A photo taken at the opening of the very first Playboy Club in Chicago in 1960.
The first Playboy magazine hit the shelves in 1953 and in 1960, the late Hugh Hefner opened what would be the very first Playboy Club in Chicago. Other clubs would quickly emerge in more than twenty locations including Boston, Wisconsin, and Los Angeles, as well as more elaborate Playboy Club Resorts which you could visit in Jamaica and Manila. Entrance into the various clubs would run a member $25 a year for which they would receive a special key that when presented to a designated “Door Bunny” would get them inside. The clubs were designed to emulate the “Playboy lifestyle” projected by Hefner, though that’s not what initially ignited the vast existence of Playboy Clubs. The actual inspiration for the clubs began with an article in Playboy published in 1959 that detailed the goings-on at the historic Gaslight Club in Chicago’s River North area. The club was the brainchild of Burton Browne who modeled the club around the “Gay 90s” (aka the “Naughty Nineties” or the decade beginning in 1890) a debaucherous period where creativity and libidos ran wild.
Like Hefner’s future Playboy Clubs, entrance to the Gaslight required a key. Naturally, Hef was already a member of the Gaslight Club as it featured his favorite thing—half-naked women with large breasts everywhere you looked. According to Victor Lownes III, the executive of HMH Publishing Company (which would later become Playboy Enterprises in 1955) he recalled that the article received over 3,000 letters from readers of Playboy inquiring as to how they too could join this exclusive club. This set the wheels in motion for Hefner who knew how to recognize an opportunity, though at the time his vision for his Playboy-themed clubs didn’t include expansion beyond Chicago. When the doors to the fledgling club opened, it employed approximately 30 girls between the ages of 18-23 who were said to be “single, beautiful, charming, and refined.” It also somehow qualifies the old saying that people really did read Playboy articles. At least they read one in 1957. And that’s a fact.
As you may have already assumed, and much like Hefner’s storied, celebrity-studded events at the Playboy Mansion, Playboy Clubs were frequented by Hollywood’s elite, such as Frank Sinatra. The Playboy Resorts featured entertainment from acts like Sonny & Cher, Melba Moore, and Sinatra’s pal and Playboy Club regular, Sammy Davis Jr. The first Detroit club which was located right across from a church attracted prominent members of that city’s vibrant jazz scene. Even Detroit’s mayor at the time Coleman Young (who held the position for twenty years starting in 1974), was an honorary member of the Playboy Club.
The St. Louis location regularly hosted comedy acts like George Carlin, Flip Wilson, Joan Rivers and Steve Martin. One of the more creative locations was opened on Lake Geneva in Wisconson that featured a ski slope, chairlift and according to former Bunny Pam Ellis, a DJ booth known as the “Bunny Hutch” where Bunnies would spin records while a bubble machine and disco ball set the mood. Most if not all of the girls at Lake Geneva lived in the “Bunny Dorm” which Ellis says was surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. If a girl didn’t live in the dorms, a car would be sent for them to their home to bring them to work where they could also eat for free. Ellis looks back on her time at Lake Geneva’s Playboy Club with fondness—especially the fact that she met her husband while she was DJ’ing in the Bunny Hutch.
Frank Sinatra hanging out at the Playboy Club in Las Vegas back in the day.
I had been working on this post for a while and had just started to get some words committed to “paper” when Hefner passed away on September 27th at the age of 91. Given that somewhat unexpected event, I held off on finishing it until today as I wasn’t crazy about having DM readers think that capitalizing on the death of someone as well-known and controversial as Hugh Hefner is something we aspire to. However, I do, like so many people, look back with fondness to a time where girls in bunny tails and ears were as glamorous as the movie stars that cavorted around the same clubs with them. Below I’ve posted a huge collection of photos taken inside and on the grounds of various Playboy Clubs including some rarely seen images from the Lake Geneva location that were kindly provided to me by Adam Levin with the help of Christina Ward of Feral House.
Bunnies on top of a locally made tractor at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Adam Levin.
Bunnies having fun at Dunn River Falls in Ochos Rios, Jamaica in 1972.
New York 1960s.
Much more after the jump…