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.Film Review: ‘Carol Doda Topless at the Condor’

Zesty doc tells it like it was

Just when it seems that San Francisco’s dope, sex and rock ’n’ roll scene in the 1960s has been covered from every conceivable angle, along comes Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker’s entertaining documentary, Carol Doda Topless at the Condor, to remind everyone how untamed it could be.

The world was truly a different place in 1964, and San Francisco’s North Beach was different-er than the rest. The nighttime hubbub at the neighborhood’s bars, clubs and strip joints was hipster/flipster central in those pre-Flower Power days. Lusty bohemians and cocktail-hour entertainers from Thelonious Monk and Lenny Bruce to Sly Stone, Mort Sahl, Richard Pryor and Barbra Streisand mingled with the squares in the night spots, and the action spilled into the street. Rules got broken.

The happiest breaker of rules was the Condor Club at Broadway and Columbus, where a 26-year-old former cocktail waitress named Carol Doda trotted onstage wearing nothing but a monokini swimsuit—a relatively restrained yet literally topless outfit by avant-garde designer Rudi Gernreich.

Presto. Lines formed on the sidewalk, and the other clubs quickly followed suit. Then Doda upped the ante by getting silicone injections in her breasts, and box-office pandemonium broke loose. Instead of being noted for the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace, Ess Eff grabbed international headlines as the home of the topless.

McKenzie, Parker and story editor Karen Everett’s zesty doc captures the giddy spirit of the age with rapid-fire montage and nonstop, needle-drop rock. Doda herself comes across as an impish, glib-tongued hustler, undeterred by angry feminists denouncing her act as exploitation—she retorted that she was her own boss—and quite comfortable with the notorious Male Gaze.

At the height of the mania, newsman Walter Cronkite and pop artist Andy Warhol were regulars at the Condor, and Doda was profiled by journalist Tom Wolfe. Local swingeroos such as café owner Enrico Banducci and attorney Melvin Belli looked on admiringly, and Doda gained notoriety for her affair with Frank Sinatra. Doda Dome, a granite dome in Yosemite National Park, was named for her. Doda even made appearances in drive-in movies, including Machine Gun McCain and Bob Rafelson’s Head.

U.S. troops in Vietnam sent fan mail to Doda, and Chronicle columnist Herb Caen supplied endless plugs. In one column, Caen wrote about the French tourists who went into laugh orbit over the club’s signage, which proclaimed “CONDOR” in 40-foot-high neon letters—colloquially, con d’or is “golden idiot,” or “golden vagina” in archaic French slang.

The big-boob novelty eventually wore off. Not long after Doda performed completely nude, the clubs hired amateurish hippies who couldn’t dance, and long hair replaced the usual bouffant and beehive hairdos. An act called the Interracial Love Dance prompted an SFPD crackdown. Strippers worked with snakes and monkeys. And home video porn became a serious competitor.

Live bands gave way to canned music. Meanwhile hard drugs like meth and cocaine proliferated in the girlie joints. The clientele, previously a combination of tipsy businessmen and slumming suburbanites, took a heavy turn toward the wankers-in-raincoats crowd.

The climactic mood-killer for the topless craze came in 1983. Condor bouncer Jimmy “The Beard” Ferrozzo and dancer Theresa Hill, in their stoned haste to have sex on top of Doda’s celebrated descending white grand piano one night after closing, accidentally tripped the riser button. They were found the next morning with Hill, still breathing, trapped under Ferrozzo’s dead body, crushed between the piano and the ceiling.

What exactly was subversive in SF in those days? The spectacle of Black men cavorting with white strippers certainly got the cops hot under their collars. But topless ran out of gas naturally, like love-ins, Zippy the Pinhead and the Chocolate Watch Band. Long past her prime, Doda took an awful stab at live theater, fronted a rock band and opened a Cow Hollow shop, the Champagne & Lace Boutique. When she died in 2015, news reports couldn’t resist the “Twin Peaks” jokes. 

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In theaters


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