Carol Doda Topless at the Condor

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

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Years ago, I was in San Francisco on business with a few hours to kill. I found myself at the corner of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach. Looking up, I saw a huge marquee picturing a bikini-clad blonde. The sign identified the joint as the Condor, a famous strip club. There’s a historic marker at that spot today.

Over the door, it promised a performance by Carol Doda. What the heck, with time to kill, I went inside and watched Doda do her dance.

Carol Doda was the first American entertainer to perform topless. A daring act, she became “a tourist attraction second only to the Golden Gate Bridge.”

An attractive blonde with an ample bosom, Doda was a popular cocktail waitress at the Condor, when in 1964 the club’s publicist, “Big” Davy Rosenberg, suggested she wear a “monokini.” That was the topless swimsuit by designer Rudi Gernreich, a cause célèbre at the time. Being a carefree, part-time student at San Francisco’s Art Institute, she agreed.

That caused quite a sensation and many imitators – but Carol Doda was the first. And a big success.

Needless to say, arrests and lawsuits followed. However, the court found “Whether acts … are lewd and dissolute depends not on any individual’s interpretation or personal opinion, but on the consensus of the entire community ….”

In 1969 Doda pioneered a bottomless act – until a law was passed in 1972, forbidding total nude dancing in public places that served liquor.

Over the years, Carol Doda attracted many fans, ranging from Frank Sinatra to Walter Cronkite. (A dirty old man, Uncle Walter once complained to me about being in the kitchen getting a beer when Janet Jackson flashed her boobs at the Super Bowl).

To enhance her performance, Doda got silicon injections, increasing her breasts from a modest 34 to an impressive 44. They were often called “the new Twin Peaks of San Francisco.”

Carol Doda’s act began with a grand piano being lowered from the ceiling by hydraulic motors. She would be on top of the piano dancing the Twist, the Swim, the Fug, or the Watusi. She performed twelve shows nightly so the club could turn the customers.

Doda’s story is revealed in a new documentary, “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor.” Directed by Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker, it tells about the birth of topless dancing in San Francisco in 1964. You can still catch it at Tropic Cinema.

Carol Doda became an icon of the ‘60s. She was profiled in my pal Tom Wolfe’s 1969 book “The Pumphouse Gang”; appeared in the 1968 film Head,” created by Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson; and had a role in a “Golden Boy” parody with Annette Funicello.

Doda eventually retired from stripping in the 1980s and started her own rock band called the Lucky Stiffs. Later, she opened her own lingerie shop.

“It was never just about being topless anyway,” Carol Doda said. “I always just wanted to give people a good time, have fun. Nothing really dirty – just fun.”

Email Shirrel: srhoades@aol.com

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