Profile: Carol Doda, S.F.'s Most Famous Stripper - 2010
By Lois Beckett
"I feel like I'm part of San Francisco, and San Francisco's part of me," Carol Doda says without irony. Doda's breasts are a San Francisco monument, once called the city's second pair of Twin Peaks. She was America's first noted topless dancer, dazzling audiences at the Condor Club in a topless bathing suit in 1964. Soon after, she became the first celebrity with silicone breast implants (new size: 44DD).
Four decades later, Doda runs a lingerie shop off Union Street in the Marina, which specializes in "hard-to-find sizes." When we talked to her at her shop, Champagne and Lace, she was putting bustiers back on hangers after a wedding fitting earlier that day. The radio was on full blast, and she answered questions over a series of pop classics, pausing to bop her head along to the music. She has a halo of curly blond hair, dramatic eye makeup, and carefully outlined lips, but her T-shirt is modest and high-necked.
Doda has spent most of her life in North Beach. "It's kind of a little Casablanca on its own, you know what I mean?" she says. "Even though it's Italian."
"I went to Las Vegas some time with some promoter guy, to be in one of the shows," she says. "That lasted a week or two, and I said, 'I gotta go back to San Francisco, this is not for me.' ... You can become part of something in San Francisco. You can evolve."
Doda says San Francisco allowed her to be an entertainer, not just a pair of breasts. She worked on her singing and dancing and honed her comic timing, so it wasn't just, "Here I am, boys." "I don't think I could accomplish that going somewhere else," she says. Was she ever tempted by Los Angeles? "Kind of I was, but there are so many blondes down there, and big boobs. What was I going to do?"
As Doda was evolving from a teenage cocktail waitress into a national celebrity, San Francisco was evolving, too: There was the Summer of Love and the women's liberation movement, which sometimes targeted Doda's club. "The women used to parade outside, saying, 'Burn your bras, burn your bras,' and I said, 'What are you talking about? I'm not wearing a bra!'" she recalls.
"What do you think my job is?" she says later. "Topless, not top more!"
Doda's San Francisco is the city of Herb Caen and Enrico Banducci, a place where she would play Scrabble backstage at the Condor as she waited to dance topless before packed audiences of admirers. Between sets, she would sip a white nun — steamed milk and brandy — at Tosca, and sometimes drop by Enrico's to meet celebrities like Andy Warhol. "He says, 'Let's go under the table,' and I said, 'Why?' and he said he wanted to take pictures of me," she recalls. "I was in my clothes, so I just thought it was kind of unusual."
The San Francisco Doda loves best wasn't the Broadway party scene, but the quiet afternoons she spent drinking coffee with the Giotta family at their Caffe Trieste. That's still one of her favorite things to do in the city: walking into old-school cocktail lounge Gino and Carlo, seeing all of her friends there, and thinking: This is home.
Doda starts out reciting Tony Bennett lyrics, but soon she's singing. "'I left my heart in San Francisco ... where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars. The morning fog may chill the air, I don't care.' ... How could I sum it up better than that?"