Launched in 1953 from Hugh Hefner’s kitchen, Playboy became a brand before branding became a thing. Playboy magazine advised and inspired men on how to live the good life, featured well-written articles by the best writers, and as we all know showcased beautiful naked women, better known as Playboy Playmates, who combined a girl-next-door-wholesomeness with a refreshing sexiness.
Playboy magazine was an instant hit, but Hefner wanted Playboy to be so much more than a magazine. He came up both a musical festival devoted to jazz greats both veterans and those starting out, and a nightclub that would feature fabulous dinners and cocktails, the best in entertainment, and yes, the iconic Playboy bunnies. Now writer Patty Farmer (along with contributions from Will Friedwald) has written about the Playboy Club in her engaging book Playboy Swings!: How Hugh Hefner and Playboy Changed the Face of Music
And then there were the groundbreaking jazz musical festivals. A huge jazz fan, Hefner came up with an idea using musical festivals to once again showcase talented and diverse jazz acts to the masses way back in 1959. Twenty years later, he enlisted George Wein to revive the Jazz Festival at the iconic Hollywood Bowl.
These jazz festivals were a huge success and probably helped bring diversity of all kinds of music that today we almost take for granted in our modern age of Coachella, South by Southwest and Glastonbury. The Playboy Jazz Festival presented the best in jazz, both traditional and modern. And it also led to the opening of the very first Playboy Club, another icon in the Playboy empire.
The first Playboy Club opened in Chicago on leap year day in 1960. Windy City’s Playboy Club was immediately a success, and soon other Playboy Clubs opened in major cities like New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Detroit. Playboy Clubs also found success in mid-sized cities like Phoenix, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Denver. By the mid-sixties the Playboy Club went international opening clubs in London, Jamaica, Montreal, Tokyo and the Bahamas.
The Playboy Club featured several bars, dining rooms and stages. Every Playboy Club had their members and the members had their own key, a rabbit-headed Playboy club. These keys were required for admission to the clubs for the members and their guests and were verified by a Door Bunny.
Once inside, members and their guests were served by glamorous Playboy Bunnies, clad in the now legendary Bunny outfits, which consisted of corseted costumes that resembled one-piece bathing suits, matching high heels, bunny tails and ears, and cute bowties and wrist cuffs. In an age where people sext their privates, post pictures of their thong-clad booties to Instagram and get famous for “leaked” sex tapes, the Bunny Costumes seem downright prim!
Many of the Playboy Bunnies, some married, some single. Many were college students. And Playboy Bunnies often could make more money at the clubs than they could in a fancy office. Bunnies weren’t supposed to date the clientele, but sometimes rules were broken.
Then there was the entertainment at the Playboy Clubs. The Playboy Clubs brought in topnotch entertainers, musicians, singers and comedians. Some of top names entertained at the Playboy Clubs, and I’m sure you know their names—Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Lily Tomlin, Ike and Tina Turner, Joan Rivers, Rich Little, George Carlin, Al Jarreau, Jerry Van Dyke and Count Basie. Many careers were launched the Playboy Club, and many of them are still performing today. And not only were these talented celebrities entertainers, they were also guests at the clubs.
And it’s these entertainers’ stories where Playboy Swings! shines. Farmer was very fortunate to interview these entertainers and other assorted people affiliated with the Playboy Club and the jazz festivals. And what stories these people have to tell. The various talent wax on with fond memories of performing for the Playboy Club audiences. Comedians talk about how cool it was to get laughs. Singers discuss touching the audiences with their songs. And musicians are pretty proud of how they got the audience members to groove to their sounds, especially the jazz musicians, many who are still entertaining audiences today.
The entertainers excelled on stage (and at sometimes, bombed). And the entertainers are also generous with stories about what happened behind the scenes, and boy do these stories sound like a lot of fun. Some of the entertainers got into all kinds of shenanigans, and I enjoyed the juicy gossip. Many of the entertainers totally bonded and forged strong friendships with each other. Some of them met their spouses at the Playboy Clubs. And yes, plenty of the male entertainers flirted with the Playboy Bunnies. The Bunnies weren’t supposed to date the members, guests and entertainers, but, hey, sometimes rules are meant to be broken.
The Playboy Clubs continued to thrive, and soon Playboy resorts featuring hotels, spas, casinos and ski hills. They were located in various places including Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (about 60 miles outside of my Milwaukee hometown).
Yet, the Playboy Clubs and Resorts were so much more than beautiful bunnies and excellent entertainment. At a time when our country was very segregated, the Playboy Clubs were notable for showcasing acts of all races. Hefner truly believed in civil rights, and he was adamant that the clubs break all kinds of racial barriers. As noted comedian and cultural critic
Anyone under fifty takes diversity in entertainment for granted, but after reading Playboy Swings!, I now realize how diversity in comedy, music, movies, and television as part of our modern entertainment choices is to a degree due to Hefner’s commitment to strong race relations.
This might also become a surprise to some people who see Hefner as a dirty old man obsessed with scantily-clad and bare naked women, but the Playboy empire also furthered gender rights. Hefner’s daughter Christie is a staunch feminist, a supporter of progressive causes and is very instrumental in maintaining the Playboy organization and brand. And Playboy also employed other women in high profile, important positions, including the Playboy Clubs, one of them being singer and actress, Lainie Kazan.
Playboy Swings! devotes a very thorough chapter to Kazan who you probably know best as Nia Vardalos’ mom in the mega-hit movie My Big, Fat Greek Wedding. By the early 1970s, Kazan proven herself as a talented performer, but she soon proved herself to be a very knowledgeable business woman. Kazan had fond memories of performing at the resort in Lake Geneva, and she wasn’t afraid to express her opinions of some of the less-than-stellar acts that were performing at the time. It wasn’t long before Hefner asked her to take over the Playboy Club in LA’s Century City. Kazan jumped at the chance.
Kazan admittedly didn’t have a lot business experience, but she had a killer instinct on how to run the Playboy Club. She didn’t only change the entertainment; she also changed the art, the names of some of the rooms and she also put her name in lights on one of the walls. She got back to the Playboy Club roots of showcasing the best jazz talents of the day. No shrinking violet, Kazan was tough, worked hard and got results. She admits she did ruffle a few bunny tails, but I kept it in mind, that Kazan was in charge at a time when women had very little options in the big, bad world of business. Kazan may have pissed more than a few people off, but she also broke down barriers for a lot of career-minded young women especially with the Playboy’s entire organization.
While reading Playboy Swings!, I grew to appreciate all the hard work Farmer put into finding these entertaining legends and how much joy it must have been to hear and document their stories. I could almost imagine sitting down with these greats while enjoying a cocktail (make mine a brandy old-fashioned with sweet) as they talked, laughed, joked around and maybe just shed a few tears. I also appreciated all the book’s amazing photographs, which helped shape the Playboy empire legendary history.
Now, in the 21st century, the clubs are being revitalized. In 2011, a new club opened in swinging London.
As I finished the very enjoyable Playboy Swings! I couldn’t help but be a little jealous. As a card carrying member of Generation X, I missed quite a bit of fun. But through Playboy Swings! I could visit the Playboy Club and enjoy the musical vibes of its legendary jazz festivals vicariously. Bunny ears off to Patty Farmer and Playboy Swings!