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Topless Clubs of Past Make Way for G-Rated Italian Cafes

December 30, 1992

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ When Carol Doda took off her top, tourists raced to North Beach to take a peek. But the neon glow of topless clubs is flickering out in the Italian neighborhood, making way for an earlier attraction - pasta.

Last summer’s dismantling of the Condor Club’s famous sign, a huge semi- nude dancer with blinking nipples, marked a symbolic end to topless as a primary North Beach lure.

The club where Doda launched her career in the early 1960s is now the Condor Bistro, a G-rated Italian cafe with a light menu and an array of coffees and liquers. And after years of luring crowds with her scientifically enhanced charms, Doda now performs - clothes on - as lead singer of a rock band.

″At the beginning, topless was stimulating. But it got seedy and died,″ said Marsha Garland, executive director of the North Beach Chamber of Commerce.

During its heyday in the early 1970s, Broadway buzzed with more than two dozen clubs where carnival-like barkers beckoned passersby to watch bare- breasted dancers. The era spanned 20 years.

But the availability of X-rated videos and harder-core venues made topless entertainment seem almost prudish. Today, only four nude clubs remain.

The other part of North Beach’s identity - its Italian roots - stretches back more than a century. About 80 percent of businesses in the neighborhood are still owned by people of Italian heritage, and that has become a selling point.

Century-old eateries such as Fior d’Italia compete with a new generation of restaurants like The Stinking Rose - with an all-garlic-flavored menu - and Calzones.

A new version of Enrico’s Sidewalk Cafe, dark since former owner Enrico Banducci closed it four years ago, opens in March. At its height, Enrico’s was a hip after-hours nightspot that attracted movie stars and other entertainers.

″The reopening signifies a face of North Beach as a hub of metropolitan, cosmopolitan activity,″ Garland said.

Still going strong is Tosca Cafe, a favorite of stars like Sam Shepard and Dennis Quaid, and City Lights bookstore, once literary headquarters for such Beat Generation figures as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Just two years ago, the area was fading fast. The 1989 earthquake destroyed the Embarcadero Freeway, then the main route into North Beach. The downturn in business, combined with rent increases during the 1980s, led some businesses to close.

But disaster eventually built strength.

″It shook the business community out of its complacency,″ said Joan Dahlgren, publisher of the monthly newspaper North Beach Now. ″I think the renaissance of North Beach is the silver lining of the 1989 earthquake.″

After the quake, business owners formed the chamber of commerce, which helped clean up the neighborhood, promote its Italian heritage and alert potential visitors to other routes into the area.

″There’s a big interest on the part of merchants - and I think this is unique to North Beach - of working together,″ said Walter Pastore, owner of the Condor Bistro and three of the four remaining nude-dancing spots on Broadway. He is one of the chamber’s founding members.

North Beach was the city’s waterfront during the 1800s, a place to find booze during Prohibition, and later a beatnik neighborhood. In 1964, several clubs along Broadway began offering topless dancing. The bottoms came off two years later.

Jerry Lawton has spent 15 of his 23 years as a barker at the Hungry I, tempting passersby with risque come-ons. In mid-1970s, his job was easy. The sidewalks were jammed.

″There were 72 barkers out here at one time,″ Lawton recalled. ″Everyone had a doorman. When you’ve got that many people you can’t lose.″

These days he works part time, mostly when the sun is up.

″You put 23 years of your life into something,″ he said. ″You don’t want to go out completely.″

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