Original publish date: January 24 , 2011
Republished: November 8, 2018
The first Playboy club opened at 116 East Walton in downtown Chicago, Illinois on February 29, 1960. Playboy magazine owner Hugh Hefner decided that Leap Year would be an appropriate time to open up his controversial club on Chicago’s Gold Coast. After all, Hefner had started Playboy magazine in his Hyde Park kitchen on Chicago’s South Side in 1953 and in the years that followed, Playboy became the most popular men’s publication in the country. I imagine that many of you can recall the famed men’s clubs that used to stretch from coast-to-coast and around the world (40 clubs worldwide at its height) and suspect that more than one of you may even still have a Playboy Club gold key tucked away in your dresser drawer somewhere. Whether you liked Hef’s idea or hated Hef’s idea, what cannot be denied is the impact his Playboy Clubs made on American pop culture.
But there is one aspect of the Playboy Club that you may not be aware of. The Chicago Playboy Club is credited with spawning the popular “Batman” television series of the Mid-1960s. That’s right, in the early 1960s, the Playboy Club in Chicago was screening the old 1940s Era Batman movie serials for their guests every Saturday night. These private screenings became very popular among the club’s hip clientele. Playboy party goers would cheer and applaud the Dynamic Duo, and boo and hiss at the villains. During one of these party screenings, east coast ABC executive Yale Udoff, a Batman fan in childhood, attended and was amazed at the reaction the old serials were getting. He contacted ABC executives who eventually developed a prime time Batman series in the hip & fun style of the wildly popular Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV show.
For two and a half seasons from January 12, 1966 to March 14, 1968, a total of 120 episodes were produced and they strangely mirrored their Playboy Club Genesis by packing star power and sexuality in nearly every episode. Just as the biggest names in Hollywood flocked to the Playboy Clubs, soon many of these same big names wanted to make cameo appearances as villains on the Batman TV show. The guest star list reads like the Hollywood walk-of-fame: Burgess Meredith, Otto Preminger, Vincent Price, Eli Wallach, John Astin, Art Carney, Tallulah Bankhead, Roddy McDowell, Liberace, Ethel Merman, Ida Lupino, Rudy Vallee, Milton Berle, Shelley Winters, Carolyn Jones, Liberace, Van Johnson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Cliff Robertson, Joan Collins and Anne Baxter (TWICE!).
Do you remember THESE Batman villain names: Lola Lasagne, The Puzzler, Nora Clavicle and her mechanical mice, Lord Marmaduke Ffogg, Lady Penelope Peasoup, Olga-Queen of the Kossacks, The Sandman, Colonel Gumm, Shame, Clock King, False Face, Louie the Lilac, Bookworm, King Tut, and the Mad Hatter? Do you remember the Batclimb Cameo that opened many of the TV episodes? 14 episodes featured a window that would be opened by a celebrity for a short conversation as the Dynamic Duo scaled a building using Batarangs and Bat-ropes. The scenes were actually filmed on a horizontal surface with the camera rotated by 90 degrees to give the illusion that the Duo were on a vertical wall. Their capes were held up by strings (usually off-camera, but on occasion visible). These Batclimb cameos featured big names like Jerry Lewis, Dick Clark, Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Dana as astronaut José Jiménez, Werner Klemperer as Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes,Ted Cassidy as Lurch from The Addams Family, Don Ho, Andy Devine as Santa Claus, Art Linkletter, Edward G. Robinson, and famously Van Williams and Bruce Lee as Green Hornet and Kato. And was there a sexier costume on 1960s television than Catwoman? Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether, Eartha Kitt in skin tight black vinyl & sequins? Forget about it!
During the same era, the Playboy Club phenomenon was soaring too. During the last three months of 1961, more than 132,000 people visited the Chicago club, making it the busiest night club in the world. Playboy Club membership became a status symbol. Only 21% of all key holders ever went to a club. At $25.00 per year per membership, Playboy earned $25 million for every 1,000,000 members. This revenue stream was critical to the development of the Playboy empire.
