Topless Dancing Was Legalized 50 Years Ago Today in San Francisco
50 years ago on this very date, famed exotic dancer Carol Doda was found not guilty on charges of indecency and lewd conduct for the act of dancing topless at the Condor Club in North Beach. On May 7, 1965, a jury of 8 men and 4 women submitted their not guilty verdict, effectively rendering San Francisco as the first city in the US to legalize topless dancing. The trial was an international media sensation that captured the world’s attention on a scale of the O.J. Simpson trial of the mid-1990s. On the 50th anniversary of the legalization of topless dancing, this is the story of that trial.
Carol Doda was not the only dancer on trial that day, but she was by far the most famous. Also on trial were dancers Kay Star, Euraine Heimberg and Yvonne d’Angers (two of whom danced at Off Broadway). The dancers were charged with indecency and lewd conduct in a public place, while the clubs’ wealthier, male owners faced the lesser charge aiding and abetting. Because that is how the American legal system works.
“The New Twin Peaks of San Francisco”Photo by Ted Pushinsky, whose work will be on display at “Fifty Years of San Francisco Street Photography”, May 14-June 26 at Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art
Ms. Doda was already a B-list celebrity for being the first dancer to publicly show her boobs in a topless show on June 19, 1964. (A historical marker plaque commemorating the act remains on display at The Condor to this day.) Many of the North Beach clubs quickly followed suit and became topless clubs, and Doda’s act was embellished by having her ride in on a piano that was lowered from the club’s ceiling.
She was instantly transformed into an A-list celebrity when police raided The Condor on April 23, 1965. The press just couldn’t get enough of Carol Doda and this titillating topless dancing story, an “only in San Francisco” sensation of the day. Ms. Doda became the most famous stripper alive, an international sex symbol on par with Jayne Mansfield and Raquel Welch. Her pin-up photo became the most requested pin-up for US soldiers stationed in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966.
“The Topless Trials”Photo by Ted Pushinsky, part of the”Fifty Years of San Francisco Street Photography”, May 14-June 26 at Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art
After Doda’s arrest, the case quickly went to trial. The dancers’ attorneys were Melvin Belli (yes, the same Melvin Belli who represented Jack Ruby in the Lee Harvey Oswald assassination and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker during their 1980s legal fiascoes) and Patrick Hallinan (yes, the same Patrick Hallinan whose brother Terence Hallinan served two terms as SF District Attorney from 1996-2004).
Prosecutors tried to intimidate the dancers into pleading guilty by threatening to publicly release their topless photographs that police took during the raids. The public shaming tactic, not unlike the ‘revenge porn’ we see today, was blocked by the dancers’ legal defense teams. That said, there is a little bit of nipple shown in the wonderful Ted Pushinsky photographs seen above.
San Francisco Legalizes ToplessLetter to the Editor, San Francisco Chronicle, 1965 courtesy the San Francisco History Center at the SF Public Library
The dancers were tried in two separate trials, though both not guilty verdicts were rendered on the same day. Ms. Doda was tried in the San Francisco Superior Court of Judge Leland Lazarus, who sent the jury off to deliberate by saying, “This is the first time in my five years on the bench that I have advised the jury to bring in an acquittal.”
And 45 minutes later, that is exactly what they did. Carol Doda was found not guilty on both counts, and the party was on in North Beach that night.
Well, the party was not on everywhere in North Beach that night. The Condor and Off Broadway were temporarily off the hook, but several other North Beach topless clubs were still under prosecution. And even though the dancers were cleared of charges, the police raids would continue at many of North Beach’s topless clubs. But the famous Carol Doda trial verdict set the precedent that topless dancing would be considered legal in San Francisco, and the charges would keep getting dropped in every case.
San Francisco was the only US city where topless dancing was legal in the mid-1960s. New York and Los Angeles still required topless dancers to wear pasties.
“Pasties! You can’t call that topless!”, Carol Doda complained to the SF Chronicle in 1965.
Carol Doda’s LegacyCarol Doda serving meals to troops on the USS Enterprise (SF Chronicle, July 28, 1967)
Carol Doda would remain a celebrity, both locally and internationally. (Ms. Doda declined to be interviewed for this article, but you can still find her at Carol Doda’s Champagne & Lace Lingerie Boutique in the Marina. If you must go bother her, please make sure to buy something.)
She would eventually open her own North Beach club, and also appeared in The Monkees’ 1968 film “Head”. She did a number of charity appearances after the trial made her a celebrity, and she embraced her fame as a sex symbol for troops in Vietnam. She was known for always buying rounds for servicemen who came into topless clubs, and went to Vietnam to serve up meals and do morale-boosting appearances for the troops stationed there.
Her legacy remains important to The Condor’s exotic dancers today. “She was kind of like a frontierswoman,” says Condor dancer Kitty Chow, who runs the monthly Condor Cabaret burlesque event at the club. “The Summer of Love would not have happened the way it did without her. We had all these hippies burning bras running around San Francisco. She kind of broke the ground for the Sexual Revolution. That’s freedom. She made us free to be topless.”
“I don’t believe topless is a fad,” Carol Doda told the Chronicle in January 1967. “It’s something that’s going to stay — like burlesque.”
Fifty years later, you have to admit she was right.