Recollections of original Chicago Playboy Club; new club plans to open next year

By Sophia Coleman

A velvety red carpet trails up from the street and under the color-stacked canopy surrounding the entrance of the sexy, swanky Playboy Club. A heavy layer of cigar smoke clogs the senses and induces a dream-like state, while scantily clad Bunnies serve up drinks, food and games. This was the original Playboy Club of the 1960s—the place where sex and sophistication combined to create an atmosphere that transcended the prudish morals of the early ’60s.

“Families often came in from out of town and regarded the Playboy Club as a ‘must-see’ destination,” said Brenda Butler, former Jet Magazine writer and frequenter of the original club in the mid ’70s.

Chicago, once home to all things Playboy—including the original Playboy Mansion, 1340 N. State Parkway and the Playboy Club, 116 E. Walton St.—may again be host to a new version of the “old” Playboy Club.

Plans have been announced for the club to open next spring, just a few blocks from its original location back in the ’60s, according to Playboy spokeswoman Abi O’Donnell.

Two decades after the closing of the original club in 1988, Playboy is confident it can bring the swanky, sexy club back to its roots.

Though specific details on the club have yet to be released, Playboy CEO Scott Flanders confirmed to Crain’s Chicago Business that the company is in “the final stages of selecting a site” in Chicago.

Tom Morgan, general counsel for Boston-based Tremont Realty Capital and head of the group that signed the deal with Playboy Enterprises, was unavailable for comment.

One potential site for the club could be 1150 N. Dearborn St., currently the site of the Mulino

restaurant featured in the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” This club would be unlike the franchises located across the country because it would not be attached to a hotel or casino. Playboy clubs attached to larger venues have opened around the globe since 2006, in locations such as London, Las Vegas and Cancun, Flanders said.

The idea to have a stand-alone club is in line with the retro trend that has been sweeping the country. Plans for the club were announced just in time for the Sept. 19 premiere of “Playboy Club,” a drama airing on NBC that is modeled after the original Playboy Club. According to Gary Mednick, spokesman for “Playboy Club,” the show will take place in Chicago during the ’60s and will follow the dramatic lives of a few fictional Bunnies.

Chicago History Museum archivist Peter Alter said Chicago-native Hugh Hefner opened the club in 1960 to highlight the single-male lifestyle and promote his magazine. Alter also mentioned that the club was modeled after the television show that used to air at the mansion, “Playboy After Dark.”

The decline of the original club was partially attributed to Hefner having his eyes on the West and the coastal lifestyle that it promised.

“I don’t think [the club] became unpopular per se; Hefner wanted to move it out of Chicago and the Midwest,” Alter said. “Southern California [was] much more of a draw for the kind of lifestyle that he hoped to encourage and promote with the magazine.”

Nat Lehrman, publisher of Playboy Magazine from 1963 to 1985 and a former Chairman of Columbia’s Journalism Dept., remembered the meetings held at the Playboy Club, calling it “classy” and “a nice time.”

Lehrman recalled certain VIP members having the iconic silver key, which actually didn’t work as a functional key but acted as more of a “symbol of importance.”

Lehrman said that the key was reserved for those who paid a monthly fee of $25 or who were close to Hefner. Holders of the key were allowed into special levels of the club—which meant more beautiful girls, specialty drinks and entertainment.

Butler, who frequented the original Playboy Club back in the mid-70s, said she was thrilled that the club will be, essentially, reopening.

“There were always cars pulling up in front [at the original club],” Butler said. “Always some celebrity in a shiny car would be showing up. Anyone from famous sports players to people who were always in the media—they were there to be seen.”

Sometimes the club would be used to showcase record labels, and as Butler remembered, any record that was going to be No. 1 would use the thriving nightlife of the hotspot as a platform.

Butler recalls the original club being of the “utmost class” and expensive. However, she said, the price was worth it.

“There were huge lights out front, similar to the ones you would see at the Academy Awards,” Butler said. “The moment you stepped out of your cab you knew you were going someplace special.”

Distinct images of the club are ingrained in Butler’s mind. She remembers the luxury of the place, with red-carpeted steps leading up to the main floor and a spiral staircase to the second level of the four-story club. The ceiling resembled a Rubik’s cube, and the dance floor would use color-blocking and lights to “set the tone” of the night.

There were beautiful Bunnies around every corner—some were holding trays of drinks, others were “pool Bunnies,” who would hold cues for men during a game and some would even entertain the crowd with a song, she recalled.

“A lot of the Bunnies had college degrees. They were very professional and smart,” Butler said. “If you became a Bunny, it was like a badge of honor.”

According to Butler, some of the bunnies were aspiring actresses, lawyers and businesswomen. They weren’t the blonde, big-breasted bimbos that many people may stereotypically think of when they hear the phrase “Playboy Bunny,” she said.

Not everyone has such rosy memories of the Playboy Club. Feminist writer Gloria Steinem’s famous 1963 exposé of her experiences going undercover as a Bunny in the New York location portrayed a thankless waitressing job. Bunnies were terrorized with a system of endless rules and demerits, detectives shadowing them and a mandatory STD exam by the company doctor. Efforts to contact Steinem for this article were unsuccessful.

Candace Jordan, a former Bunny who worked at the original club, credits her success as a social columnist for the Chicago Tribune, among many other achievements, to her career with Playboy.

“The club was a fantastic place for young women to earn really good money, choose their own hours and be a part of a very glamorous world,” Jordan said. “A lot of the girls paid for college from their earnings or for that of their children.”

Jordan had an extensive career with Playboy—she appeared on six Playboy covers, four of which were international, was Chicago’s “Bunny of the Year” in 1976, and had her own centerfold in the 1979 December issue.

As for her time spent at the club as a greeter and the “Bumper-pool Bunny,” Jordan said it was one of the best times of her life. She described a typical morning at the club, as she often had the early shifts.

“You went to the ‘Bunny Room’ where your locker was located with your costume,” Jordan said. “[You would put on] ears, cuffs and cufflinks, heels, [panty] hose, bow-tie and bodice, then you would check in with the floor director and away you go.”

Part of the reason the original club may have been shut down, according to Alter, may have been due to the surge of the feminist movement in the mid ’70s and early ’80s.

“Maybe Gloria Steinem didn’t appreciate the club and the lifestyle, but she is the only ‘ex-Bunny’ I know who didn’t have a wonderful experience,” Jordan commented.

Butler said it will be interesting to see what sort of atmosphere the new club will offer. The club will undoubtedly face competition from restaurants with other edgily dressed waitresses, such as Hooters and Tilted Kilt.

“We have to remember that [when the club first opened], this was a time before women’s liberation,” Butler said. “It will be interesting to see how the club will fare during this new era of feminism.”