The success of the club was tied directly to the costumed Playboy Bunnies. According to Hugh Hefner, the Bunny was inspired by Bunny’s Tavern in Urbana, Illinois (opened 1936). Hef was one of the many Univ. of Illinois students who studied at Bunny’s during his years on campus. These Bunnies, with their royal-satin corsets, white collar, cuffs, bowtie, bunny ears and fluffy white tails served “Keyholders” as VIPs of the club. The bunny costume also featured black sheer to waist pantyhose and matching high-heeled shoes. The outfit became a powerful symbol of the Playboy Clubs which was quickly elevated to icon status. It was also the first commercial uniform to be registered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (U.S. trademark registration number 0762884).
More than once, the club was described by the media as a “Disneyland for adults.” The layout of the club was described as, “Each of four floors was designed as a ‘room’ in a mythical and fabulous bachelor pad—there was Playroom, a Penthouse, a Library, and a Living Room. Teak and leather furniture, wood-paneled walls and rich, autumnal shades prevailed in the decor. Playboy magazine was in evidence everywhere-from framed original cartoons in the ‘cartoon corner’ of the Living Room, to huge, back-lit pictures of Playmates in the Playmate Bar.”
The Chicago club opened on a bitterly cold day in Chicago, yet lines of eager prospective members stretched around the block, warmed by ideas of what was to be found inside. Membership was available to anyone willing to purchase a key – $50 for residents and $25 for out-of-towners. The club “key” itself was metal and topped off with a rabbit head, later replaced by a gold plastic credit card to carry in a wallet. Hefner was present at the grand opening until the club closed at 4am. Keyholders gawked at ladies in their colorful Playboy Bunny outfits and dined on steaks and salads (no fancy hors d’oeuvres or desserts here), drank cocktails and bought packs of cigarettes and Playboy logo lighters. Most club items were available for the standard price of $1.50 per item (an exorbitant price at the time, especially for drinks and cigarettes). In the club’s first year, entertainment included the most popular stars of the day, including Mel Torme, Barbara Streisand and a 19-year-old Aretha Franklin.
The Playboy Club was an instant success. In the first year, there were 106,000 Keyholders and the place sold more food and drink than any other restaurant or club in town. Clubs quickly opened in Miami and New Orleans and, between the first three, brought in over $ 4.5 Million in gross profits during that first year. Playboy Club Keyholders were served by Playboy Bunnies in their skimpy attire. Each Bunny outfit featured a satin rosette with the bunny’s name, worn on the hip. But, it was made very clear that she was unavailable for anything but the serving of cocktails. Keyholders could look but not touch.
The Bunnies themselves were instructed, in a 44-page “Bunny Manual”, that they could not date customers, give out their phone numbers, or meet their boyfriends or husbands within two blocks of the club. If they did, they would face the tortuous penalty of being banned from the “bunny hutch.” There were different types of Bunnies, including the Door Bunny, Cigarette Bunny, Floor Bunny, Playmate Bunny and the Jet Bunnies (specially selected to serve on the Playboy “Big Bunny” Jet). To become a Bunny, women first had to audition. Prospective “Kits” (short for “Kitten Rabbits”) underwent thorough and strict training before officially becoming a Bunny. Bunnies were required to be able to identify 143 brands of liquor and know how to garnish 20 cocktail variations. Customers were also not allowed to touch the Bunnies, and demerits were given if a Bunny’s appearance was not properly organized.
A Bunny also had to master the required maneuvers to work. These included the “Bunny Stance”, a posture that was required in front of patrons. The Bunny must stand with legs together, back arched and hips tucked under. When the Bunny is resting or while waiting to be of service, she must do the “Bunny Perch”. She must sit on the back of a chair, sofa, or railing without sitting too close to a patron. The most famous maneuver of all, the “Bunny Dip”, was invented by Kelly Collins, once renowned for being the “Perfect Bunny”; to do the “Bunny Dip” the Bunny gracefully leaned backwards while bending at the knees with the left knee lifted and tucked behind the right leg. This maneuver allowed the Bunny to serve drinks while keeping her low-cut costume in place. Strict regulations were enforced by special workers in the guise of patrons.
