SF Burlesque Stars Recall Their Best Carol Doda Stories
With top-heavy hearts we remember trailblazing SF stripper Carol Doda in the wake of her passing, as San Francisco’s striptease stars of today share their stories, anecdotes and foul mouthed run-ins with the enigmatic Ms. Doda. As the first topless dancer in America, the first all-nude dancer in America and matron saint of the breast enhancement surgery movement, Carol Doda is perhaps best known for winning the landmark 1965 court case that legalized nude dancing and she remains a twin-towering figure in modern day striptease and burlesque.
We asked some of San Francisco’s biggest burlesque stars for their memories of Ms. Doda and many of them paid homage in the stories retold below. If you have any good Carol Doda stories, please ‘bust’ them out in the comments section below!
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AUDRA WOLFMANN (A.K.A. ODESSA LIL)
“In the early ’70s my Dad was hanging out in North Beach, conducting business lunches at Vanessi’s and entertaining clients at The Condor,” said Speakeasily founder Audra Wolfmann. “It was there that he and a business associate became friendly with Carol Doda. Sometimes my mother would come in from Walnut Creek with my older sister, who was in first grade at the time. Carol loved my sister. I don’t think she ever had any kids of her own and was pretty impressed with the presence of a little girl in the wilds of North Beach. My sister was calling her Auntie Carol in no time.”
“One day she gave my sister an autographed topless photo of herself. My sister treasured it and, unbeknownst to my parents, brought it to school for show and tell. As soon as she present the cheesecake photo in front of her entire class and claimed, ‘This is my Auntie Carol,’ she was dragged to the principal’s office and my parents were called in. They had a hard time explaining their way out of that one.”
“The first time I met Carol Doda was in her little lingerie shop on Union Street in SF, sometime in 1996. It wasn’t a good shop at all.,” says Barbary Coast Burlesque producer and creator Bunny Pistol. “She was kinda bitchy but I liked her. Crazy big hair and red lipstick.”
“In 2007, I got into performing burlesque,” Ms. Pistol said. “I was encouraged by Ana [Handelman, manager of Sodini’s Restaurant in North Beach] to go back to Carol’s shop and talk to her. At this point, Carol was really good at telling people to fuck off. For anything. She was so screwed over by people capitalizing on her name and her history, she had it. People promising her financial compensation for her life stories as SF’s first topless dancer, etc. In her own words she ‘never saw a single penny’. So, if she had any suspicion of you, she’d tell you to FUCK OFF!”
Ms. Pistol later saw Carol Doda’s cabaret show at Amante in North Beach called ‘Carol & Friends’. “She and her cast were amazing!” Ms. Pistol recalled. “ They all were heavy hitters from the 60’s – 70’s in the cabaret scene. Most of them, making their living and raising their families as cabaret singers and performers. The moment that Carol had the mic in her hand, she lit up the room! Proof in our faces; a TRUE star! After the show, I tried to get her to come over and do my show. I had my show, Barbary Coast Burlesque, on Broadway at the time. She turned me down every single time. She said, ‘Fuck Broadway! You want me? Come and see me!’”
“I’ll never forget the first time I met Carol Doda,” said boylesque impresario Bobby Barnaby. “I walked into Val’s, my neighborhood bar in Daly City, with a few friends. We were just looking to unwind after rehearsal, and were pleasantly surprised to see a small crowd and live band, in the old school restaurant and sports bar. It wasn’t just a live band, it was a rousing Band-eoke event.”
“A small framed woman shuffled up to the mic. She was slightly hunched from an ample bosom, and had the thickest bottom eyeliner I’ve ever seen. She wore black leggings and an oversized shirt, but her crowning glory was the hair. A perfect triangle of bleached, blond tease, it was the perfect storm. She started with a growl and a big pelvic thrust, I believe she sang Brenda Lee’s ‘Sweet Nothings’, and it was a full performance; bumps, grinds, attitude, lots of head bobs, and that husky voice. One of my friends, who previously bartended at the Condor Club clocked her immediately. I had a vague idea of who she was, but had no idea of just how important her iconic journey was to the history of Burlesque and Nightlife in America.”
“We asked for a picture, and she obliged, for a minute, then got impatient with the cameraman and said ‘Fuck it I’m done!’. We were all standing and drinking and listening to the music when someone started to self groove a little, as you do when in the presence of live music. Carol noticed and seemed to take her cue, as if saying to us all, ‘time to boogie’. She then launched into a low squatting twist, that was so vigorous, every 4 counts or so one leg would raise almost resembling a high knee march. This was her goto move the rest of the night, and she would fly into motion at random, but with pure conviction each time.”
The Indra, also known as Klingon Vanna White, was at the 5oth Anniverary of Topless event seen in the video below, and also performed at The Condor when it reopened as a strip club in the 2000s. “I was in the opening night event,” she remembered. “Willie Brown was there. Willie Brown at a strip club.”
“There were news crews there. I’m sure they would have loved to talk to [Carol].” Indra remembered. But Carol was not there, and never really did return to the Condor after her nightclub singing days there in the early 80s, feeling the club had exploited her.
“They’re using her image, her story, her name, but there wasn’t a place for her there anymore. She was on the billboard!” Indra said. “The burlesque community would have totally embraced her. She was an introvert at heart.”
“I dated a bartender and waitress in North Beach for a while, and Carol was a fixture in the neighborhood that I ran into a few times,” says Chris Robers, reporter for the SF Examiner, SF Weekly and SF Evergreen. “I never said more than a mumbled ‘Hello, Ms. Doda’ but she was gracious enough, considering the gawking, anonymous greasy-haired kid she didn’t know that I was.”
“It was years later, in North Beach, that I saw a small, older blonde-haired woman in black step out from a black Ford Explorer on Green Street. At first I was amazed that anyone could find parking on that block. It was then that my then-girlfriend informed me, ‘That’s Carol Doda.’ I was transfixed. Later, at Gino and Carlo’s, I would see her and mumble the aforementioned hello. She was famous and she was legendary but she behaved just like another member of the eccentric and wonderful village of North Beach, where lunatics and losers rub elbows with legends and winners — because that’s what she was.”
“Her story really is sad — she wanted to be singer but found her fame and fortune by taking off her clothes. Maybe that’s more of a sad statement about our society. But not only did she keep her wits about her, she kept a sense of humor, she kept strong, and she stayed here in her home. Really, this could only have happened here — and only in North Beach.”