April 19, 2024 5:50 pm

Carol Doda Topless at the Condor
Carol Doda Topless at the Condor

Carol Doda Topless at the Condor

A local icon in San Francisco who made a national impact on the night club and adult entertainment industries, with the documentary “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor,” filmmakers Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker bring the titular Doda’s story to life with a rich trove of archival materials and new talking head interviews with Doda’s contemporaries, as well as academics and cultural historians. Inspired in part by Benita Mattioli’s memoir Three Nights at the Condor, this is a dense film that packs in a lot of history and theory into 100 minutes. Thankfully, we also get a sharp picture of the inimitably cool Doda as more than just a symbol of both exploitation and cultural change, but also as an ambitious entertainer, a caustic wit, and an melancholic enigma who hid just as much of her internal self as she shared her body with the public. 

Although the film is ostensibly about Doda’s life, from her first monokini-clad topless dance atop the Condor’s piano in the early 1964 to her final days of public life in the 2010s, the filmmakers use her story as a springboard to tell a larger tale of cultural shifts in America, as well as the specific history of the nightclubs that illuminate the night in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. In this way, the film sometimes reminded me of Sara Driver’s “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” which used the late teenager years of singular artist Jean-Michel Basquiat to examine the artistic and sociopolitical scene of downtown New York City in the late-1970s and early 1980s. Like Basquiat, Doda became the focal point for a moment in history. 

With her thick cat-eye makeup, platinum blonde hair, and white leotard Doda stood out amongst the other cocktail waitresses of the neighborhood. Eager to be an entertainer — no matter the cost — Doda started her career innocently enough, dancing on the Condor’s white baby grand piano. Eventually the club’s owner rejiggered the instrument to lower it down from the ceiling, with Doda on top. After the invention of the monokini swimsuit by fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, a savvy press agent suggested Carol wear it while she did her act. In 1964 this made Doda the first female dancer to perform topless in the United States. 

This moment is put into context via interviews with other dancers from the scene, as well as cultural sociologist Sarah Thornton, who suggests that swimsuits themselves were an “interesting garment when it comes to the history of female liberation.” From this landmark moment, which begat various topless acts—including topless shoeshine girls—the doc traces the various obscenity trials the performers and club owners faced in its wake. 

As these performers made history, they also found themselves pressured to push the envelope further and further. Archival interviews with Doda, as well as new interviews with other dancers, discuss their pioneering use of injectable silicone to augment their breasts. Doda herself is said to have gone from a B cup to a 44 DD, and later in life was cheekily introduced as “two the City’s most famous landmarks.” What’s so refreshing about this sequence is that not only does it cover the history of breast augmentation and the horrific consequences these early techniques had on women’s bodies, but it also allows the women to speak for themselves about their choices. “I give them a fantasy, people need that,” Doda tells one interviewer. 

In fact, the doc does a great job of navigating the various complexities of viewing Doda and the rest of these performers through a feminist lens. Doda began her act a year after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique helped kick off the women’s liberation movement and second wave feminism. During the 1970s, at the height of her fame, Doda herself was often asked in interviews about feminist reactions to her career. “I was the original bra burner,” she quips in one interview. When asked if she is prostituting herself, she replies, “You could prostitute yourself with your brain or any other part of your body.” Through Doda’s own frank interviews, as well as interviews with other dancers, and academics the filmmakers wade through questions of individual empowerment versus collective liberation, critiquing the various ways in which capitalism traps us all. The film strikes a balance between these concepts, never quite laying judgment on the choices of these women, nor giving them a free pass either. 

It also uses Doda’s career to examine labor issues. Doda was the talent—for decades a marquee featuring her full image and the words “Coral Doda Topless” lured guests into the Condor—yet when Doda asked for equity she was denied. An interview with the club’s owner at the time does him no favors as he point blank dismisses the notion that she as the headliner should ever have had as much stake in the business as he did as the owner. In this sense, Doda’s struggle is the struggle of so many workers whose work is exploited by the powers that be. 

The film also explores agism, as Doda and the other dancers hit their “expiration date.” As one dancer puts it, the one thing no one likes is old boobs. As Doda “aged” out as a performer, the clubs around North Beach changed drastically. Gone were the days of the clientele being well to do couples on dates, having been replaced by skeevy dudes in raincoats. The swingin’ dancers of the sixties were replaced with “hard chicks” from the Tenderloin, pornography, and hard drugs à la Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.” Doda took both changes in stride leaving the scene altogether, though she never gave up entertaining, crafting a new rock and roll act, working as a phone sex operator, opening a boutique, and using her notoriety to become a staple of local TV. 

For all the film’s intersectional aspirations, its attempts to explore race within this world of North Beach nightlife aren’t as cohesive as they could be. It does examine some of the contradictions of the time, briefly mentioning how Black cocktail waitresses were never allowed to dance, but also that these nightclubs featured some of the first interracial bands performing. And interviews with Jimi & Judy Mamou, performers sometimes known as the Batman and Robin of North Beach, about their tribulations as an interracial couple in the 1960s are as fascinating as they are infuriating. However, these sequences are not as seamlessly woven into the film’s tapestry as they could have, possibly because their connection to Doda’s story are tangential at best. But that the filmmakers try to make it work speaks to their dedication to painting as complex a portrait of North Beach as they can. 

Lena Horne said you need a cast iron belly for show business,” someone tells Carol, who quips back “You need a cast iron heart to go with it.” While Doda may have had more than her fair share of personal and professional heartache, what “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” illustrates is that while Doda put her whole heart into entertaining people, she also lived her life with a sense of freedom and passion most of us only dream of doing. She may have helped pivot the nation’s ideas about sex and nudity in the 1960s, but given current backsliding in culture, perhaps she’s still blazing a trail today. 