The Playboy Bunny mantra? “Always remember, your proudest possession is your bunny tail.” To ensure enforcement, a “Bunny Mother” was hired and served both as confidant and enforcer of the rules. The Bunny Mother was in charge of scheduling work shifts, hiring, firing and training. The Playboy Club’s numerous conservative enemies kept the clubs on their toes and Hefner went so far as to hire private detectives to continuously test the Bunnies and bartenders by trying to entrap them by offering money for favors and thinly disguised requests for sex. The Club Manager had only two responsibilities for the Bunnies; floor service and weigh in. The Bunnies were weighed by the club manager before every shift and could not gain or lose more than one pound (let that sink in for a
moment ladies). Playboy Enterprises required all employees to turn in their costumes at the end of employment. Somewhere out there is a warehouse full of old Playboy costumes. The only two bunny costumes on public display are in the collections of The Smithsonian and the Chicago History Museum.
Most readers are aware of feminist Gloria Steinem’s crusade to expose the sexist treatment of Playboy Bunnies in her 1983 book “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.” The article featured a photo of Steinem in Bunny uniform and detailed how women were treated at those clubs. The article was first published in 1963 in Show magazine as “A Bunny’s Tale”. But are there any other famous former Bunnies out there? Well, yes, the “hutch” is littered with the names of young, struggling Hollywood actresses. Some are familiar: Lauren Hutton, Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks TV star), Barbara Bosson (Hill Street Blues TV star), Patricia Quinn (Magenta from Rocky Horror), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Dark Shadows TV star) and many others. Jon Bon Jovi’s mom, Carol Sharkey, was a Bunny as was Kimba Wood, Bill Clinton’s nominee for Attorney General in 1993. At least 32 former Bunnies were also Playboy Magazine Centerfold “Playmates.” Rock stars Dale Bozzio (Missing Persons and Frank Zappa) and Blondie’s Debbie Harry were also Bunnies. Harry once famously remarked, “The girls there were part of the entertainment; part of the sort of mystique, the excitement, the naughtiness of it. But on the inside of that job, the girls were treated very, very well. There was a lot of benefits: health benefits, job security, good salary, good money. It was a very sought-after kind of job.”
The Chicago Playboy Club enjoyed a long and successful quarter century run, but closed in 1986. Today, the “One Magnificent Mile Building” has replaced the Chicago Playboy Club, and in 2000, that stretch of Walton was given the honorary name of “Hugh Hefner Way.” The original magazine headquarters was located nearby as was the original Playboy Mansion at 1340 N. State St., both of which have also moved on. Sadly, nothing has quite replaced the Playboy Club in Chicago. Hugh Hefner died at his home in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles, California, on September 27, 2017, at the age of 91. The cause was sepsis brought on by an E. coli infection. He is interred at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles, in the $75,000 crypt beside Marilyn Monroe. “Spending eternity next to Marilyn is an opportunity too sweet to pass up.”
And Batman? The franchise, which existed decades before the TV Show, rolls on through the present day. Although the 1960s Batman TV series campy reputation continued to be associated with the character for years after the show ended, various creators worked to return the character to his dark roots, culminating in the Batman movies that remain popular with present day fans. A cultural icon, Batman has been licensed and adapted into a variety of media, from radio to television and film, and appears on a variety of merchandise sold all over the world such as toys and video games.
Who would have thought that two iconic American institutions so widely opposite from one another shared such a common thread as this? That’s what you have to love about America. Its the differences that draw us together proving that opposites attract to make, dare I say it? Strange bedfellows. Besides, didn’t Hugh Hefner remind you just a little bit of Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne. Yeah, now it all makes sense.