A national treasure died last month and because I had the opportunity to intersect with her, my life and even more, my husband’s life, was a tiny bit more thrilling. Carol Doda was a true pioneer — one of the first women, at least in the Bay Area, to have her breasts pumped up with silicone injections. One morning her bust size was 34B, later that day it was 44DD. A star was born. She was widely credited with triggering a nationwide topless revolution as a 26-year-old go-go dancer in 1964 and it was that year that I first saw her. I was a student at Cal eating my lunch on the grass when I saw her walking across campus with the student body president, Mel Levine. In those days, Levine, who later served in the California State Assembly, was known as a bit of a prig but that day, strutting next to the lovely Miss Doda, he looked like he’d won the lottery. Pleased as punch comes to mind. In my memory he was wearing a three-piece pin striped suit but, in fact, it might have been a blazer – it was clear, however, that he was dressed for an occasion. As I watched them make their way to the Student Union, I was a little worried about Miss Doda. She seemed a little wobbly in her three-inch heels and because she was so tiny, gave the illusion of being perilously top heavy. (I say illusion because I don’t think liquid silicone is heavy.) It looked to me that Mr. Levine was trying hard to focus on walking and talking and not stealing sideways glances at her breasts. Anyway, they were on their way to some kind of appearance, though, for the life of me, I can’t remember for what event. A lecture on quantum physics? The history of the rotary engine? The silicone chip? Maybe I don’t remember the topic because I didn’t attend, I only read an account of it the next day in the Daily Cal.
Before I relate the account, let me set the scene. Although the year was 1964, the atmosphere on campus was decidedly pre-feminist 1950’s. The official hostesses for the university were Oski dolls, a harem of virginal “co-eds” who were trotted out to provide eye candy at all manner of events on campus. In the dorm, girls who missed lock-out were punished by being “campused” — confined to their rooms the following Saturday night (my history of tardiness landed me on that list more Saturdays than I like to remember.) The hottest controversy on campus involved the jukebox (or lack thereof) in the Bear’s Lair, the campus non-alcoholic pub. (The real 1960’s exploded a year later with the Free Speech movement.) At least on the surface, it was an innocent time.
According to the report in the Daily Cal, the event had a smooth start. A faculty adviser talked for a couple of minutes and then introduced President Levine who was seated on the stage next to Miss Doda. But President Levine was unable to stand up. Instead, his face turned beet red and, again according to the article, he needed a minute to “compose” himself.
I was reading the article out loud to my then-boyfriend as we ate breakfast on the terrace of the campus cafeteria. As I read it, I was sure the newspaper had accidentally, cropped the bottom of the article, the part that explained why he turned beet red and why he couldn’t stand up. I read it again and I still didn’t get it. (As I say, it was an innocent time.) My then boyfriend laughed and he explained. To this day, I still have a hard time getting it. After all, Mr. Levine wasn’t a hormone-soaked 15-year-old forced to think about Bugs Bunny or bloody car accidents when, unbidden, erotic thoughts intruded.
The next time I saw Miss Doda was many years later when I was assigned to interview her by my editor at California Living, the Sunday Magazine of the San Francisco Examiner. By that time, she was 50-years-old and still dancing topless at the Condor in North Beach. She may have been 50 but she was still an icon to my husband, at heart, still a wide-eyed Canadian boy from rural Ontario and for the first and only time in my career as a journalist, he asked if he could accompany me to an interview.
My appointment with her was at 10 p.m. at the Condor. We sat down and ordered drinks and at about 10:30, a man named Louie introduced himself, explaining that he was Miss Doda’s “light man.” At first we were puzzled. We had never known anyone with a personal light man but then it dawned on us: when you are still dancing topless at the age of 50, your light man is key. And Louie was indeed, an artist. When Miss Doda was on the stage and he was working his illumination magic, she didn’t look a day over 25 — especially her boobs which kind of had a life of their own.
Either silicone doesn’t age or she had received occasional nips and tucks to keep the receptacles in position. In addition to the artistry of her light man, there were other special effects — she descended while go-go dancing, atop a white grand piano as it was hydraulically lowered from a hole in the ceiling.
A half-hour after her first show, Louie escorted her to our table. She was very sweet but also a little spacey. Not sayin’ she was on something but her eyes were a tiny bit glazed and her body language was as loose as her associations. As a result, the interview was more style than content but my husband did not complain. She was an icon and he was up close.
My most indelible memory of the Condor, however, didn’t directly involve Carol Doda but it did involve the piano. (I hope the adage “tragedy plus time equals comedy” applies.)
At 4 a.m. on November 23 1983, the bouncer, Jimmy “the Beard” Ferrozzo and his girlfriend, exotic dancer Theresa Hill, decided it would be fun to make love on top of the famous white piano. In the heat of passion, Jimmy accidentally kicked the “up” switch on the lift and the piano ascended. When it hit the ceiling, it squished the couple, snuffing the life out of poor Jimmy. It was, however, a heroic, if unintentionally heroic, death. Apparently his body, which was quite hefty, cushioned Theresa who lived to dance exotically and erotically another day.
In November, when Carol Doda was eulogized by her friend Jim Hartley, he said he thought of her as a combination of Joan Rivers, Marilyn Monroe and Mother Theresa. I pondered this. Joan Rivers=silicone, Marilyn Monroe= blonde with ample breasts. Mother Theresa? And then I remembered. The pope is considering her for sainthood because of the miracles she performed. Apparently there have to be two. If groundbreaking can be considered miracles, then Miss Doda qualifies. Number one: she gets full credit for ushering in topless dancing. Number 2: a little bit of research unearthed the fact that she was responsible for introducing piña colada flavored knickers at a lingerie shop she owned after retiring from the Condor. Not quite the same as treating leprosy among the poorest of the poor but one kind of miracle.