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New film reveals all about San Francisco topless dancer Carol Doda

Film still from "Carol Doda Topless at the Condor" shows Carol Doda in front of the Condor Club. | Source: Courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival

If it weren’t for a quirky piece of apparel called the monokini, Carol Doda might never have danced topless at the Condor Club in San Francisco’s North Beach during the 1960s. This, and much more, is revealed in a feature-length documentary about the pioneering dancer, Carol Doda Topless at the Condor, which will have its West Coast premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October.  

“The swimsuit is a particularly interesting garment when it comes to women’s liberation,” said Sarah Thornton, a sociologist of culture who appears in the film. 

Club promoter Davey Rosenberg first pressed the topless swimsuit—created by avant-garde fashion designer Rudi Gernreich—into Doda’s hands for a 1964 performance in which she danced on a piano that dropped from the ceiling of the Condor, which is now a San Francisco legacy business

“The only way to get into show business,” Doda famously said, “was to show my business.” 

Film still from "Carol Doda Topless at the Condor" shows Doda dancing on top of a piano. | Courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival | Source: Courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival

After the Condor was raided in 1965, the 28-year-old Doda and other exotic dancers were hauled into court in what was dubbed the “topless trial.” Those legal proceedings ultimately transformed the nightlife industry—and San Francisco’s neon-lit Broadway, which became the nation’s “off-season Vegas.” 

Doda became an international star, a pin-up girl for Vietnam War soldiers and the lover of Frank Sinatra. With her pouty lips, black-rimmed bedroom eyes and sea of blonde hair, she transformed America’s relationship with nudity. 

“They’re like deer in season,” Doda said of all the girls willing to dance topless after she had begun the trend. 

A film still from "Carol Doda Topless at the Condor" shows a side profile of performer Carol Doda. | Source: Courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival

As the film makes clear, Doda’s rule-breaking took place against the backdrop of the civil rights, gay liberation and women's movements, when fights for all sorts of freedoms—not only loosened bosoms—were happening.  

Perhaps more than anything else in the film, Doda’s ribald sense of humor comes through, thanks to troves of archival footage. When an interviewer asks the performer what makes her go, Doda quips, “vitamins and insecurity.” 

Yet Doda’s liberation is not all glitz and glamor, not all laughs and leg lifts. 

The legendary levitating piano that was part of her act was also responsible for killing Condor manager James “Jimmy the Beard” Ferrozzo in 1983, in what appeared to be a freak accident. 

And the performer had so much industrial-grade silicone injected into her breasts—44 shots in total—that she went from a 34B to a 44DD, an augmentation that led to jokes about her chest being the city’s “other Twin Peaks.” 

The directors of "Carol Doda Topless at the Condor," Jonathan Parker and Marlo McKenzie, are shown. | Source: Courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival

Some of Doda’s choices, like artificially amplifying her body, created an internal battle for filmmaker Marlo McKenzie. 

“I was feeling this judgment,” McKenzie said. “But whenever I have this conversation inside of me that’s so dynamic, I know it’s going to be a good story.” 

For filmmaker Jonathan Parker, who has worked together with McKenzie for seven years, the project was personal. His family rented the storefront in which Doda ran a lingerie shop in the later years of her life, and he played in a New Wave band along Broadway in the 1980s (which by then had become a much different scene). 

Doda wore many hats over the years before her death in 2015 at age 78: topless dancer, bottomless dancer, solo performer, actor, musician, shop owner. 

In the later years of her life, stripped bare of the reputation that had made her so famous, Doda was able to find the one thing she truly longed for—love. She found a reliable mate in the form of Jay North, who she had a 10-year relationship with until his death. 

Carol Doda Topless at the Condor 

📍 Mill Valley Film Festival | Roxie Theater, Smith Rafael Film Center
🗓️ Oct. 10, 8:45 p.m. | Oct. 14, 7 p.m. 
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