|The sad demise of the Playboy Bunny and the Playboy Club Empire|
The explanation for the sad demise of the Playboy Clubs is simple: dwindling business. Playboy simply could not encourage enough men to frequent the clubs (nor ladies either when they introduced the pink Playmate Key Card for female keyholders).
The Playboy Clubs were, partially, a victim of their own success (and of the wider Playboy phenomena itself). As Playboy broke the sexual inhibitions of Western society, the magazine and the Playboy Clubs benefited from a public keen to embrace an adult, sophisticated and sexual lifestyle. But that breakthrough precipitated a whole slew of imitators and opportunists.
'Titty' bars, blue movies and 'glamour' magazines had existed before Playboy. But Playboy pulled the sex industry out of the gutter and pushed it into, if not the penthouse of its own advertising hype, at least the average American home. It became acceptable for the guy next door to have the hots for the girl next door. But he still couldn't ask her out, so he ran down to the local store to see her in the centerfold of Playboy magazine.
But how does this connect to the clubs? Not many girls on your average neighbourhood wear fluffy tails and satin ears (if they do you should cut down on your drug intake). The Playboy Club was conceived as an extension of the magazine: a place where 'Playboys' would like to socialize and, well, look at beautiful girls. 'Playmate' dates optional.
The Playboy Club was always a sophisticated, non-sleazy nightclub. It had 'members'. Dinner or at least evening suits were tacitly demanded of the first keyholders. A keyholder was supposed to, and usually did, treat the Bunnies with respect. If you are going to drool, please use a handkerchief (preferably silk). And... DON'T TOUCH THE BUNNIES!!!
Early commentators thought that each Playboy Club had a 'second floor'. This was a reference to the saloon brothels of the Old West in which saloon girls would take Gaby Hayes upstairs for a little bit of saddle relief. But the Playboy Clubs were as far from prostitution as the WWF is from competitive sport (and you can tell 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin I said so!). That they were a safe clean fantasy land was the appeal of the Playboy Clubs.
This appeal lasted throughout the sixties. The Playboy Club empire thrived. Clubs and Hotels opened across the U.S. and the world. Over 1,000,000 keyholders flocked to admire thousands of beautiful Bunnies in L.A., Chicago, New York, London, Jamaica, Montreal, Tokyo, etc. The Playboy Bunny became (and remains) the most recognised and debated icon of the Sexual Revolution. The public were storming the barricades. On the other side was a Playboy Club.
Although the Playboy Clubs began in 1960 they were conceived in 1959 and bear the imprint of the fifties. But by the end of the sixties the sophisticated lounge nightclub, playing jazz with comedians and singers, was on the decline as an institution. The Playboy Clubs, still the most successful nightclub chain in history to this day, could no longer successfully continue as they were. The Jazz age had become the Rock 'N' Roll era.
At the time Hefner thought if the Playboy Club concept is working now it always will. But it couldn't and didn't. As the Playboy Empire moved into the seventies, the more business-minded Playboy executives knew the Clubs were failing. Very few of the clubs actually made a stand-alone profit. The big city clubs: New York, Chicago and Los Angeles did, but barely. The smaller clubs (e.g. Denver, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Atlanta) were leaking money each year. Most worryingly of all, the newly opened Playboy Hotels at Lake Geneva, Great Gorge and the Miami Plaza were financial black holes. Playboy grew overconfident. Feeding on its success of the sixties, it expanded into areas it was not suited to. The company experienced a famine in the seventies. In the sixties Playboy swung, in the seventies it sunk.
Except for one Club. The Playboy Club and Casino in London. Not only did the massive gambling profits sustain the losses of the American Clubs, but it was also the bulwark of the whole Playboy empire. The annual profit from the London casino dwarfed the small profit earned by the flagship Playboy magazine itself. These profits came mostly from oil-soaked Arabs gambling away their millions as Bunnies turned cards and spun roulette wheels. This profit effectively disguised what would have been otherwise obvious: the Playboy Clubs were no longer hip, no longer quite the risqué paradise everyone wanted to endure an hour's queuing to gain entry to.
The world had got used to Bunnies. Now they were cute, not 'sin on sight'. They were a part of Americana not angels fallen from heaven. 'Disneyland for adults' had become a theme park. But people were not flocking to the clubs as they had in the sixties when they were 'IT'. The Bunny was no longer roaring.
True, a residual keyholder base still frequented the clubs, and to them the Bunnies were as beguiling as they had been in their sixties heyday. But the keyholder demographic had changed. Playboy was not attracting the sophisticated young executive crowd. It was attracting the same clientele as any up-market bar. But Playboy never really did attract an 'in-crowd'. Playboy executives would often look down on their own keyholders. The magazine executives within Playboy also looked down disdainfully on those who worked within its own club division. Within the parent company there was a Magazine clique and a Club clique, with the former believing they were the intelligence and creative talent within the company.
The three reasons why so many loss-making Playboy Clubs stayed open throughout the seventies were:
1. The overwhelming success of the London Club, which partially masked the failures elsewhere in the Playboy Club division of the company.
