Carol Doda was a powerful pioneer that took the profession of stripping out of the shadowy margins of American society and gained worldwide fame as a topless dancer in the 1960s and ’70s. “San Francisco history is made up of characters, and Carol certainly was one of those, ” said Charlotte Shultz, chief protocol for San Francisco. “She changed Broadway and made news around the world. People said, ‘Only in San Francisco,’ and we didn’t mind people saying that.” ~VIA SFGATE
Ms. Doda was not the first stripper in San Francisco but she was probably the classiest, and she made her art form more acceptable to a mainstream audience. The city has always embraced the entertainer in any form, and Ms. Doda, with her combination of looks, personality and humor, was eagerly promoted as the city’s peep-show ambassador.
“Carol Doda was a part of that early scene that transformed North Beach into what one would expect to see in New Orleans or in some of the areas in Paris,” said former Mayor Willie Brown. “She was bright, able, beautiful, creative and outrageous.” So outrageous that columnist Herb Caen, “made her one of his weekly figures, and that was an honor,” said Brown.
For many years, Ms. Doda was a major attraction for people who wanted a taste of the ribald side of town and who followed the oversized neon rendering of her, with flashing lights representing her nipples, into the Condor nightclub on Broadway.
“She was much more than just dancing,” said Winn, who performed show tunes with her in her later years. “She was one of the fastest comedians I ever knew for coming back with wisecracks. She was a wonderfully caring person who listened to you and gave good advice.”
In her Condor act, there would be a fanfare to build anticipation, then the spotlight would hit a white baby grand piano slowly descending from the ceiling. Atop that piano was the statuesque Ms. Doda, in her mono-kini, proudly displaying her 44-inch bust. She would dance and swivel her way through a few numbers before the piano ascended back to the ceiling, with Ms. Doda never leaving her perch.
“She launched the topless craze that swept San Francisco and the nation in the 1960s,” said Ernie Beyl, a historian and author who recently published the book “Sketches from a North Beach Journal,” with a chapter titled “Carol Doda and her Swimsuit.” “It’s invigorating to live in a city where one of the most prominent citizens was a topless dancer,” he wrote.
“She was an important part of North Beach San Francisco,” said longtime publicist Lee Houskeeper, who was an agent for rock acts including Jefferson Airplane in the 1960s. “She came at a time when the Beats were handing the torch to the hippies, and she turned the world upside-down.”
Charlotte Shultz recalled that during the Republican National Convention of 1964, which nominated Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater for president, that “the big request from delegates was for reservations to see stripper Carol Doda perform at the Condor.”
Ms. Doda grew up in San Francisco. Her parents divorced when she was 3, and she dropped out of school in the eighth grade. “I thought the only way to make it was to be a cocktail waitress, so that’s what I did when I was 14,” she once said. “You can make yourself look older if you use your hair and makeup right.”
She said she avoided doing drugs, drinking heavily or prostitution. “Underneath this blonde hair, I do think logically,” she said. “I know how to survive.”
Ms. Doda was already a waitress who go-go danced on top of a piano at the Condor 51 years ago when the club’s publicist, Davey Rosenberg, handed her a Rudi Gernreich topless swimsuit — the first of its kind — and said, “Try this in the act.”
It was a sensation — the first topless dancing act of widespread note in America. So many customers packed the club that Ms. Doda spent $1,500 to boost her bust size from 34B to 44DD through silicone injection, which was then a new technique. It was painful, she said, but the results were very popular. Ms. Doda said she never suffered health complications.
At the height of her fame, Ms. Doda’s breasts were dubbed “the New Twin Peaks of San Francisco.” At one point they were insured for $1.5 million with Lloyd’s of London.
“The minute I knew I existed in life was the night I started the Condor thing,” Ms. Doda said in a 2009 interview. “The only thing that mattered to me was entertaining people. That always drove me.”
Along the way, there were stints in the 1970s as a spokesmodel for Channel 36 in San Jose — “The Perfect 36” — and an acting role in “Head,” the 1968 film featuring the Monkees. She was also profiled in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book, “The Pump House Gang.”
After leaving the Condor, she started a rock band, the Lucky Stiffs. When that faded in the 1990s, she started a lingerie shop in San Francisco called Champagne and Lace and did comedy, singing and dancing — with her clothes on — at North Beach nightclubs near where she once danced topless. She was sashaying through her flirtatious act, warbling “That Old Black Magic” and the like, until her health began to fail. She often said she considered herself more of an entertainer than a stripper.