A Farewell for Carol Doda

Carol Doda is now ascending on that white piano…

Well, that’s that.

Carol Doda died.

I can’t tell you the countless times in my childhood I begged my father to drive down Broadway so I could see all the excitement… all the excitement of the signs climaxing with those blinking round bulbs circumnavigating the cartoon woman in the black bikini with delightful red-lit nipples. She was like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but twice as fun. It would not occur to me for an absurd amount of years that the bikini was actually her underwear. She was just past the dangerous gangster with the tommy gun. Her sign took up the entire corner. You could see it from Broadway and Columbus, coming and going. Most of the adults I knew had seen her dance at least once because it was as cheesy, beautiful, breathtaking, and enlightening—and routine—as crossing The Bridge. To hear them tell it, going to see Carol Doda was even better sightseeing; you know, in that way that something a little lurid, even groundbreakingly naughty, is never a letdown. No one else could be that cool. No one was that casual. And the thing is, it was fun. I mean, she descended from the ceiling on a trick piano. It didn’t feel creepy or dirty or even particularly oppressive because people were having fun. It was seedy, but it was silly.

Carol Doda

It was not a more innocent time. But it was a time when there was no silicon valley. There was only the silicone valley and that was the cleavage between those fabulous 44s. Maestro! Please! Audiences got turned on but made light of it. They were having it both ways: getting away with a forbidden dance, and laughing at everyone else for taking those mesmerizing mammaries so seriously. The Twin Peaks of North Beach. Strippers opened for comedians and comedians opened for strippers. And San Francisco was headquarters for both—consider the holy union of Lenny and Honey Bruce. That San Francisco didn’t turn the delights of looking into a heavy-handed—ahem—sport of thuggish, self-absorbed frat boys regurgitating testosterone into the gutters of a corridor ruined by high rents and impersonal media. And for better or worse, no one had yet come up with the phrase “the male gaze.” Ms Doda, officially the first topless go-go dancer, had quite a few female fans. She even testified on behalf of her colleagues when Earl Warren, Jr. judged her topless twist and frug at the Sacramento Indecency Trial in 1969. That was after Sly Stewart left her backup band to form Sly and the Family Stone. So she added Greg “Our Love’s In Jeopardy” Kihn as her musical director and took it all off for yuppies in the 70s and 80s. Her breasts were not original, or real, but her spirit was.

If you were wondering if “San Francisco is over”—the tired revelation of every party conversation these days, that our bawdy utopia is over… that the romance has been sold to the highest bidder… If you cringe at the “daring” youth who pop on the pasties for Halloween or Bay to Breakers, if you grieve for the spiritual experiment… you think the eastern span blowing up is emblematic, but you needed a sign from Francis, Buddha, your deity of choice to kick your insufferable butt straight to the blood moon… Waiter, we’ll take the reality check.

Carol Doda is now ascending on that white piano, far above the condos.

Honey, pray for rain and tell you what, we can still fight City Hall. We can show up to argue against turning the Palace of Fine Arts into a hotel, Thursday at 10 AM. And I suggest we do, if for no reason other than to honor her. Otherwise, it’s tits up.

By Tina Heringer

Tina Heringer is still living and working in San Francisco conceptually and otherwise. She is a farmer's daughter. She received her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute.