Decades before Silicon Valley, silicone implants drew people far and wide to San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood.
Famous for Beatniks and Italian eateries, the area is also home to the Condor Club -- the first topless bar in America, founded in 1964, which sits at the corner of Broadway and Columbus. And in his new book, Topless Turns 50, San Francisco native Kurt van Leiden, creates a text that describes as well as mimics the peep show: a few bucks for a "lunch date"-length flirtation with the history and personages of a tawdry time gone by.
Central to his story are in-depth interviews with topless celebrity Carol Doda, who made the leap from dancing cocktail waitress to skin-baring sensation in a Rudi Gernreich monokini and a blonde bouffant wig on June 19, 1964. Singing and dancing atop a piano that rose up to the ceiling via hydraulic lift, Doda performed at the club until 1985 with a contour enhanced with 10 inches of silicone injections.
Van Leiden's investigation of topless performance in San Francisco ranges from trend to trivia, weaving together a history that captures the seamy world of 1960s North Beach, with the social ills of prostitution, gambling, and exploitation tempered by the unexpected innocence and optimism of the players involved.
Van Leiden, who lives in North Beach, was first drawn to the story when passing the landmark strip club.
"I remembered that old Carol Doda sign when I moved to the neighborhood. I read the plaque and noticed the fiftieth anniversary coming up. I wondered what anyone was doing about it. And then I got in touch with Carol and found that no one had talked about it with her."
After meeting Doda, who now operates the Carol Doda Champagne & Lace Lingerie Boutique on Union Street, he set out to interview others who knew the scene when: Herb Gold (who, among being a novelist, wrote for Playboy), civil rights lawyer and club regular Tony Serra, former senator John Burton, legendary poet and City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and more.
"Yes, this is a story about topless dancing, but everyone in it is over 70," says Van Leiden. "A lot of people who have peaked in some respects but are still active. Basically everybody is still in business or in show business or somehow kept their pursuit alive, even from back then."
Yet the book is also very much the story of a bygone era. "The appeal [of topless performance] has been diluted," he laments.
Now a lackluster attraction for convention-badge sporting out-of-towners, the clubs have dwindled in both numbers and charm. "There used to be over thirty venues in North Beach. Now it's dismal. The Lusty Lady just shut down. It's gross. They're having to tie themselves to mixed martial arts fighting and different secondary things to bring people in."
As a history of breast augmentation, Topless Turns 50 also marks a shift in the culture. "Back then, it was all about size, size, size. People were testing the absolute limits."
A straightforward, plainspoken account of the outsize and outré, Van Leiden's book is an 8000-word intermission in our soberer times. It's available as an e-book.