unknowable artist, the authorship of this particular “show” was obvious. “He wrote the entire scenario for his memorial service, I’m sure of it,” Steve’s friend Donald Magnin told The San Francisco Examiner later that day. “He even designed his own tombstone. He said to my wife, Elaine, ‘The only thing I left off was: “For more information, call the Box Office”.’

Kenny Maslow, Steve’s protégé, now at the lectern, surveyed the crowd and was visibly counting the audience, “Let me see here…”

Turning towards heaven, he announced, “Well, Steve, looks like you did well. It’s standing room only.” Laughter released from the assembly. 

“You know, at the end, his biggest fear, his biggest question, was ‘Can I fill Grace Cathedral?’” 

The answer was a packed house of more than 2,500 and another 2,000 outside: celebrities, socialites, politicos, press, and of course the throngs that had been swept away by his hit. To my right sat my two daughters and ex-wife. In the rows behind there was an array of famous and near-famous faces: Tommy Tune, the legendary Broadway song and dance man, the Hollywood Reporter’s George Christy, Don Novello (aka Father Guido Sarducci), fashion kingpin Wilkes Bashford, Mayor Frank Jordon, and socialite Anne Getty. Across the aisle sat many of the stars of Beach Blanket Babylon. To the right were my friends, Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie, of rock bands Santana and Journey, sitting against the wall shooting me cynical, knowing smiles. I nodded in appreciation and turned back to the dais. Mazlow continued dutifully, tears streaming down his cheeks, saying he was proud to be part of Steve’s legacy, one “that will continue in the greatest city of them all, San Francisco.”

With these words, Steve’s diva extraordinaire, Val Diamond, began singing, torch-song style, “San Francisco, open your golden gates…” It was the signature song that Beach Blanket Babylon had closed with since opening some 4,000 odd shows ago. And it was with this familiar farewell that it really hit me: my brother was dead.

Steve had been so bright a personality and Beach Blanket Babylon was so enormous a punctuation mark that the hidden, non-public details of his life faded into the background unnoticed. This was how he had wanted it, to be the architect of a public persona undiluted by private truths and a dark side fueled by pretentious greed. 

Some of the obituaries had spelled out some aspects of this, though in muted tones. The highlights of his life were flattened out as if they were bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation: his homosexuality, AIDS, and his strained yet mostly unspecified family relationships. But, of course, nothing the critics said cracked the inner world of this enigmatic man, and the soppy sentimental eulogies served only to feed the myth. 

They painted the picture of a familiar archetype, a brilliant kid from a working class family who leapfrogged his way to the top of his league, a sort of San Francisco Ari Gold, Jeremy Piven’s character in Entourage, struggling with rivals and naysayers. He transcended them all by being true to himself and, after a mythic death scene, became a folk hero to some, a saint to many. 

But how would the fairy-tale read if people knew that Prince Charming was actually a pampered queen’s boy whose mother nurtured Oedipal devotion in her son? In fact, seeing Steve pull her precious wedding ring off her finger on her deathbed inspired me to tell this very strange tale of a very strange family. My role in the story was that of the bad boy who wrote a song for and traveled with a world class band, who couldn’t help but fuck up at every turn, whose first, precious son died in his arms, and was left holding an empty bag of mumbles and dreams in the end.

Later that day, at the cemetery, I watched as Steve’s coffin was lowered into the grave. Still numb, I looked around me at the tear-streaked faces, the eyes closed in prayer, the handkerchiefs blocking breath-catching sobs. What was wrong with me? Why could I feel nothing but anger? When I turned back to the internment, Kenny Maslow had donned a red velvet yarmulke and had pulled out a traditional Hebrew mourner’s Kaddish. He began to intone the sacred words of farewell. Jo was next to him, looking at him and nodding.

But this wasn’t right! Steve had insisted that they stick to the script, and the script had scrupulously avoided Jewish traditions. Still, Steve’s widow, Jo, would have the final word. Half an hour later, saying her thank yous, she told another Chronicle reporter: “We decided to do Kaddish at the last minute. Steve didn’t even know about it.” She laughed. “He probably would have killed us.”

And that was when my first tears began to fall.