“CAROL DODA TOPLESS AT THE CONDOR”
Starring Carol Doda, Pete Mattioli, Benita Mattioli, Art Thanash, Charlie Farrugia, Philip DerDevanis, George Faulknor, Dina Moore, Charles North
Directed and written by Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker
Based on the book “Three Nights at the Condor,” by Benita Mattioli
Produced by Marlo McKenzie, Jonathan Parker, Rachel Antell, Vince Palomino, Jennifer Petrucelli and Lars Ulrich
Cinematography by Patrick Fogarty and Marlo McKenzie
Edited by Jennifer Mayer

By Matt Neufeld
April 4, 2024

In 1964, as much-needed, most-welcome, sanity-saving and long-overdue cultural, racial, sexual, justice, civic, counter-culture, educational, political, economic, environmental, feminist and anti-establishment cultural and political revolutions were thankfully quickly changing the country and the world, all for the betterment of mankind, of course, there was, tucked away in a corner of the entertainment world, one area of pop culture—-burlesque dancing—-that remained firmly ensconced in a time capsule of old-timey charming innocence. Burlesque dancers in mid-1964 were still innocently dancing with their tops and bottoms fully covered. They were still beautiful, exotic, sexy, inviting and sexual and sensuous, of course–but they were also still quite covered up.

Until one notable, beautiful, intelligent, talented and creative dancer named Carol Doda suddenly, surprisingly and stunningly appeared one memorable mid-June summer night onstage at San Francisco’s Condor Club–gasp!!–with her top off! And, quickly, in a brief but eternally influential moment in time, a seismic, groundbreaking and trailblazing eruption abruptly occurred, sending shockwaves of a welcome sort trembling and exploding throughout the burlesque, dancing, music, nightclub, nightlife, entertainment and popular culture worlds. Topless dancing was suddenly born in the United States–thank goodness–and entertainment was never the same again. Thank goodness. And thank goodness for Carol Doda, a true trailblazing hero if there ever was one. And, yes, that’s not overstating the case–Carol Doda did become a hero, and she is a hero. Her simple but groundbreaking appearance as a topless dancer helped set in motion certain liberating, progressive, forward-thinking and quite healthy aspects of not only the entertainment and pop culture worlds, but also of the burgeoning, growing sexual and feminist revolution worlds.

And that’s not over-stating the case, either. Yes, it may seem hard to believe today, with mountains of legal, adult female nudity as accessible as a click of the remote for your cable television, but in 1964 it was indeed literally world-changing, culture-changing and society-changing for people to witness something as simple and easy as Carol Doda dancing in public at a nightclub with her quite human and quite normal breasts exposed.

Literally within a month or two after the news about Carol’s topless dancing at the thriving, jam-packed, mammothly-successful Candor Club spread throughout San Francisco’s thriving, busy, popular and densely-packed entertainment district in the North Beach neighborhood, suddenly every club featured the then-novel, but incredibly, increasingly and popular, topless dancing! A star was born, and her name was Carol Doda, and a revolutionary form of entertainment was subsequently, concurrently born, too. And this new cultural child’s name was simply topless dancing. Later to become known as stripping, striptease and exotic dancing. And burlesque dancers would soon be known as strippers. It all happened in a flash–pun fully intended– and we all have Carol Doda to thank, as she is dully recognized as the first public entertainment topless dancer in U.S. history.

And now, on the sixtieth anniversary of Carol’s momentous, historic first topless appearance, a most hilariously, thoroughly enjoyable and light-hearted documentary about Ms. Doda and the Condor Club is hitting theaters, and everyone should do themselves a huge entertaining favor and dance themselves out to the theaters and see, and enjoy, this well-researched, well-documented, well-written and well-directed film, simply but eloquently titled “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor.”

This excellent, educational, informative, funny and endlessly entertaining documentary is worth your time, efforts and money. This is the new film to see in theaters this early-April weekend. Besides being thoroughly entertaining, there’s a great story to follow, great archival footage, great educational research, and concurrent equally-great interviews with some of the more funny, grounded, normal, intelligent and lively entertainers, dancers, strippers, burlesque dancers, bartenders and business people you could ever hope to find. Their candor about the Condor, Carol Doda, North Beach, San Francisco and striptease dancing is so refreshingly honest, open, insightful and down-to-earth, and, well, normal, it’s continually welcome and refreshing to just sit back and listen to their great individual stories and their attendant great overall stories about the Condor, Carol Doda and the explosion of topless, and then bottomless, dancing.

