"I was there..."
by Dick Boyd
I had lunch in 2008 with Maurice Bessiere, my old partner in Pierre’s on Broadway where the Hungy i now resides, and another former club owner Art Norack. During the ’60s and ’70s Art owned or was a partner in almost every club along Broadway. That list of clubs included El Cid, the Peppermint Tree, Pierre’s and Basin Street West.
El Cid, 1964.
Photo: Dick Boyd
Naturally the topic of conversation was “the old days” along Broadway and some of the great and funny stories. Art had far and above the most stories about entertainers as he had hired some of the best known at the time. To name just a very few; there was Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Dave Brubeck, Janis Joplin, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Ike & Tina Turner, all at Basin Street West and Little Richard at the Peppermint Tree and “Topless Mother of Eight” Gaye Spiegelman at El Cid. Maurice and I could only listen in wonderment although we had some stories of our own; Art’s were the highlight of the lunch.
Grand opening at El Cid.
Photo: Dick Boyd
Here’s one: Basin Street had breakfast shows on Fridays and Saturdays. It was a Saturday night breakfast show. The breakfast shows started at 2:30AM. Often other entertainers performing around town would drop by and Art would introduce them and a spotlight was cast on them. On this particular morning, Tina Turner was the entertainer. Janis Joplin, who had just come in after a performance at Winterland for promoter Bill Graham, was in the audience. When introduced and without an invitation she simply jumped on the stage. Tina gave her a “look,” then without missing a beat, did a knock down drag out rendition of her favorite, Proud Mary. She then handed the mic to Janis, who gave her the “look” back, then proceeded to sing her signature hit, “Piece of My Heart.” Needless to say, the audience was in a frenzy screaming for more. They obliged the audience and continued this amazing duel until 4:30AM when Art finally had to turn all the lights on to get them to stop. How lucky was that unsuspecting Sunday morning crowd to witness that once in a lifetime exhibition? Even Herb Caen mentioned this incredible event in his next column, lamenting he wasn’t there.
Art followed with another story this time courtesy of Redd Foxx. Every Christmas Art would arrange for many of the entertainers along Broadway to go to San Quentin to perform for the inmates. Just coincidentally, this particular Christmas, there had been an escape attempt about a week before that failed because the rope the escapees used broke. After Redd’s act he looked out at the crowd and made the following invitation to the inmates, “I’ll be appearing at Basin Street West through next week,” Then after a long pause accompanied by that classic Redd Foxx grin, “if you can get a new rope.” Even the guards cracked up. Unfortunately the cons who had made the unsuccessful attempt were in solitary and unable to hear the invitation.
Caesar's Band in action, 1960s.
Photo: Dick Boyd
Not surprisingly the conversation turned to the topless era. In all truthfulness I REALLY only saw one besides the girls who appeared at Pierre’s and I was usually too busy behind the bar to pay much attention. The one I saw was at Cokes about 1967. It was more of an exhibition of female genitalia than a dance. Anyway there was a consensus that the top three were Carol Doda, Yvonne D’Angier and Gaye Spiegelman.
Since Maurice, Art and myself are “older” and still around we shared what we knew about the fate of the top three topless dancers.
Carol Doda is still around the City. She has a Lingerie Shop on Union Street and sings from time to time at various clubs or events around the Bay Area. She can be seen from time to time at Gino and Carlo’s or eating at various restaurants around North Beach.
All we knew about Yvonne D’Angier is that she is in Las Vegas and is reported to be in poor health.
Gaye Spiegleman suffered a tragic end. In November of 1968 she suffered the same fate as Jayne Mansfield who was decapitated in a tragic automobile accident. The difference was that three of Gaye’s children died with her.
Art Norack is an enigma. Just short of 83, he still has a couple businesses that he oversees from a distance. Besides being a successful businessman, running clubs at night back in the ’60s and ’70s, Art was one of the top high school basketball officials in the Bay Area at the same time. He is the only high school basketball official to be inducted into the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame.