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The Playboy Club on Mad Men: The View Is Better Here

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On last night's episode of Mad Men, "Hands and Knees," Lane Pryce takes his father and Donald Draper to the New York Playboy Club, impresario Hugh Hefner's multi-level cocktail bar/restaurant at 5 East 59th Street in Manhattan staffed with Playboy Bunnies, or women dressed in the one-piece trademark "bunny" costumes. Opened on December 8th, 1962, the New York City location was the fifth Playboy Club in what was to become a 40-strong international chain, preceded only by the original Chicago location (February 1960), Miami (May 1961), New Orleans (October 1961), and St. Louis (October 1962).

Hugh Hefner started Playboy magazine in Chicago in 1953, and taking inspiration from a new nightclub chain called the Gaslight Club, Hefner opened his own clubs. Playboy Club membership was required — members were known as Playboy Club Keyholders for they had an actual, physical key with the Playboy rabbit head logo at the top (the 1980s saw the elimination of the key and the introduction of a plastic credit card that had a picture of a key on it). At its peak the Playboy Club had over one million members — and at a $25 annual fee, it generated a pretty solid revenue stream.

The clubs, however, were said to have never generated a profit, save for the big-city locations; they relied almost exclusively on casino income from the London Playboy Club (opened in 1966) to keep the entire operation afloat. (The Playboy Club was set up as a separate entity from the eponymous magazine.) Things went awry when the London gambling license was revoked in 1981, leading to financial difficulties, and soon thereafter all the locations would close.

The last three company-opened Playboy Clubs, the flagships in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, all closed on June 1st, 1986. The last U.S. Playboy Club (a franchise), in Lansing, MI closed on July 31st, 1988. The last official Playboy Club in Manila closed in 1991.

New York Playboy Club, 1963

Playboy Club, New York City, 1962 [Photo: Playboy]

The number one source of information on the New York Playboy Club is Playboy itself (SFW), in what appears to be a webbified version of a magazine feature from April 1963, mere months after it opened. Things we learn about the building: During the 1920s, gambler and organized crime kingpin Arnold Rothstein (who was said to have been behind baseball's Black Sox Scandal, in which the 1919 World Series was fixed) lived there with a series of mistresses. Later it was the Savoy Art Gallery. It cost $4M to build out ($28M in today's dollars) the Playboy Club.

There was the Playmate Bar, with a "circular open hearth at its center and a roast-beef cart" and walls glowing with backlit transparencies of Playmates from the pages of Playboy. There was a buffet that included fried chicken, shish kebab, broiled ribs, and tossed salad, all for the low price of $1.50. One flight up was the Living Room, with a "raised Piano Bar sitting atop a champagne-glass-shaped pedestal," as well as a gift shop. The next flight was the VIP (Very Important Playboys) room, serving "gastronomic delights in the leisurely Continental manner," and featuring an haute cuisine menu. "In attendance: a troop of liveried Bunnies, each of whom speaks at least two languages fluently. Reservations for the VIP must be made at least two days in advance."

The fourth and fifth floors were the Playboy Club showrooms "offering the largest and finest roster of entertainers to be found anywhere in the city." Which meant comedians and singers of the day. Dinner and a show! Filet Mignon was, of course, the specialty. The Penthouse also had a "wall-sized mobile mural" to create a facsimile of the nighttime Manhattan skyline.

The claims they made! During its first 100 days, over 300,000 guests had "downed 900,000 glasses of fine wines and spirits, consumed 75,000 filet mignons, 50,000 prime roast-beef platters and 60,000 orders of fried chicken and shish kebab."

Said Hefner of the New York location: "This Club is the culmination of the kind of intimate feeling we have been searching for. I know of nothing that can even approach it."

1966 Los Angeles Menu

[Photos: LA Public Library]

Trouble With the State Liquor Authority

As it still does today, one major thing held up the opening: Getting the liquor license. It was a little trickier because they also needed a cabaret license, and like many things in the government, it was hopelessly and utterly corrupt.

L. Judson Morhouse was the New York Republican state chairman (and vice chairman of the Thruway authority) who had been instrumental in getting Nelson Rockefeller elected as New York State governor. He and Martin Epstein, chairman of the state liquor authority (and a Rockefeller appointee) tried to shake down the Playboy Club. According to New York magazine, "Epstein demanded $50,000 for the license... and Morhouse demanded $100,000 in cash plus options for 100,000 shares of Playboy stock."

Epstein was suffering from cancer and was hospital-bound — but no matter, he continued to sell licenses and demand bribes from there. In comes the law:
Morhouse's offices were bugged, as was Epstein's hospital room, and in what became known as the "Playboy Tapes," dozens of other cases of bribery and scandal were revealed within the Liquor Authority. Morhouse was convicted, briefly imprisoned, and then pardoned by Rockefeller. Epstein was also convicted but later won a reversal.

Gloria Steinem: I Was a Playboy Bunny

In 1963, feminist, journalist, and political activist Gloria Steinem went undercover and worked at the New York Playboy Club as a Bunny as research for a two-part expose in Show. Written in a blog-like date-stamped linear style, the articles are reprinted in the chapter "I Was a Playboy Bunny" in her book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (and on Google Books). It was also remade into a TV movie in 1985, A Bunny's Tale starring Kirstie Alley. Here's a clip (and there's more on YouTube):

Video: A Bunny's Tale (1985)


On October 2006 at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, a new Playboy Club opened with updated costumes (even the casino dealers), and of course, gambling to subsidize the whole thing.

What Happened to the Old Playboy Club

New York magazine in December 1986 noted that designer Philip George, who created the look of Le Bernardin, was turning the former Playboy Club into a $4 million French restaurant by New Jersey restaurateur Dennis Foy. It became the restaurant Mondrian, where Foy brought over a young sous chef from New Jersey. His name was Tom Colicchio.
Video: The Playboy Club on Mad Men

Further Reading

The Playboy Bunnies are a story unto themselves. See:

· The Bunny Manual is essential reading. It codified the behavior and expectations of the Playboy Bunnies, including a numerical system of demerits. Outside relationships were frowned upon and would be grounds for termination. [Ex-Playboy Bunnies]
· A Bunny's Tale [Ex-Playboy Bunnies]
· Bye Bye Bunnies [Ex-Playboy Bunnies]

· All Mad Men Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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