SAN FRANCISCO — The Condor nightclub--made famous by topless dancer Carol Doda and infamous by a killer piano--is about to be stripped of its longtime beacon, a 40-foot likeness of the buxom dancer, complete with blinking nipples.
The club's new owner plans to display the sign indoors when the newly overhauled Condor reopens as a combination cafe and dance spot. In its place will be a deco-style neon sign reading simply Condor Bistro.
Walter Pastore bought the Condor, the birthplace of topless dancing, a year ago after it had sat abandoned and deteriorating for 2 1/2 years. Since then, he has put $200,000 into the renovations.
"I feel this is the gateway to North Beach," Pastore said of his historic club, at the corner of Broadway and Columbus. "It's important to have it open and running."
The face lift is one of several steps the tawdry neighborhood is taking to try to clean up its act. Business has been devastated by the earthquake, freeway closures and the ever-shifting mores of the visiting public.
Topless certainly is no longer the draw that it was back in June, 1964, when dancer Doda first donned a topless bathing suit and gave rise to an industry. During the heyday in the '60s and early '70s, as many as 28 North Beach clubs presented topless entertainers. Only four topless joints remain, and Pastore owns three of them.
The Condor began toning down its image in the 1970s, when the owners dressed the sign's nude dancer with a bikini--although inside the topless entertainment continued.
Then, on New Year's Eve, 1987, the topless era at the Condor went out altogether with a grand finale. That night, the last topless show was followed by a Barbary Coast revue.
Days before, the club's owners had painted a dance-hall skirt and bodice over the figure's bikini on one side of the sign.
As a monument to the era, Pastore is establishing a museum inside the newly redone Condor. It will feature not only the flashing icon but also photos of Doda before and after the silicone injections that changed her from a 34B to a 44DD sensation. Another memento is a letter to her from Ronald Reagan, then California governor, thanking her for a tie she had sent him. A mirrored mannequin will display the flimsy little garment that began North Beach's evolution from a haven for beatniks and poets into the topless capital of the world.
And suspended from the ceiling, Pastore said, is "the famous killer piano" on which Doda was raised and lowered during her act. The day before Thanksgiving in 1983, a Condor employee and his girlfriend were being amorous atop the piano when they inadvertently tripped the mechanism that pulls the instrument to the ceiling. The man was crushed to death.
North Beach residents have mixed emotions about the prospect of losing the sign. Joan Dahlgren, publisher of North Beach Now, a neighborhood newspaper, on Thursday even asked the Smithsonian Institution in Washington whether it would be interested in taking the sign for its National Museum of American History.
John A. Fleckner, chief archivist, politely declined, saying he feared that the large sign would take up too much storage space and overwhelm the rest of the collection.
"You can imagine that this--or any other large commercial artifacts, for that matter--wouldn't be appropriate out on the Smithsonian Mall," Fleckner said later in a telephone interview.
Dahlgren, however, is unconvinced. "If they can find room for the Enola Gay, they can find room for this," she said.
At least one person is positively distressed at the thought of the sign's being put under wraps, as it were.
"I feel bad for the sign," said Doda, who runs her own lingerie shop on Union Street and sings with a rock 'n' roll band called Carol Doda and Her Lucky Stiffs. "Somehow it just feels like that poor sign is being abused."