2. Hefner, God bless him, loved his Bunnies. He rightly saw the Bunny for what she was: a glamorous fantasy figure that men adored and many women wanted to become.
3. Playboy were worried that the existing keyholders, who paid an annual membership fee, would sue the company if they started closing down the clubs.
It is not Hefner's fault that too few of his fellow Americans shared his dream. But Hefner was in charge and he refused the advice of executives to close the clubs. Instead, new ideas were considered as Playboy tried to adjust to the changing nightlife scene. People no longer wanted to go to a cocktail lounge, be served dinner (even if by a beautiful Bunny) and then watch a cabaret show afterwards. Instead people wanted to go someplace where they could dance and where they could meet members of the opposite sex. Bunnies were no longer the entertainment. The people had begun to entertain themselves. The public were no longer content with the image of passion, they now wanted the passion itself.
So discothèques and singles bars thrived and the Playboy Clubs would often have more Bunnies dipping than customers drinking. The old Hollywood nightclub had faded away. Playboy Clubs which were once located in prime real estate found themselves surrounded by low rent strip clubs and second-rate bars. Many Playboy Clubs were relocated to more urban areas. Prime example: the original Hollywood Club was moved from Sunset Strip to Century City. As Playboy, the magazine and the clubs, had made sex and sexual attraction acceptable, it inadvertently opened up American society to the seedy filth of Hustler, porno theaters and the ubiquitous strip clubs. Charming cheesecake centerfolds and fabulous fantasy Bunnies were no longer the idols in a society of Debby Loves Dallas, Deep Throat and 10-cent peep shows.
The nightclub crowd was dwindling each year. One by one the Playboy Clubs closed down. Hefner was eventually convinced. But the big city clubs remained. Until calamity...
The London Casino wars. Ladbrokes, a UK gaming giant, was jealous of this upstart company Playboy and its enormous success. Since the London Playboy Club's opening in 1966, it was the most successful nightclub casino in Europe and most probably the world. Ladbrokes, whose own casinos were now suffering against Playboy's massive appeal, fought a long and dirty campaign. Playboy however had broken British Gaming Laws by allowing their gamblers credit. Ladbrokes informed the gaming commission of this infringement and after investigation the London Playboy Club was closed in 1981. This was the real end for the Playboy Clubs. The cash cow had been slain.
Playboy never fully recovered (and it cost Victor Lownes and Hefner their friendship). The Gaming Commission in Atlantic City eventually refused Playboy a license for the already-built and operating Atlantic City Playboy Club, Hotel and Casino. The gaming board cited Playboy's difficulties with its London operation and also the earlier 1962-3 New York cabaret license saga for the New York Club (of which Playboy was innocent). The commission also wanted Playboy to sever all ties with Hugh Hefner. Erm, but as Hefner is the President of the company and is in fact Playboy itself, this was never going to happen. Hefner himself appeared before the commission to argue the case for the Atlantic City casino but the license was refused. Gaming commissions! Paragons of honesty! But when you are a company as large and newsworthy as Playboy, all mud thrown sticks. The Bunny's tail was no longer quite so white and fluffy.
If Playboy had been allowed to stay in the casino business in London and Atlantic City then the world would still have at least two Playboy Clubs. The world would still be blessed with Bunnies. Alas, as the eighties continued Playboy and Hefner succumbed to the inevitable: the world no longer wanted Playboy Clubs (casinos yes, clubs, alas, no). After several image redesigns, including changes (blasphemy!) to the Bunny costume and the introduction of male Bunnies (no, really) to the refurbished and re-named (Empire Club) New York Playboy Club, the big city clubs were closed down. The mid-west clubs (Des Moines, Omaha, Lansing) in which Playboy thought its nightclub future may lie, were also closed when they failed to generate a profit. The last three company-opened Playboy Clubs, the flagship clubs in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles Playboy, all closed on June 1st 1986. The last U.S. Playboy Club (franchise), in Lansing, closed on July 31st 1988. The last official Playboy Club, in Manila, closed during 1991.
The Bunny was gone. The tails and ears were packed away forever...
But not even 'forever' lasts for long. In 1999 Playboy began a Bunny Hunt in London, Amsterdam and Munich for a new generation of Bunnies to hop in its new Playboy Casino on the Greek island of Rhodes. However, this first attempt at the second coming of the Bunny was unsuccessful. The Playboy Casino on Rhodes opened and closed almost within the same calendar month in 1999.
Despite this setback, Playboy continued to investigate the feasibility of future Playboy Casinos. One in its old haven, London, one in Shanghai, and one in the gambling capital of the universe, Las Vegas. While the new London casino is still under review while they look for a site (Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly has been reported) and the Shanghai venture has met opposition from the regulators in China, the Bunny has made her comeback in the US. On October 6th 2006, the "Playboy at the Palms" opened in Las Vegas. So far, it seems a huge success. For more information and lots of photos of the new generation of Bunnies see the official websites: