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Class Act at the Condor Busts Up Old Tradition

Times Staff Writer

The Condor Club, birthplace of topless entertainment, will expose its last bare bosom tonight.

The last topless show will be followed immediately on New Year’s Eve by a new show featuring satin gowns, bustles and push up corsets.

Instead of strippers gyrating to loud rock music, patrons who walk through the soon-to-be-installed swinging doors, pass by the restored mahogany and rosewood bar and push aside a red velvet curtain will see a sanitized song-and-dance revue of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast night life in the 1850s and ‘60s.

Even the 40-foot neon sign bearing the likeness of dancer Carol Doda, complete with two flashing red lights on her chest, has become a little more modest.

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On Wednesday, in deference to the club’s new image, workers painted a dance hall skirt and bodice over the figure’s bikini. The two red lights, however, will continue to glow over the corner of Columbus Avenue and Broadway.

Tex Norton, the club’s operator, says that the sign and the flashing lights “are landmarks” that many San Franciscans use to give directions.

Topless entertainment burst onto the national scene on June 19, 1964.

On that night, Doda turned in her cocktail tray for a topless swimsuit and took her place on the Condor Club’s small stage. The result was instant media attention and lines of customers crowding the sidewalks.

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Promoter’s Dream

Davey Rosenberg, whose 400-pound bulk caused few to quibble with his claim to be “the world’s greatest press agent,” is credited with inventing topless. Rosenberg, who died in 1986 at the age of 49, was for many years the self-appointed promoter for Broadway’s neon strip.

“I used to jump around and serve drinks,” Doda said in a telephone interview this week. “And then one day Davey and the owner of the club came in with a Rudi Gernreich topless suit and asked me to wear it.”

Doda says she would have never come up with the idea on her own. “I was very young and very naive.” But she was eager to succeed and took the opportunity. “I really wanted to please everybody. Like the owners. I just did what they said.”

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As part of her effort to succeed, Doda had her breasts injected with silicone, swelling her bust line from a 34B to a 44DD. She said she also put in many hours outside the Condor promoting the club.

Beginning of the End

Other clubs on Broadway followed the Condor’s lead, with 28 offering live topless entertainment at the height of the craze. After two years, however, the crowds began to thin. Newspaper stories began speculating as early as 1967 that the end of topless was near.

Doda, who quit working at the Condor in 1985, says that she deserves much of the credit for the unexpectedly long life of topless entertainment.

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“By becoming a celebrity, I think the thing was kept around a lot longer,” Doda said. “My show evolved from topless go-go, to strip, to burlesque, to comedy. If you do not keep progressing, things like that will not last.”

By the 1980s, topless had gone flat. After the Condor dresses up tonight, only the Hungry i, a few doors down the street, will still feature topless shows. Storefronts that once housed competing clubs have now been converted largely to pornographic video and book shops.

Two other clubs in the same block have topless and bottomless shows, but are prohibited by law from serving alcohol.

A Perilous Gamble

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Norton, who still has a hint of an accent from his Texas childhood, says changing the Condor “is like putting my life savings and labor on the line and spinning a roulette wheel.”

The risk is worth taking, he adds, because of the chance to bring a piece of San Francisco history back to life. Norton has even enlisted the aid of librarian Gladys Hanson of the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco Historical Assn.

Although the new show at the Condor is called a Barbary Coast Revue, it is not a strictly accurate representation of the rough and tumble night life in the decades that followed the Gold Rush, Hansen said.

“It’s the Gay 90s feeling rather than the Barbary Coast,” Hansen said.

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The real Barbary Coast, of which Broadway was the northern boundary, was the scene of unequaled violence, crime and sexual depravity, according to historical accounts. Thousands of prostitutes, many of whom were child-slaves imported from China, plied their trade in the area. Sailors were regularly drugged, robbed and sold to the captains of ships looking for crews.

Not to Be Restored

“People couldn’t possibly want to bring that back,” Hansen said.

Instead, the show will feature banjo players, can-can girls, sea chanties, folk songs, and even shoot-outs at high noon in an eclectic mix of late 19th-Century nostalgia.

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Norton will do his part to set the tone at tonight’s show by dressing up as the Emperor Norton, a famous San Francisco eccentric who lost his mind when he lost his financial empire and wandered the streets in a uniform with epaulets and a cocked hat until his death in 1880.

Another historical figure appearing at tonight’s event will be Klondike Kate, a dance hall girl from Canada’s gold rush era portrayed by porn star Rita Ricardo. Ricardo became the Condor’s main act for about six months after Doda left in 1985.

The only historical personage missing from the New Year’s Eve show at the Condor is Doda herself. She couldn’t come, she said, because of a prior booking of her rock band, Carol Doda and Her Lucky Stiffs.

‘A Turning Point’

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Enrico Banducci, who has watched the rise and fall of Broadway’s clubs for more than 40 years from his cafe, Enrico’s, calls the Condor Club conversion “a turning point for the whole street.”

Banducci, 65, said he “didn’t give it a second thought” when Doda began her topless routine in 1964. But the initial excitement soon gave way to greed, he said.

“The barkers got nastier and nastier and ruined it,” Banducci said.

In the 1970s, the neighborhood also was invaded by “encounter parlors,” a scam in which customers paid by the minute to talk to nude women and often had their wallets emptied by vague promises that paying more money would buy them something more than visual contact.

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Now, the encounter parlors are gone, and Banducci says he is resigned to living with the relatively tame porn shops and strip joints “as long as it doesn’t affect the street.”

Nevertheless, Banducci, who owned the Hungry i in the late 1940s and ‘50s, does not like seeing his former property become the last topless outpost in North Beach. “It makes me cringe,” he said.

But Banducci is optimistic that better days are ahead. “We want to become an entertainment and restaurant area again,” he said.


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