In its infancy in 1964, the world was shocked when Carol Doda did the swim and the frug atop a grand piano wearing only a skimpy bathing suit design by Rudi Gernreich.
The topless entertainment business has evolved over the years. Kitty Chow, started as a stripper in Hawaii, moved to North Beach where she was hired as a dancer at the Condor, mastered the art of pole dancing, and honed her skills at producing and emceeing stage shows. She invited me and Isis Starr, who has been performing all over the world for forty-four years, and was Carol Doda’s replacement on the infamous piano. We gathered at the club to compare um, notes, yeah that’s it, on topless dancing in North Beach then and now.
Fifty years later the dancers are performing feats rivaling the expertise of Cirque du Soleil acrobats while scantily clad in nothing but a g-string! I must admit, I had never seen a real pole dancer in action until my visit to the Condor Club last month.
I met a lady named Kitty Chow over the internet while researching for my upcoming book about North Beach. Kitty was amazed to learn I had danced with Carol Doda in the early 1970s and convinced me to participate in a show she was not only producing, but emceeing, and performing in as well.
Kitty and I made plans to meet for the first time for an outing to a North Beach nightclub called Tupelo, where we would see Carol Doda herself take the microphone. Yes, she is still entertaining, folks!
As I rode the BART train to San Francisco I was excited, albeit apprehensive, going into the big city alone to meet a stripper I had seen on Utube only a few months prior. In the video she was being interviewed by two beautiful ladies from Speakeasily, a company that does TV for the internet. I found Kitty to be articulate, adorable, vivacious, and knowledgeable. She responded to my email immediately with enthusiasm and warmth, and we made plans to meet.
Walking up Columbus, I approached the famous strip club, The Condor, I got a rush of adrenaline remembering the old days when I was in the choreographed revue behind Carol Doda at the Off Broadway Club. “Age of Aquarius”, and “Hey Big Spender” played in my head, complete with costumes, sequins, feathers, and Capezio dance shoes. I introduced myself to the doorman and explained my mission. His entire demeanor softened when he heard my story. He treated me like a celebrity, introduced me to his co-workers and escorted me to a table while I waited for Kitty. As I looked around I saw the old neon sign on the wall; the one with the blinking nips that was on the corner of Broadway and Columbus for years. It’s replacement outside is modern, tasteful, and hip – no blinking nips.
I knew her immediately. What I didn’t expect was the wholesome, petite, gentle young lady standing before me. She was accompanied by a tall, handsome, well-dressed man who exuded confidence and power. Kitty and I were instant sister/friends. After introducing me to her boyfriend, James, I relaxed into a safety net of security and the three of us trucked off to the Tupelo around the corner.
What a group of musicians! There was not a performer under the age of 70, each performing with the grace and polish that comes from years of dedication. The rich tones of the saxophone, the old-school style of the drums, the band leader, Dick Winn, crooning into the microphone performing standards and show tunes of yesteryear, was dreamy and nostalgic.
When Carol Doda took the mic, a group of us were gathered at the bar which didn’t have a good view of the band. One of my new friends, twenty-something Anthony, knew I was there to see Carol, and politely asked if I would like a closer view. I smiled and nodded. He took my hand and led me to a high-top table at the edge of the dance floor. Carol, who still has a commanding stage presence after fifty years in show business, pointed two fingers in our direction and rasped into the mic, “You two. Dance!”
Oh boy. I had just met Anthony through Kitty and had no idea of his dancing ability. Well, was I surprised! He did an amazing East Coast Swing, and we put on a show like we were “Dancing with the Stars”. Little did I know that he and I would do a repeat performance onstage at the Condor a few weeks later.
On October 6, Kitty Chow put on a spectacular show at the Condor. The dancers wore amazing platform stilettos, twirled tassels with their boobies, hula-hooped with undulating hip action, and did impossible acrobatics on the pole. I was honored to be called a “Living Legend” as I was called to the stage. I strutted my Old-School Style performing “Let Me Entertain You” ala Gypsy Rose Lee. And like Gypsy, I only stripped my long white gloves and dropped a strap at the end!
Topless then and now – two different worlds, but both fun and exciting slices of unique North Beach life!