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As Hugh Hefner expanded the playboy brand by introducing readers to aspects of his lifestyle, he and Victor Lownes wanted to make playboy a physical place that readers could visit. The general idea was to create an experience that mirrored that of the Playboy Mansion, but without Hef having to invite people into his home.
The pair drew inspiration for what would become the Playboy Club from a November, 1956 piece the magazine ran on a Chicago key club called The Gaslight.
“The Gaslight’s gimmick was the lock on the door,” Jonathan Rhoades wrote. “Its owner had locked up for business, first taking pains to slip several hundred two-pronged keys into the hands of the town’s noted free-spenders. When word got out that there was a private club on Rush Street and an influential citizen might just barely have a chance of wangling a key of his very own, the Gaslight was off and running.”
Certain aspects of The Gaslight sound familiar. Others, less so.
“The new member is apt to find the scantily dressed waitresses just as palatable as the fine booze served at the Gaslight, for they look as though they had been interrupted very early in a dressing session at a Champs Élysées salon. The waitresses are used to fanny-patting, bust-staring, leg pinching — all are taken in stride until a certain point, at which the key holder becomes an ex-key holder. The ultimate social error at the Gaslight is the pat or pinch aimed at the waitress carrying a loaded tray and thus unable to protect herself. This is automatic grounds for expulsion.”
playboy received 3,000 letters after the article ran, asking for tips on how to subscribe to the Gaslight Club. playboy promotions director Victor Lownes saw an opportunity. He told Hef that the magazine had an obvious audience for a key club, and that they were perfectly positioned to open a series of their own. Hef agreed, with reservations.
“My concern with the clubs was, since we were dealing with dreams and fantasies, how could you re-create that in a club atmosphere?” Hefner told Vanity Fair in 2011. “And whatever we did, would the keyholders be disappointed? What we discovered was exactly the opposite. Because it was playboy, they brought the fantasy with them. We also put together a very good club.”
The club was an instant hit. They sold keys for $25, a price reasonable enough for 50,000 men to sign up for the club in its first year alone. Chicago’s Gold Coast, a wildly happening nightlife neighborhood, played host to the first-ever Playboy Club in February 29, 1960 at 116 E. Walton Street. They had their location, but they needed two things. Girls and costumes for the girls to wear. To solve the girl problem, they ran the following ad in the Chicago Tribune.
“Playboy is opening a new key club … catering to Chicago’s most prominent executives and sportsmen. To serve our exclusive clientele and decorate the club, we are looking for thirty single girls between 18 and 23. Experience is not necessary. Just be beautiful, charming and refined.”
They had the girls, they just needed the costumes. Lownes said that he had always thought of the playboy bunny as a boy rabbit. Hef disagreed, and felt that the waitresses ought to be distinct from Playmates but still recognizably associated with the magazine. So the Bunny costume was born. Lownes’ girlfriend, a Latvian refugee named Ilse Taurins, had her mother design the suit, which originally looked like a bathing suit with ears. Hef stepped in, raising the sides of the outfit above the hip to accentuate the legs, eliminating the fringe, and adding a collar and cuffs.
The club became a massive overnight success with minimum promotion in the pages of the magazine. The first article promoting the club didn’t appear until the August, 1960 issue. Then, however, an illustrated Femlin appeared on the cover, dangling a key in front of the reader. The pictorial and accompanying article painted a decadent picture of the club’s goings-on.
“There is no name of any kind outside announcing what lies within to the uninitiated—only the rabbit emblem in black and silver on either side of the door and stamped upon the taut white canvas of the canopy. Once inside, the member finds a warmth and intimacy, combined with a cocktail party gaiety, that one would expect only in a private apartment. There is fine food and drink and entertainment and, of course, numberless beautiful women—many of them models and some of them Playmates from past issues of the magazine. The girls are called Bunnies and they’re invitingly attired in brightly colored rabbit costumes, complete to the ears and white cotton tails. A Bunny greets you as you enter and asks for your key number; then your name is posted on the members’ board for the time that you are in the club, so that friends will know that you are there.”
Bunnies were strictly regulated. The Bunny Manuals regulated behavior on a level that most would consider absurd. They could smoke a puff at a time, resting the cigarette on an ashtray and definitely not in the hand. The Bunny Perch meant the young woman sat on the back of a chair or rested her hip on a bannister. The Bunny Stance meant that one foot was behind the other, with hips square. The Bunny Dip, the only way to place drinks on tables, had the Bunnies nearly resting the back of their heads on a guest’s shoulder, bending back at the waist to accommodate their guests.
“Smile and introduce yourself with the standard Bunny Introduction: ‘Good evening, I am your Bunny ________ (name). May I see the playboy key, please?’ … Never express your request for a keyholder’s order in a crude and trite phrase such as ‘What’ll you have?’”)
At their peak, there were 33 playboy Clubs in the world, including four in Japan and one in Manila. The Playboy Casino in London netted the company millions. But Playboy wasn’t all fun and games. Hef was about to take a major stand on civil rights by inviting firebrand personalities into playboy’s pages.
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