The fun, funny, lucid, detailed and well-told stories in the documentary come straight from the major players who were actually there, at the Condor, in North Beach, in San Francisco, at fellow competing nightclubs and in the thriving burlesque, striptease and nightclub communities of 1960s, 1970s and 1980s San Francisco nightlife. And, joyfully and insightfully, at the forefront of the documentary, appropriately, is Carol Doda herself, in all of her classy, funny, sexy entertainment, burlesque, striptease and dancing glory. Fortunately, the video cameras and news reporters and interviewers and reporters loved Carol Doda–and she loved them right back! Carol was never shy about giving an interview, speaking her mind, making a major statement of purpose, fighting the dark side of the establishment, fighting the darkness of puritanical, repressed and upright, backwards morons, and standing up for and speaking out in full favor of freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of performance and the inherent, but very real, freedom of simply performing in public on a stage in a legal, healthy and fun environment while also just happening to have your top off!

And this encouraging, healthy, smart and straightforward attitude toward and about striptease dancing is refreshing. There’s no questioning, criticizing, admonishing, bashing or oddly- and wrongly-over-moralizing about out striptease dancing in the documentary. Thank goodness. That’s because these women and men–note the inclusion of women first here–simply get it: There is absolutely nothing wrong with grown women dancing without their clothes in a safe, controlled, adult, mature and professional entertainment environment. Absolutely nothing. And many of the interviewees in the documentary are former strippers who just happen to be former friends, acquaintances and co-workers of Carol Doda. They were all there, right there, at the Condor and at other equally-successful and popular clubs in North Beach and San Francisco. And they all say, clearly and proudly, that they are eternally proud of their hard work as classy, stylish and eloquent strippers. They’re also proud of their rightful place in entertainment history. Their exuberance, pride and support of burlesque and striptease dancing is smart, refreshing, honest and, the truth be told, steeped in reality.

Because the reality is that most professional strippers are not exploited or forced to do what they do, and, also truth be told, many strippers do what they do on their own accord, they enjoy dancing, no one is forcing them to dance, and, if anything, it’s their dazed and confused horny male customers who are the ones rendered somewhat powerless. Go to any strip club and watch these poor, hapless, awestruck male customers throw down hundreds of dollars on food, over-priced drinks and dollar-bill tips, and, well, who are the real suckers here?! It’s certainly not the strippers, who are happily dancing their way to the bank, success and prosperity.

Through the years, I’ve talked to dozens of strippers, from the West Coast to the East Coast and at points in between, and they all laugh–literally laugh–at the misguided, wayward–and wrong–notion that anyone’s exploiting them. I talked to two strippers who put themselves through nursing school from their dancing. And they continued dancing, even after working day jobs as nurses. Because they enjoyed it. I talked to a stripper who put herself through law school from her dancing. Others have told me stories about how they paid for new houses and new cars and how they raised their kids through the money they earned from striptease dancing. Exactly who’s being exploited here? No one.

And this is all relevant to “Carol Doda Topless at the Candor” because this important point–a true point about female and feminist strength, freedom of expression and the very real set of human and civil and constitutional rights to bear arms and breasts and stomachs and legs and bottoms and everything else on an adult woman dancer’s body on a stage in the name of legal entertainment is as inherent a right as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In fact, “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” happily demonstrates through its well-presented, well-constructed, well-educated and extremely well-researched and well-documented body of evidence–pun fully intended– that striptease dancing and burlesque dancing for many, if not most, people, including the happy, healthy and successful dancers themselves, that exotic dancing in many ways symbolically and realistically truly do fully represent, again, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Carol Doda knew this. She exuberantly embraced her sudden fame, and she subsequently happily, giddily rode on her successful boa-tails for decades after her initial, historical burst of fame. She held royal court at the Condor for years, joyfully packing the house show after show, night after night, year after year; she danced at other clubs; she appeared in an endless array of newspapers, magazines, fanzines, industry publications, radio and television interviews, movies, bands, voice-over work and other, varied endeavors; and she thoroughly enjoyed her deserved status as a hero, mentor, guide, trailblazer and groundbreaker. Good for her, good for the entertainment industry in general, and good for the overall and simple idea of freedom of expression for smart, hard-working adults in professional, legal, mature atmospheres and environments.

And Carol Doda fought back against the misguided, wayward and repressed right-wing, conservative morality police who, for still generally unexplained insane reasons, decided to attack the burlesque world. In 1965, for some still psychologically unexplained reasons, some repressed San Francisco conservative goons decided one night to illegally and immorally raid the Condor and other strip clubs. It was wrong, dumb, ridiculous–and flat-out illegal. Carol, other strippers, club owners and club managers were hauled downtown, erroneously booked on literally non-existent, false and just bogus charges, and, after the clubs’ lawyers were called and brought things back down to earth and reality, all of the non-existent charges were abruptly dropped and everyone was released–to go right back to work entertaining the masses. Carol Doda was right there, in the middle of it all, and she coolly, smartly and correctly defended herself, other strippers, the Condor and other clubs.

