San Francisco can claim more than its share of personalities who have changed the course of society and popular culture, and Carol Ann Doda ranks high on that list.
She was born on 29 August 1937 in Solano County, California, and grew up in Napa. Her parents divorced when she was three. She dropped out of school and became a cocktail waitress and lounge entertainer at aged 14.
Described as a “lovely, busty and curvaceous blonde bombshell” she achieved fame, or notoriety depending upon your point of view, on 19 June 1964 at the Condor Club at the corner of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach, by dancing in a topless swimsuit, the first recognised entertainer of the era to do so, and spawning similar exhibitionism across the country. In fact, within 48 hours, the neighbouring bars had also gone topless, and at one point, 28 clubs along the Broadway strip were advertising bare-breasted dancers.
Her act, which she performed twelve times nightly, “began with a grand piano lowered from the ceiling by hydraulic motors; Doda would be atop the piano dancing. She descended from a hole in the ceiling. She go-go danced the Swim to a rock and roll combo headed by Bobby Freeman as her piano settled on the stage. From the waist up Doda emulated aquatic movements like the Australian crawl. She also performed the Twist, the Frug and the Watusi“, all dances familiar to those of us growing up in the sixties.
She later spent $20,000 on enhancing her bust size from 34B to 44DD through a total of 44 (“just a coincidence” she said) direct silicone injections (now illegal because the plastic tends to migrate), earning her breasts the nickname of “the new Twin Peaks of San Francisco”. She had them insured for $1.5 million with Lloyd’s of London, but never had recourse to claim on it. In his 1968 book, The Pump House Gang, Tom Wolfe referred to them as “two incredible mammiform protrusions, no mere pliable mass of feminine tissues and fats there but living arterial sculpture – viscera spigot – great blown-up aureate morning glories”.
Such was her popularity that delegates from the 1964 Republican National Convention flocked to see her and, four years later, she was given a film role as Sally Silicone in Head, created by Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, and featuring The Monkees. She appeared in another six films. The U.S.S. Kittyhawk aircraft carrier named her Pinup Girl of the Year and she even received a Business Person of the Year award from Harvard.
Doda created a further seismic impact in the entertainment industry on 3 September 1969 by dancing completely naked at the Condor, though she was obliged to reinstate the bottom part of her costume in 1972 after the California alcoholic beverages commission prohibited nude dancing in establishments that served alcohol.
She explained that “even in liberal San Francisco, what I did was technically a crime. The cops raided. The owner and I ended up in the slammer. I was back slamming on stage in two shakes of a stripper’s tail”.
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in October 2011 Doda stated that she only caused a scandal “about a year and a half after I started, because the cops came in and said no more bottomless unless you move the tables back 5 feet. I had to explain to the people we can’t do bottomless and topless because the health department folks are afraid our pubic hairs will jump into your drinks”.
As a witness during the trial of two completely naked dancers at the pink pussy Kat in Orangevale, California, arrested for “indecent exposure and lewd and dissolute conduct”, she performed to live song and dance numbers and a 17 minute movie entitled Guru You, at the Chuck Landis Largo Club in Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, which was set up as a temporary courtroom. Cross-examined by a deputy district attorney, Carol, dressed in a red miniskirt with blue piping and beige boots, explained that her act, rather than being pornographic in itself, represented a a satire on it, “to show people the humourous side of sex”.
She also became a spokesperson for Channel 36, now known as KGSC-TV, in San Jose when, filmed from the waist up and wearing clothes, she’d intone “you’re watching the perfect 36” (there was no channel 44 at the time).
Doda returned to dancing at the Condor three times a night in 1982, at the age of 45, performing to blues, ragtime and rock ‘n’ roll, dressed “in a gold gown, traditional elbow-length gloves, and a diaphanous-wraparound. Her clothing was removed until she wore only a G-string and the wraparound. In the final portion she was attired in only the wraparound. Her small body looked slimmer without clothes which was emphasised by the dwarfing effect of her breasts”.
Despite the notoriety she earned by being the first dancer to break the topless / bottomless taboos in the U.S., her act was rarely regarded as sleazy. As she herself said: “I always just wanted to give people a good time, have fun. Nothing really dirty – just fun”.
Larry Inla, who spent most of 1966 playing in a band called Stark Naked and the Car Thieves at the Galaxy, a couple of blocks from the Condor, reiterates this point, recalling that, thanks in no small part (sic) to Carol, “it was a fantastic place at an incredible time” and that the “ambience was more naughty-but-nice, in a sophisticated European city kind of way, not a sleazy, dirty kind of way”.
Retiring from stripping later in her mid forties (“you can’t go on stripping forever”), she formed her own rock band, the Lucky Stiffs, with whom she played for several years.
Doda now runs the highly respectable “Carol Doda’s Champagne and Lace Lingerie Boutique” in a pretty courtyard at 1850 Union Street in Cow Hollow, which she opened after San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, who was a clear fan, announced in the paper that she was going to do so. She specialises in “plus” sizes and waits on customers personally. She takes particular pride in being recommended by Macy’s, Nordstrom, Sacs, Neiman-Marcus and bridal stores who can’t cater for larger sizes.
Well into the new millennium, she has continued to put ten years of voice training to good effect by singing, whilst fully clothed, club standards like All of Me at a variety of North Beach clubs, including Amante’s and Enrico’s Supper Club. In late 2011, at the age of 74, she was still performing at Gino and Carlo’s Bar on Green Street in North Beach, where she had been for around twelve years.
And finally, in a city with high foodie credentials, she has been truly immortalised in having a gourmet hamburger named after her at Bill’s Place at 2315 Clement at 24th in the Outer Richmond! Unsurprisingly, it consists of “two third of a pound plus hamburger patties served side by side on a sesame seed bun, each patty topped with an olive and full garnish on the side”.