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After 45 years, Carol Doda still packs ’em in

from – The lights dimmed, and a wisp of a woman slowly danced down the middle of the barroom, hips gyrating forward, back, forward. “Just in time, you found me,” she sang, and a father and his adult son at the bar lit up in grins.

“See, can you see? She’s still amazing,” the older man said excitedly, pointing. “Can you see?”

That’s when Carol Doda spun and caught the spotlight just so, in just the right place, with just the right timing.

And just like in the old days in 1960s and ’70s, when Doda was the most famous topless dancer on the planet, the 44-inch breasts once dubbed “the New Twin Peaks of San Francisco” found their special spot in the light.

“Wow,” breathed the father at the bar, Bill Yankers.

“Oh my gosh, what you said is true,” murmured his son, Wyatt.

“Glad to see me, boys?” Doda called out cheerily. She laughed, patted Bill Yankers on the cheek and, without missing a beat, picked up the next line of her song and headed back up the room toward her band.

Forty-five years after she donned a topless bathing suit at the Condor Club one hot summer night and started the national topless dancing craze, Doda is still packing ’em in at North Beach.

She doesn’t strip anymore, but the throngs that journey from around the country to see her nightclub singing act or visit her lingerie shop across town in Cow Hollow don’t mind. Doda sings, she dances, she slings comedic banter – and most importantly to those who come to see her, she is living history.

“There’s never been anyone else like her, and I don’t think there ever will be again,” said Marsha Garland, head of the North Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Doda’s breasts, once insured for $1.5 million with Lloyd’s of London, are still as they were decades ago, thanks to the silicone injections she received to boost business right after she started stripping.

Even at her current age – which she won’t reveal, though she was probably 19 when she went topless in 1964 – her profile in the right light is startlingly curvaceous, and she plays it for all it is worth.

At this point in her career, though, Doda said, everything she does is in good fun. No bare flesh. Just laughs, a few of them bawdy, and songs.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but I can draw a pretty good crowd,” Doda said between sets at Amante, a small nightclub three blocks from the strip club that launched her.

“It was never just about being topless anyway,” she said, coquettishly tossing her full head of shoulder-length, curly blond hair. “I always just wanted to give people a good time, have fun. Nothing really dirty – just fun.”

That’s pretty much how people remember her act in the old days, and it’s pretty much what they say her act is like today. She plays once a month at Amante, singing standard club tunes like “All of Me,” with full band, and does stray party gigs.

“She was never about the nakedness back then, really,” said Rene Cazenave, 80, who has traveled for more than 30 years from Lake Tahoe to see her act, often with his wife in tow. “She had a good voice, did her dance, told jokes. She was a classy act. Still is.”

Even the people who trek to her Champagne and Lace shop – which specializes in hard-to-find bustiers as well as whimsical edible and otherwise underwear (piña colada is a favorite flavor) – say they are surprised at how squeaky clean Doda is in person.

“I never heard of her before, but I’ll never forget her now,” said Allison Zack of Los Angeles, who came in the other day with her friend, bride-to-be Sophia Baxley of Folsom, to pick a bustier for the wedding dress.

“We were at another store, they told us the best place to get a bustier was here – and then they told us about Carol Doda’s ginormous hoots, and who she is,” Zack said.

“She’s a pretty amazing person. Good at lingerie, too. And surprisingly humble.”

Strip clubs are fixtures today, but it’s hard to overestimate the social earthquake Doda triggered 45 years ago.

She was already a waitress who go-go danced on top of a piano at the Condor 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 note in America. So many customers packed the club that 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. And irreversible.

But the results were very popular – and so far, she said, without health complications.

“The minute I knew I existed in life was the night I started the Condor thing,” Doda said. “The only thing that mattered to me was entertaining people. That always drove me.”

Doda doesn’t like to talk about her life before then. She 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 said. “You can make yourself look older if you use your hair and makeup right.”
A survivor

Somehow, despite the strip-club environment, she said, she avoided doing drugs, drinking heavily or prostitution. Friends and the lack of a police record back up her claims.

“Underneath this blond hair, I do think logically,” she said with a piercing gaze that’s always just a half-beat behind her laugh. “I know how to survive.”

Doda never married, never had children, and her only arrest came in 1965 when police raided the Condor on indecency charges. She was found not guilty and continued to dance until 1985, when she quit, saying she was never paid enough.

Along the way, there were stints as a 1970s version of a spokesmodel for Channel 36 in San Jose – she was called “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.”
Music and lingerie

After leaving the Condor, she started a rock band, the Lucky Stiffs. When that faded out in the 1990s, she started her lingerie shop, which is where she can be found most days.

But it’s the nightclub show that draws the biggest crowds.

“I was a sailor in 1964 sitting in a bar two doors down from Condor one night when a couple of guys came in and said, ‘Hey, Carol Doda just took her top off!’ and we all ran right over,” recalled Yankers, 72, the dad in to see Doda’s act. “None of us had ever seen anything like it.

“For 20 minutes about 45 years ago there, Carol Doda was very big in my life. I never forgot it.”


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