A local icon in San Francisco who made a national impact on the night club and adult entertainment industries, with the documentary “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor,” filmmakers Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker bring the titular Doda’s story to life with a rich trove of archival materials and new talking head interviews with Doda’s contemporaries, as well as academics and cultural historians. Inspired in part by Benita Mattioli’s memoir Three Nights at the Condor, this is a dense film that packs in a lot of history and theory into 100 minutes. Thankfully, we also get a sharp picture of the inimitably cool Doda as more than just a symbol of both exploitation and cultural change, but also as an ambitious entertainer, a caustic wit, and an melancholic enigma who hid just as much of her internal self as she shared her body with the public.  Although the film is ostensibly about Doda’s life, from her first monokini-clad topless dance atop the Condor’s piano in the early 1964 to her final days of public life in the 2010s, the filmmakers use her story as a springboard to tell a larger tale of cultural shifts in America, as well as the specific history of the nightclubs that illuminate the night in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. In this way, the film sometimes reminded me of Sara Driver’s “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” which used the late teenager years of singular artist Jean-Michel Basquiat to examine the artistic and sociopolitical scene of downtown New York City in the late-1970s and early 1980s. Like Basquiat, Doda became the focal point for a moment in history.  With her thick cat-eye makeup, platinum blonde hair, and white leotard Doda stood out amongst the other cocktail waitresses of the neighborhood. Eager to be an entertainer — no matter the cost — Doda started her career innocently enough, dancing on the Condor’s white baby grand piano. Eventually the club’s owner rejiggered the instrument to lower it down from the ceiling, with Doda on top. After the invention of the monokini swimsuit by fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, a savvy press agent suggested Carol wear it while she did her act. In 1964 this made Doda the first female dancer to perform topless in the United States.  This moment is put into context via interviews with other dancers from the scene, as well as cultural sociologist Sarah Thornton, who suggests that swimsuits themselves were an “interesting garment when it comes to the history of female liberation.” From this landmark moment, which begat various topless acts—including topless shoeshine girls—the doc traces the various obscenity trials the performers and club owners faced in its wake.  As these performers made history, they also found themselves pressured to push the envelope further and further. Archival interviews with Doda, as well as new interviews with other dancers, discuss their pioneering use of injectable silicone to augment their breasts. Doda herself is said to have gone from a B cup to a 44 DD, and later in life was cheekily introduced as “two the City’s most famous landmarks.” What’s so refreshing about this sequence is that not only does it cover the history of breast augmentation and the horrific consequences these early techniques had on women’s bodies, but it also allows the women to speak for themselves about their choices. “I give them a fantasy, people need that,” Doda tells one interviewer.  In fact, the doc does a great job of navigating the various complexities of viewing Doda and the rest of these performers through a feminist lens. Doda began her act a year after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique helped kick off the women’s liberation movement and second wave feminism. During the 1970s, at the height of her fame, Doda herself was often asked in interviews about feminist reactions to her career. “I was the original bra burner,” she quips in one interview. When asked if she is prostituting herself, she replies, “You could prostitute yourself with your brain or any other part of your body.” Through Doda’s own frank interviews, as well as interviews with other dancers, and academics the filmmakers wade through questions of individual empowerment versus collective liberation, critiquing the various ways in which capitalism traps us all. The film strikes a balance between these concepts, never quite laying judgment on the choices of these women, nor giving them a free pass either.  It also uses Doda’s career to examine labor issues. Doda was the talent—for decades a marquee featuring her full image and the words “Coral Doda Topless” lured guests into the Condor—yet when Doda asked for equity she was denied. An interview with the club’s owner at the time does him no favors as he point blank dismisses the notion that she as the headliner should ever have had as much stake in the business as he did as the owner. In this sense, Doda’s struggle is the struggle of so many workers whose work is exploited by the powers that be.  The film also explores agism, as Doda and the other dancers hit their “expiration date.” As one dancer puts it, the one thing no one likes is old boobs. As Doda “aged” out as a performer, the clubs around North Beach changed drastically. Gone were the days of the clientele being well to do couples on dates, having been replaced by skeevy dudes in raincoats. The swingin’ dancers of the sixties were replaced with “hard chicks” from the Tenderloin, pornography, and hard drugs à la Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.” Doda took both changes in stride leaving the scene altogether, though she never gave up entertaining, crafting a new rock and roll act, working as a phone sex operator, opening a boutique, and using her notoriety to become a staple of local TV.  For all the film’s intersectional aspirations, its attempts to explore race within this world of North Beach nightlife aren’t as cohesive as they could be. It does examine some of the contradictions of the time, briefly mentioning how Black cocktail waitresses were never allowed to dance, but also that these nightclubs featured some of the first interracial bands performing. And interviews with Jimi & Judy Mamou, performers sometimes known as the Batman and Robin of North Beach, about their tribulations as an interracial couple in the 1960s are as fascinating as they are infuriating. However, these sequences are not as seamlessly woven into the film’s tapestry as they could have, possibly because their connection to Doda’s story are tangential at best. But that the filmmakers try to make it work speaks to their dedication to painting as complex a portrait of North Beach as they can.  “Lena Horne said you need a cast iron belly for show business,” someone tells Carol, who quips back “You need a cast iron heart to go with it.” While Doda may have had more than her fair share of personal and professional heartache, what “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” illustrates is that while Doda put her whole heart into entertaining people, she also lived her life with a sense of freedom and passion most of us only dream of doing. She may have helped pivot the nation’s ideas about sex and nudity in the 1960s, but given current backsliding in culture, perhaps she’s still blazing a trail today.  Read More