When Hugh Hefner opened the first Playboy Club in Chicago in 1960, Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, a woman’s place was in the home, and nice girls didn’t go to bars unescorted. Hefner’s seemingly harebrained scheme in that stuffy age was to dress pretty waitresses in tightly cut one-piece bathing suits, put floppy ears on their heads, pin fluffy white tails on their derrieres and call them “bunnies.” Then he used his magazine relentlessly to promote them as alluring symbols of sex and success, the twin goddesses in his hedonistic cosmology. It was, as they say, an idea whose time had come—and has now gone.
Blaming its club division for corporate losses of $3.5 million dollars in the first three months of this year, Playboy last month turned out the lights at the last three company-owned clubs of what had been a 22-hutch empire. Except at three franchised clubs in Omaha, Des Moines and Lansing, the bunnies are as extinct in the U.S. as the dodo. In the New York club’s final days, PEOPLE went out on the town to compare the once glittering nightery to its 1980s competition—and to find out where all the customers had gone.
And then there was the rube traveling salesman who wanted to go to someplace hip, sexy and elegant in New York…so he went to the Playboy Club.
That’s a joke, as you could see for yourself on a quick survey of Manhattan on a weekday night.
You start in the lonely heart of the fashionable hotel district on Manhattan’s East Side, where you find Playboy’s Empire Club. “Playboy” is writ small, perhaps in recognition of the fact that the word itself has all but dropped from the language, supplanted by the feminist term “jerk”—a guy who chases women but runs from relationships. A large illuminated rabbit’s head glows over the door. It seems impossible now to look at the logo without thinking of an automobile air freshener.
You enter through the street-level Cafe Playboy. On the wall hang a pair of Hugh Hefner’s silk pajamas as well as his silk robe, a pair of his slippers and one of his pipes, all framed in Lucite, like the relics of a saint. Innumerable photos of Hef with bunnies and Hef with celebrities and Hef with Hefself contribute to the shrinelike atmosphere—love me, love my club.
Walking downstairs to the Club itself you pass framed Playboy covers of the past, covers you probably remember: Here are the Girls of Russia, the Girls of Canada, the Girls of the Riviera. The covers inspire a wistful affection as emblems of your innocent youth, when women were pictures.
At the foot of the stairs, you see your first bunny, a broad-shouldered, bleach-blond woman with tanned, muscular arms and an extraordinarily, in fact bizarrely, thin waist cinched into her black satin bunny bodice. Bunny ears really are perched atop her head, and she actually does have a fluffy white tail. Your heart races, much as it would if you suddenly found yourself face-to-face with Henry Kissinger or Monty Hall or anyone else you’d seen for years in pictures. They exist! You exist!
Your reverie is interrupted as your club membership key is demanded by some surly goon wearing a tuxedo without a shirt. He directs you to a stout woman in a Little Annie Fannie T-shirt who sells you a “key” for $25. The key isn’t really a key at all; it’s a silver plastic card. Disappointment number one.
You are now admitted into a dimly lit basement with a scuffed dance floor in the center. No one is dancing to the dentist-office disco playing off a tape. You sit down on a maroon plush sofa, and the muscular blond bunny comes over to take your drink order. Disappointment number two: When she brings you your overpriced Scotch, she doesn’t do the famous “bunny dip” (knees bent and pressed together as though skiing), but simply leans over the table and plunks down the drink.
There is no chatter, no hubbub, no mingling. A couple of dozen middle-aged men in rumpled business suits are scattered at tables around the periphery of the dance floor. “I can’t believe how dead this place is,” a pallid-looking man in a black suit, black shirt and white tie remarks to his three male companions at the table beside you. “Let’s get another round of drinks and go to a topless bar and go home.”
With nothing better to do than eye the bunnies who are grimly rushing from table to table delivering drinks like pieces of bad news, you can’t help but notice that, despite their revealing outfits and hourglass figures, the bunnies are peculiarly unsexy. Lovely, to be sure, but sexy—no. Sex, after all, entails a certain amount of intimacy, and these women are as remote as the heavenly bodies glittering in a winter sky. You can’t picture yourself, say, at home after work with a bunny; you can’t picture yourself anywhere with a woman with a white cotton tail, because women don’t have white cotton tails. And try as you might, it is quite impossible to imagine a bunny slipping out of her costume—cutting herself out with a carpet knife maybe. So rigid and unnatural is the rigging of the rock-ribbed bodices that they make a bunny’s bust look like nothing so much as the bumper of a 1953 Cadillac.
Your bunny tells you that no, she won’t be able to keep her uniform; she thinks they’re sending them to Chicago to put in a Playboy museum. It occurs to you that you feel as if you were in a museum right now—Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, perhaps, except you’d have a better chance there of meeting someone lively.
Where is everybody?
You walk two blocks to the ritzy Waldorf Astoria and try the Peacock Alley lounge. A pretty pianist in a slinky gown croons torch songs to some rich people seated on leather sofas around the antique-furnished room. The gentle murmur of refined conversation commingles with the subtle scent of cut flowers to create an atmosphere perfect for courtship, had you someone to court. This place is really elegant, and there’s no place in this place for you.
So you hit the sidewalk, where a skinny fellow wearing dark sunglasses hands you a flyer for the Pink Poodle bar (“All Nude Dancers—credit cards accepted”) right around the corner from the Playboy Club.
In the spirit of sociological inquiry, you walk into the Poodle’s tunnel-like room and take a seat at the edge of a small stage on which two young women, stark naked but for their high heels, are gyrating lethargically to rock music. Instantly a stunning, slim woman in a backless, low-cut red bathing suit is sitting beside you, asking you to buy her a drink for $20. Her name is Nadine, she’s from Austria, and she puts her arm around your shoulder. Twenty dollars buys her drink and about 10 minutes of conversation. You’ve learned that she came to this country as an au pair girl for what you suspect must be a now shattered family, and you are just asking her opinion of Kurt Waldheim when the manager comes over and insists you buy her another drink.
Instead, you head downtown to the famous dance club Palladium. The obnoxiousness of the doorman who makes you wait in line on the street while linen-clad, invitation-toting regulars sashay in ahead of you only confirms that this must be one of the innest clubs in town, since you can’t get into it. It’s after 1:00 a.m. when you are finally admitted to the cavernous converted movie theater, and the dance floor is filling up. Beneath two huge rotating banks of video monitors 400 aerobically trim young bodies undulate in syncopated strobe light to thunderous dance music. It’s too cool for words—and too loud. A sort of primal whoop intermittently rises from the crowd. You wade in and dance.
Until 2:00 a.m. You’ve finally found all the things the Playboy Club was supposed to stand for—elegance, at Peacock Alley; sexiness, of a sort, at the Pink Poodle; hipness, at the Palladium—and that’s just places beginning with P. You grab a cab back uptown because you think you should give Playboy one more chance. You’re wrong. Soggy napkins, tipped glasses and cigarette butts litter the empty tables. Three couples slouch through a slow dance. At the bar, a handful of off-duty bunnies in unstylish street clothes are chatting with some bloated men in gold chains. A bare-chested bartender you wouldn’t sit near in the subway grudgingly shoves a beer at you. “That’s the last call,” he says. “There’s no more after that.”