In showing these crazy raids–all documented on camera from actual footage captured on film at the time of the raids–this smart documentary raises an important question about why certain conservatives were, and still are, to this day sixty years later, so oddly, weirdly and crazily uptight and hung up about legal, adult exotic entertainment, female nudity and legal adult entertainment. It’s funny and refreshing to see Carol and her other stripper peers in the documentary calmly, coolly and intelligently bash those morons who would bash them, with Carol and her friends all talking with intelligent insight, context and perspective and with a big, knowing smile on their faces.

The various club owners, bartenders, bouncers and publicists who worked at the Condor and other North Beach clubs are equally funny, smart and insightful in the documentary in their recollections about those crazy, fun times. They tell their stories with numerous, knowing nods and winks, fully knowing that Carol and her colleagues were simply doing what the best entertainment and entertainers always do: give the people what they want. Professionally, safely, legally and honestly, of course.

In the ensuing decades after Carol’s momentous groundbreaking moves at the Condor, nude dancing would quickly envelop the country. Strip clubs sprouted everywhere. Busy, fun, crowded and neon-lit red-light entertainment districts erupted in big cities and small towns across the amber and red waves of grain. Spunky hoochie-coochie tent shows drew long lines to see long legs at fairs, carnivals, roadshows and sideshows across the land. Films and television shows embraced nudity. Playboy, Penthouse, Larry Flynt’s empire of magazines and hundreds of similar magazines celebrated legal, adult nudity. The sexual, gay rights, entertainment, publishing and feminist revolutions brought a newfound liberation, celebration and revelation to modern-day life. And all was enjoyably right with the world.

In 1969, five years after she appeared topless at the Condor, Carol Doda took the next step and appeared onstage topless and bottomless, dancing completely nude. And the revolution continued. This time, there were no more moronic, illegal raids.

Carol Doda continued dancing into her forties, into the early 1980s. After she retired from dancing, she still entertained. She sang in bands, did voice-over work, and she opened a classy boutique in San Francisco–selling, naturally, exotic and sensual clothing and accessories. And she always continued to give interviews and reflect honestly, openly and intelligently about her fame and influence–and importance.

Carol Doda was very similar to another famous burlesque dancer and stripper, Baltimore’s own Blaze Starr. I had the great fortune to interview Blaze Starr in the 1980s, at the time of the release of the excellent 1989 biographic film “Blaze,” about her equally-entertaining burlesque life. Blaze Starr, too, intelligently and entertainingly talked openly about, and proudly defended, her entertaining work as a burlesque dancer. She enjoyed her work and her life, and she was proud of what she accomplished. And she was just over-the-moon happy about the movie “Blaze.” Interestingly, I interviewed Blaze Starr at a jewelry kiosk that she ran at a suburban Baltimore mall, which is one of the things she did in her post-dancing life. Imagine that!

And now we have a movie about Carol Doda. Sadly, Carol is not with us to celebrate the release of “Carol Doda Topless at the Condor.” But she was indeed with us right up until not too long ago. Carol died from kidney failure in 2015 at the age of 78.

But Carol’s memory, influence and spirit live on in many ways.

In 2024 in the D.C. and Baltimore areas, five burlesque gentlemen’s clubs endure, and they’re generally recognized as some of the more respected, classy and welcoming strip clubs in the country. In Baltimore, The Penthouse Club and Fantasies enjoy continued respect and success. In D.C., Good Guys, Camelot and Archibald’s enjoy continued respect and success. They are, simply, welcoming, safe, fun and entertaining places.

And across those red-light-touched amber waves of liberated grain, back in North Beach in San Francisco, in 2024, the original Condor Club, where Carol Doda sixty years ago proudly set the world on fire by simply dancing without her top on, is still open, is still in business, and still proudly rocks and rolls in all its nudey hoochie-coochie striptease burlesque glory.

The Condor Club is located on Broadway Street in North Beach. And, yes, here, the neon lights of the Condor Club still brightly shine on Broadway. And the legacy of Carol Doda proudly lives on in those neon lights, shining brightly, defiantly and entertainingly as an enduring symbol of nothing less than the inalienable rights to nightlife, expressive liberty and the burlesque pursuit of happiness.

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Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years.