THE PLAYBOY CLUB: Members Only
From the kitchen of his South Side Chicago apartment to the world market, Hugh Hefner and Playboy’s international impact on popular culture as well as the male libido is undoubtedly unmatched. But how far can Playboy go?
Words: Shabe Allah
One could argue that Hugh Hefner single-handedly changed the global view of sexuality in the 20th century through his iconic brand Playboy, and its world-famous bunny insignia. Since the brand’s genesis in 1953, Hefner’s overarching cosmopolitan, bachelor-esq lifestyle (read swagger), was seen throughout every page of Playboy and effortlessly brought to life by every endeavor his company sought out to produce. As a result, Hef’s M.O. became the quintessential approach for how cultural curators should tend to their flock, has influenced many (men and female alike) and opened the doors to the laps of luxury for those who were once deemed unworthy of access. But it was the opening of his exclusive, members-only clubs all over the world that kept Hef’s dream of a liberated planet alive.
The new NBC drama series The Playboy Club, which premiere’s tonight in the States at 10PM Eastern/9PM Central, revisits that historic point when only the sleek and chic were afforded entry into Hefner’s virtual fantasy world. Starting in 1960 on Walton Street in Chicago’s South Side, the club founded by Hef and his partner, Victor Lownes III, promoted the desirable lifestyle that was once only attainable by a relative few—the uber rich and the uber infamous. Fashioned after the well-known Gaslight Clubs, the Playboy Club took the VIP experience to the next level using Hef’s bunnies as a draw for Chi-Town’s most celebrated tastemakers to what was eventually dubbed the first “Pop Up Club”.
Just as Playboy magazine served as a go-to guide for exclusive fashion, sophisticated nightlife, and exceptionally beautiful women, a membership to the legendary Playboy Club was the ultimate status symbol. Catering to a high echelon clientele known as “keyholders”, The Playboy Club was the perfect combination of classic style and modern ambience for the supreme bachelor. The club granted its mostly male members a chance to step onto the legendary pages of Playboy magazine, if only briefly, to live a day in the life of the brand’s founder, Editor In Chief and Chief Creative Officer.
Booze, bling and bunnies were are all the rage in these “hutches”, or members only clubs. These multi-level enclaves all possessed the standard hutch inclusions: a living room, library, playroom and most importantly, the luxurious penthouse. During the Eisenhower administration in the early days of its inception, Filet mignon and skewered steak were among the favorited items on the menu, while drinks served in heavy china mugs and cigarettes with a bunny lighter were a mere $1.50. Bunnies snapped pics for a nickel while performers such as a then unknown Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand and Billy Crystal graced the stage of Hef’s Playboy Circuit. Within two decades, the exclusive club spread to over a dozen cities worldwide. It’s membership peaked at about half a million (although the club only saw about 1/5 of its actual members) and boasted A-list celebrities such as Tony Bennett, Johnny Carson and The Beatles.
This adult Disneyland was also the first place that provided an opportunity to gawk at a Playboy bunny in the flesh. Compared to the casually, yet provocatively dressed waitress at an establishment like Hooters, the Playboy bunny has long exuded an air of class, sporting corsets, fishnets with a million dollar smile. A far cry from the male-caricature bunny featured in the brand’s logo, the Playboy bunny was and remains the ultimate sexual fantasy of almost every man on the planet.
When doors to the club opened, employment for single women with pay that rivaled and even surpassed those of certain male dominated professions swung wide open. The Playboy empire allowed women to purchase cars, condos and pursue college degrees while maintaining their dignity and having fun as a partner in Hef’s fantasy creation. The Bunny Manual, which was created by Mr. Hefner’s brother Keith, ensured that the Bunny image remained intact over the years and respectfully so. It serves as a code of conduct, which of course included the cardinal rule— no fraternizing with the club’s clients— a preventative measure to diminish any suspicion that the club may be used to solicit prostitution. Moreover, the manuel further amplifies the allure of the Playboy bunny; while she is just the girl next door, she is totally out of reach. And while some former and current Bunnies have found ways to bend those rules from time to time, and in the case of Hef and Playboy’s corporate circle, well, there really are no rules.
The 1960s was an era of civil and social upheaval and Playboy had no means of escaping it. Wounds of racial tension were fresh, so there were instances of Black and minority patrons being denied membership because of their race in most of the southern clubs. This, however, didn’t deter Hef from hiring Black women as Bunnies (called “chocolate Bunnies”), inviting notable Black personalities such as Sidney Poitier to the London opening, and offering comedian Dick Gregory a gig on the Playboy Circuit. These days with the global expansion of Playboy, all races and ethnicities can be found attached to the Playboy name from bunnies to execs, to Playboy club patrons.
But every business, including Playboy, has competition. With the oversaturation of porn mags, websites and strip clubs, not to mention the slow exit of Hef’s Peter Pan syndrome, the brand is at a crossroads. When Christie Hefner, the founder’s daughter, took the reins from her dad 20 years ago, the legendary name encountered a slight downward spiral. In 2008, the brand was $156 million in the red. Critics wrote off Playboy a has been of American culture. And the question as to whether Mr. Hefner could revive his brainchild in this new age of the Internet and instant gratification seemed to follow. In order to make Playboy relevant to a younger generation, Hef hired former Maxim EIC and mens’ magazine guru Jimmy Jellinek to serve as its new Editorial Creative Director overseeing Playboy’s print, online, film, radio and television content. And while Playboy TV (the company’s TV/cable arm that currently provides most of the brand’s revenue) has taken the biggest hit thanks to Internet porn, Jellinek’s experience at lad mag Maxim, which swallowed the anticipated audience of Playboy in recent years, may be the new blood the brand needs. He recently re-released every issue on Playboy’s website for Bunny connaisseurs everywhere.
In the midst of all this change, Mr. Hefner still has another card to play. With the former location of the original Playboy Club in Chicago’s Gold Coast district now known as Hugh Hefner Way, the prospect of this icon of sophisticated sexuality staying afloat is not beyond feasible. New clubs have sprouted up since the start of the new millenium in Las Vegas at the Palms Casino Resort as well as internationally in Mayfair, London and the Macau Sands Hotel in China. Sure, Hefner and Playboy having limited input when it comes to the clubs, but the owners of these establishments have vowed to honor the legacy that Hef has created through Playboy, religiously.
Simultaneously, the Playboy Club’s executive producers Chad Hodge and Academy Award winner Brian Grazer await the public’s response of tonight’s debut, which may bring a renewed interest in what Playboy brings to the table. Cities around the country have been hosting launch events using the Pop Up Club theme complete with gorgeous Playboy bunnies and the infamous keys. Without a doubt, Playboy has had a global influence on the meaning of sexy, but whether that influence can maintain well beyond Hef, is yet to be seen.