Back Story

The ‘nude’ girl in the fish bowl

Bimbo’s sea fantasy. Photo:

The other day I had lunch at Original Joe’s with Maxine Maas, 90 years old, great legs with trim ankles and a face that reminded me of Ursula Andress, the Bond girl in the movie Dr. No. My buddy Tommy Nunan, himself a fine judge of pulchritude, brought Maxine down from Napa so I could meet her. Why did Tommy think I would want to meet Maxine? Because she was the ‘nude’ girl in the fish bowl at Bimbo’s 365 Club. And if you don’t know about the nude girl in the fish bowl at Bimbo’s, you’re new to this city or just haven’t been paying attention to important bits of San Francisco’s cultural history.


I interviewed Maxine over lunch, and I enjoyed her company. She began with a straight-up gin martini. And I commenced my day with a Bloody Mary, straight up, shaken but not stirred, and poured into a wine glass.

Over drinks and the Joe’s Special, Maxine told me that as a youngster she led a peripatetic life. At an early age she was dreaming about the movies and began running away from home. She wanted to go to Hollywood and be a star. “It was a powerful attraction for me,” Maxine said.


She was born in San Diego, and her family moved to Oklahoma, where her father began plugging for oil. He didn’t find oil, but he did find deposits of guano in bat caves, and that led to his undoing. One day he slipped into a crevice and later died of his injuries. The family returned to San Diego, and Maxine continued to run away from home. “All fallen women were in the theater,” she told me. So she took voice lessons and worked in a modeling agency where the famous Dadaist Man Ray photographed her.


Then for stability, her mother brought her to the San Francisco Bay Area. Maxine promptly became a taxi dancer in Oakland while still in high school. But the job as a dime-a-dance girl in the Rose Room Ballroom came to an abrupt halt after several months. Her mother got her fired.

“I was making good money, too. I made five cents a dance, and the house got five cents. I liked to dance, and my partners [mostly sailors] were nice and polite. No one got fresh with me. A pinch on the butt or an exaggerated bow and a kiss on the hand weren’t unusual,” she said. One day, on demand, the young Maxine marched into the boss’s office and there was her mother. “My mother told Mrs. Schumann, the boss, ‘Do you know how old this girl is?’ I was 14. I got my coat, and my mother and I left, and that was the end of my taxi dancing job,” she said.


One job Maxine’s mother approved of was to appear at the 1939-40 World’s Fair on Treasure Island. Maxine appeared with Art Linkletter’s Melodrama Theater as a chorus singer and dancer. So once again she was in show business and this time her costume was a nice, frilly pink dress. She wore grease paint on her face, and sang Stephen Foster songs like “Oh Susanna” and between performances hung out with the circus people.


When the World’s Fair was over, Maxine found another job (without her mother’s knowledge) at the Old Palace Theater, a San Francisco burlesque house. There she became what was called a “parade girl.” In a flesh-colored body stocking, a swim suit, and sequined, high-heeled pumps that glittered, Maxine walked out on stage between acts blowing kisses to the audience. Over her shoulders she wore a sandwich board. On one side of the board was printed “applause.” The other side announced the next act.

That job didn’t last either. Her mother got her fired. “It was a good job,” Maxine said, “I made $3.75 per performance.”


“At one point, I worked as an understudy for various parts in San Francisco’s Curran Theater,” she said. The notorious Howard Hughes movie The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell, was playing in the same block at the time. One day on the set at the Curran, when Maxine was the understudy for Junior Miss, she said, “Howard Hughes walked in and pointed his finger at me. He took me to a nightclub called the Bal Tabarin. At the end of the evening we got into his limo, he took me back to the theater, and let me out. That was my date with Howard Hughes.”


In 1940, she entered the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in dramatic arts. And while there, still hell-bent on a show business career, she got a job at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco as the nude girl in the fish bowl. “I had to pay my bills,” she recalls.

Bimbo’s 365 Club was operated by an Italian immigrant from Tuscany named Agostino Giuntoli. His nickname was Bimbo (short for bambino, Italian for little boy). He opened Bimbo’s on Market Street in 1931. The Depression was still rampant, and Prohibition caused speakeasies to open all over the city. At Bimbo’s, there was a one-way mirror on the door that warned when police were about to raid the place for illegal alcohol. Even then the club featured the nude girl in the fish bowl. The first women to take that job were burlesque dancers, and one who became famous was named Tempest Storm.

Deep in the basement of the club was a catacomb of tunnels and a small room with a platform on which a woman reclined naked. A periscope of angled mirrors projected her image (about six inches long) into the nightclub above from what appeared to be an underwater grotto.


By the time college girl Maxine got her job at Bimbo’s, she gyrated on a backstage bench and that made it appear as if she was swimming in a glass fish bowl behind the bar. She let her hair down and wore a flesh-colored body stocking. She recalls that her physical dimensions in inches were 35-25-35, and she was a natural blonde.

There were three fishbowl girls at the time. Maxine worked the most popular nights — Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. She earned $7 a night.

“And that’s how I put myself through college,” she said.


Maxine married her husband, Al, in 1944, and he marched off to fight in World War II. He died in 1978. Maxine’s show business drive did not slow down. She went to Chicago for a production of Rosemarie. When the show closed, she took off for New York and worked at the Copacabana as a showgirl. And then she got a part in the Broadway show Up in Central Park, but not as a headliner. “I was never a headliner except at Bimbo’s,” she says ruefully.

Returning to the West Coast, she went back to school and got a master’s degree in social service from the University of San Francisco and moved to Contra Costa County, where she worked for many years as a juvenile probation officer.

Then in 1987 she relocated to Napa, where now she serves as a docent at the di Rosa Preserve, the art gallery founded by the late Rene di Rosa. “And that’s my life,” she concluded.


I had a final question for Maxine: “What’s your secret to longevity,” I asked.

Here’s her answer: “I used to say, one never gives up smoking, drinking, and entertaining men. But I’m not sure what I would say now, having given up smoking since all my men friends had to. My secret to longevity is a group of friends, young, old, and in between, with diverse interests, that you love dearly and feel are important. And good genes might be helpful.”

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