In her heyday, Carol Doda was big.
Bigger than Jane Russell, Marie McDonald, Raquel Welch and even Diana Dors.
For two decades, Doda’s likeness, with two red, blinking lights for nipples, beckoned big-eyed customers to the naughty Condor Club at Columbus and Broadway. It was there that topless dancing was born on June 19, 1964, and bottomless on Sept. 3, 1969.
Doda was big because she stood 20 feet tall on the North Beach sign, probably the most famous in San Francisco history.
Whatever happened to the sign?
A two-week investigation revealed that:
— I don’t know.
— Not entirely, anyway.
— Neither does Carol Doda.
I found Doda’s top part: head, shoulders, flashing red lights, 44D upper torso.
But her bottom is missing.
”I’ve been working out,” Doda explained.
Seriously, she said, ”What difference does it make?”
History, I told her. We owe an explanation to history.
After all, the sign was offered to the Smithsonian (they declined) and there’s a bronze historical marker near the spot stating:
”Where it all began
”The birthplace of the world’s first
”Topless and bottomless entertainment . . .”
The top half of Carol Doda is framed inside the new Condor, which has innocuously reincarnated itself into a neon-emblazoned sports bar with satellite TV. It’s a type of place that young urbanite tourists are drawn to, with espresso and lattes. The windows slide open for a good view of the other tourists outside.
In the back is a museum, the walls are filled with newspaper stories chronicling the rise and fall of topless dancing.
”Look up if you want to see Carol,” explained the barkeeper.
There on the wall is the top of the sign. Next to it is a part of Doda’s old dressing room. Securely attached to the ceiling is the killer piano. Doda used to open her show by slowly riding down on it, and in the wee hours of one morning, it killed an assistant manager while he was making love to one of the dancers.
The new Condor says a lot about that section of North Beach once known for its exotic dancers and bawdy life. It was the lineal descendant of the old Barbary Coast.
It ain’t the same.
Yuppification has set in. Where once 28 strip joints made the place jump, only five remain. And most of them feature videos or booths.
The strip’s neighbors – Little Italy, Chinatown and the Financial District – have moved in replacing the raunchy glare of the strip joints with upscale jazz cabarets, lunch spots and bookstores.
Old-timers on the street attribute the downfall of the nudie joints to the World Series (Loma Prieta) earthquake in 1989. Before the quake, about 25,000 cars a day flowed into the bustling area via the Embarcadero Freeway. Now it’s gone, and so are about half the cars, said Patrick Roe, manager of the hungry i.
”It really killed us,” Roe said. ”Business is OK. It’s good for us, but it’s not like what it used to be.”
Doda blames the area’s downfall on the owners’ unwillingness to change their acts. She left the Condor in 1985. The sign came down in 1991. ”The guy who owned it just let it go down the drain,” she said.
Gene Ainsworth, manager of the North Beach News, an adult book store, attributed the drop in business to a temporary switch in taste.
”It’s like you get tired of your wife and you leave her,” he explained. ”Then, after a few years, you realize what a prize she was and you get back together.”
Ainsworth said customers are starting to come back. ”They really do like sex after all,” he said.
As far as Doda’s bottom goes, though, its whereabouts remains a mystery to me and to the folks on the street.
This much I know: According to columnist Herb Caen, in 1993, the bottom half of the sign was auctioned to a man named Paul Gunther. He paid $3,700.
And that’s the bottom line.