“Little surfer, little one
Made my heart come all undone
Do you love me, do you, surfer girl?
Surfer girl, my little surfer girl.”
-The Beach Boys
Everyone remembers paradise, the idyllic garden where we were happy once and can never reclaim except through the golden lens of memory. Mine was Malibu Beach in 1957, the same year a screenwriter noticed his daughter was spending a lot of time with boys who rode surfboards – surfing was then a boys only sport, and she was dying to join. The father listened to his daughter’s stories and wrote about them in a novel called Gidget (a name he invented by compounding girl with midget). Two years later Gidget became a movie with Sandra Dee and then a TV show with Sally Field; the two greatest of many, many Gidgets. And now this little girl is a cultural relic, emblematic of a lost era of innocence and frivolity and dumbass happiness. Gidget was, as her movie trailer proclaimed, “delightfully juvenile without being delinquent.” Exactly so, whether front projected, wide eyed and excited, brushing her blond bangs back riding a wave, or a young teenager tucking herself into bed in a blue frilly nightgown, asking Mom if she’s weird because she doesn’t like the idea of dating boys who start smooching and pawing. Gidget, of course, was an idiot—but also budding, cute and absurdly adorable.
The playwright/actor Charles Busch must have thought so too, since he wrote his own Gidget play, partly because he wanted to play Gidget himself. In his version Gidget is called Chicklet and can be, should be, played by a guy. She’s still the same flat–chested teenager, the adorable nerd who thinks only of surfing—well, at least most of the time. Busch gave his Gidget a few extra dimensions; in fact he gave her a multiple personality disorder so she’s capable of being displaced by a woman named Ann Bowman, who dreams of becoming the Empress of World Domination and setting up concentration camps for her enemies, someone who is far more Bette Davis than Sandra Dee. He called his play Gidget Goes Psychotic, but then, for fear of copyright violations, he changed the title to Psycho Beach Party, thus combining 1960’s slasher movies with beach movies, parodying both.
You don’t have to have grown up at California drive–ins or surfing beaches to love this play, though it helps. Busch has a terrific ear for the language of both genres, and an expert eye for their details. But all this is merely extra icing on a fabulous cake. Psycho Beach Party is the best kind of parody, the kind that loves what it mocks, so that it refreshes what it exposes, allowing you to have your cake and eat it too.
The beach is one of the magic spaces on our good earth. There’s something about this narrow ribbon of sand between earth and water that transforms all those who come there—and everyone comes there. The beach accepts all bodies, shapes and sizes. It is, in the best sense, disarming. The beach is a public space where everyone can be just themselves: lovers cuddle, old people stare and doze, children run and dig, all within a few feet of each other, yet everyone feels entirely themselves and free. There is really nothing to do at the beach; it’s there for sunning, strutting, dreaming and playing , and in play we freely express and reveal ourselves. The beach is our great democratic equalizer, and our great preserver of freedom and purity. There’s nothing like it in the world, especially when the beach is in Southern California where boys hang ten and young Gidgets bounce around and then hang ten too.
Psycho Beach Party reclaims this paradise even while subverting it. There’s something so lovely and innocent about the surfing teenagers of Psycho Beach Party, who are being transformed by time and forces beyond their control (all former teenagers know how this went). But, as the poet John Donne wrote, “that this thoroughly true Paradise may be thought/ I have the serpent brought.” So Busch imports the serpent of child abuse and family dysfunction as a lower layer in his trifle, and alchemically all this too is disarmed and converted to play: once we learn that Chicklet can also be Ann Bowman we can’t wait for this little Miss Nerdy Kent to turn into Superbitch—it’s crazy but it’s gloriously empowering. Now surround our sometimes endearing sometimes psycho heroine with a courageous Nietzsche quoting bookworm, a stuck up beach bunny, a spooky mom, a super glamorous B–movie actress, and some hunky beefcake and what do we have? We have one wild party and one hilarious play.
Roll out the woodie, pack your boards, get out of that mine, and on down to the point. There’s a moon out tonight and a fabulous Luau coming up. But beware! The moon is full, it’s nearly Halloween. There’s some spooky stuff going on. People at night on the beach have been knocked out, only to wake up in the morning to find their bodies have been shaved—entirely shaved. Who is the demon barber of Malibu? Will Chicklet survive her mom and her many alter egos? What’s up with Yo Yo and Provoloney? Will the great Kanaka repeat his feat of surfing giant waves in handcuffs? Don’t worry, cool your jets and just give in to the feeling, Daddy–O. If you do, I promise you too will again find paradise and smile all the way home.