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When the Joint Was Jumpin'
Jim McFarlin | Photo: Courtesy of Bettman/Corbis | November 26, 2014
A new book chronicles the lively bygone era of the Playboy Clubs.
In the 1960s, Ken Price did not have one of the coveted silver keys to Chicago’s Playboy Club. But as one of the city’s Mad Men, he didn’t really need his own.
“The president of the ad agency I worked for had a key, and he and I often went to the club entertaining clients,” recalls Price, today the public relations director of the Palmer House, a national historic landmark. “I remember the interior was very much the Mondrian look, the blocks of color that were very popular in the late ’50s, early ’60s. And those colors were picked up by the costumes worn by the Bunnies.”
Established on Feb. 29, 1960—leap-year Monday—at 116 E. Walton St., the club was the first in a string of such establishments that captured the attention of each city where they opened. With each location a swanky live version of his iconic magazine, Chicago native Hugh Hefner struck a blow for cultural revolution, sexual independence and even civil rights. The most famous performers of the decade played the clubs which, above all, were dimly lit palaces of entertainment. “I was in my 20s, a very impressionable age,” says Price. “And the experience was, ‘pow!’”
In her new book, Playboy on Stage: A History of the World’s Sexiest Nightclubs ($24.95, Beaufort Books), released in November, author Patty Farmer recaptures some of that excitement. Farmer, who previously wrote a history of the Persian Room in Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, says the topic proved irresistible. “I found it fascinating that when you say ‘Playboy,’ everybody thinks of a beautiful co-ed reclining across two pages of a magazine,” she says. “[But] for more than two decades, the Playboy Clubs were the largest employers of entertainment in this country. People don’t know that. Between musicians and singers and comedians—gosh, even magicians—everybody played the Playboy Clubs.”
As the book recounts, Playboy had run an article about the Gaslight Club in Chicago, which featured waitresses in skimpy outfits and required a paid membership. Within days, the magazine received more than 1,000 letters from readers asking how to contact the club and join. Victor Lownes, Hefner’s second in command, rushed the letters to his publisher and suggested Playboy start a club of its own.
“Right away Hef agreed it was a good idea,” Lownes relates in Playboy on Stage. “Then I said, ‘We don’t know anything about that business, but I have a friend who runs restaurants. He’s got a little place called Walton’s Walk on the North Side.” And here enters the late, illustrious restaurateur Arnold “Arnie” Morton, namesake of the Morton’s steakhouse chain and one of the club’s original partners.
Arthur Wirtz, owner of the late Chicago Stadium, owned the Colony Club building where the multilevel Playboy Club was established. Despite a glut of jazz and other clubs downtown (more than a dozen on Rush Street alone)—many of them frequented by Hefner, a jazz aficionado—by the end of its first year, the Chicago Playboy Club boasted 106,000 key-carrying members and was selling more food and drinks than any restaurant in the city. By 1961, it was the busiest nightclub in Chicago, prompting Hefner and Lownes to allow franchise clubs in New Orleans and Miami.
Countless entertainers, including a 19-year-old Aretha Franklin, began careers at the Playboy Club; others, like comedians Jerry Van Dyke and Rich Little, made a living working the Playboy Club circuit. Contrary to some stereotypes, Farmer’s book suggests that most of the Bunnies were simply wholesome young women trying to make a living.
And, opening as it did before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Hefner and the Chicago Playboy Club provided many African-American performers their first opportunity to work before mixed audiences. “Of course, he desegregated the club,” says Farmer. “Many black performers told me they credit Hugh Hefner with breaking down that barrier.”
The total number of Playboy Clubs eventually reached 40. And though it burned brightly, the light of the first Playboy Club did not outlast the 1980s and closed in 1986. But for those who performed on the Playboy stages and worked in the clubs, the legacy lives on in lively stories. As Farmer says, “To participate in the Playboy ideal was—and is—to be liberated.”