How the World’s Sexiest Nightclubs Helped Set the Stage for Racial Integration

The new book <em>Playboy on Stage</em> is a fascinating collection of tales about Hugh Hefner’s entertainment empire

As a thirteen-year-old boy growing up in Chicago I remember gazing in awe at the building on my block illuminated with the word PLAYBOY in nine-foot letters. I could only dream of the forbidden delights that lay inside. I was certain that if I could just get past the doorman, Hugh Hefner would usher me into his sophisticated world, invite me to call him “Hef,” and introduce me to all the Bunnies.

Hefner had opened his first Playboy Club only one block away from my parents’ apartment on East Walton Street. Asa Baber, one of the magazine’s longtime columnists, lived across the street from us. (If anyone claimed they read Playboy “for the articles,” all you had to do was ask who wrote the “Men” column from 1982 to 2003.) A few of my parents’ friends possessed the club’s signature bunny-headed membership keys—and the stories to go along with them. I never made it past the Playboy Building’s threshold. In fact, the Playboy club may never have been housed in this building, which served as the magazine’s headquarters from 1967 to 1989, but such is the nature of fantasy. After opening on February 29, 1960, the Chicago club was shuttered on the same day in 1986. The last of the Playboy Clubs closed two years later, by which time the culture exhibited more sexual candor (and political resistance to it) than were dreamt of in the “Playboy Philosophy.”

Playboy on Stage: A History of the World’s Sexiest Nightclubs by Patty Farmer revives the enterprise’s glory days. At the height of its success the Playboy empire boasted as many as forty sybaritic outposts around the world. A clubgoer might have come for the Bunnies, attired in their signature outfits with ears and cottontails and augmented with collars, cuffs, and bowties (at Hef’s request), but they stayed for the au courant comedians and musicians. The Playboy Club was far more than the Hooters of its day. It married cultural savvy and showbiz glitz.

Embedded in the nightclub era but willing to change its acts as the decades dictated, the Playboy clubs became iconic locales during the ‘60s, outlasted pleasure domes such as Studio 54 in the ‘70s, and anticipated the comedy clubs of the ‘80s. Just as Playboy showcased literary voices, pioneered the magazine interview, and made inroads into sexual consciousness, the Playboy clubs launched the careers of numerous comedy and musical acts and provided the stage for some of the earliest moments of racial integration in entertainment history.

By training its focus on Playboy’s clubs, Playboy on Stage takes the spotlight off Hefner’s story and avoids recycling much of the magazine’s well-documented history. Performers and behind-the-scenes machers from New York City to London all get their time on center stage. There are some moments in this oral history when you wish Farmer had followed up her subjects’ accounts. Why, for example, when talking about the Bunny outfit does Hefner’s majordomo Victor Lownes talk about his Latvian girlfriend’s mother and leave out the name of Zelda Wynn Valdes, the African-American costumer and fashion designer credited with first assembling the iconic ensemble?

Farmer assembles a fascinating collection of tales, including stories from Lownes and actress and singer Lainie Kazan, who oversaw the Los Angeles branch; it was also known as Lainie’s Room and she was the only woman to run a Playboy Club. There are also recollections from comedians Shecky Greene, David Brenner, Rich Little, Jerry Van Dyke, and Lily Tomlin as well as musicians Sonny Rollins, Al Jarreau, and Marlena Shaw.

One figure who is interviewed and lionized in many of the book’s other reminiscences is the club’s first comedian, “Professor” Irwin Corey, the now 100-year-old monologist and one-time Thomas Pynchon impersonator who made his name as “The World’s Greatest Authority” decades before John Hodgman. Corey’s refusal to work on Sundays (“even God got a day off”) opened a slot for comedian Dick Gregory, who was well known on the “chitlin’ circuit” but hadn’t played much to white audiences, leading to the club being the first of its kind to hire black performers. Gregory tells the story of taking the stage at the Chicago club to find he has been inadvertently booked to play a crowd of frozen-food salesmen from the South. When one of the audience members tells him, “You know we’re from Alabama,” Gregory retorts, “Ain’t nothing wrong with that. I spent thirty years in Alabama one night.”

The book is a spritely read, informative, enjoyable, and full of glamorous, humorous, vivacious, and devil-may-care personalities. Escorting readers onstage and backstage, Playboy on Stage provides an exclusive key to unlock a bygone world that has retreated to the realm of fantasy from which it emerged.