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Bunnies take a hop down memory lane

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« on: September 15, 2011, 04:57:36 pm »

Bunnies take a hop down memory lane

Women recall their time working at the original club

Hugh Hefner, surrounded by a dozen Playboy Bunnies, at the original Chicago Playboy Club in 1960.    

By Nina Metz, Tribune Reporter
5:08 p.m. CDT, September 14, 2011
If you walk down the northwest side of Walton Street as it meets Michigan Avenue you won't find anything there to suggest that this plot of real estate was once home to the original Playboy Club. One suspects curious tourists will be craning their necks anyway.
Debuting Monday, the new NBC drama "The Playboy Club" is set in and around that very Chicago nightspot, circa 1961, dusting off all those mothballed memories for a look back at the club's impact and Bunny culture itself.
Aiming for some verisimilitude, the TV series is shot entirely in Chicago, mostly from a soundstage complex on the Southwest Side. In reality, the Playboy experience throughout the '60s was centered on Hugh Hefner's mansion at 1340 N. State Parkway (the third and fourth floors were given over to Bunny dormitories where rent was $50 a month), and the club itself at 116 E. Walton St., which opened Feb. 29, 1960, in a building Hefner leased from Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks owner Arthur Wirtz.
During the first month of operation, nearly 17,000 people ventured into the club, which took much of its inspiration from another local establishment called the Gaslight Club. Originally located on Rush Street, the Gaslight also required its members to carry a key for entry and it featured a waitstaff of Gaslight Girls decked out in sequin-trimmed velvet corsets and little else. The Gaslight Girls also were hired for their vocal abilities singing was part of the gig.
Hefner streamlined both the Gaslight costume and the talent requirements for his own club. "If you are pretty and personable, between 21 and 24, married or single, you probably qualify," read the newspaper ad, Gloria Steinem wrote in her 1963 magazine piece about her short stint posing undercover as a Bunny at the New York Club.
The ad promised an earning potential of $200 to $300 a week. Steinem never found a Bunny who earned that much, but a number of former Bunnies said their experience proved otherwise. (Steinem, who recently called for a boycott of the NBC show, has posted her original article on her website under the heading "Recent News.")
The idea for the now-iconic Bunny uniform reportedly came from Ilse Taurins, who was then dating Hefner's promotions director, Victor A. Lownes. Taurins suggested using the tuxedoed Playboy logo as a launching point. Hefner thought it was too masculine. Taurins had her mother (a seamstress) work up a prototype anyway, with ears, cuffs and tail. Hefner was sold.
In her piece, Steinem devotes a good amount of ink to the discomforts of the uniform. "The bottom was cut up so high that it left my hip bones exposed as well as a good five inches of untanned derriere," she wrote. Zippers frequently popped open if a Bunny sneezed. Only the skinniest Bunnies didn't have to suck in to make the uniform fit. Steinem stuffed her bosom with plastic dry cleaning bags, of all things, and complained that the corset left welts on her torso. Her feet were completely wrecked, as well, thanks to repeated eight-hour shifts in 3-inch heels. (Aside from the pain, she notes in a postscript, her foot size was permanently enlarged due her time waitressing in those heels.)
Not all former bunnies think Steinem got it right, and plenty take issue with her characterization of the women she observed as well as her description of the working conditions. NBC gathered a small group of former Bunnies at the Drake Hotel last weekend to talk about their experiences. Some worked at the Chicago club, others in Los Angeles and New York.
As they pulled up their chairs for lunch alongside cast members from the NBC show, including Broadway actress Laura Benanti (who plays a Bunny supervisor) as well as Leah Renee, Jenna Dewan Tatum and Naturi Naughton, the question hung in the air: Would the actresses eat? Yes! Some even swallowed bread! But only a little!
Afterward the former Bunnies shared their stories. Sharon Rizzo, who came to the Chicago club out of Indiana University in 1966, said it was "scary" the first time she put on the uniform. "I come from such a conservative background and then it was like, whoa! It was cut all the way up to the waist so it was quite an experience. But it is a master of engineering. That costume made everybody look fabulous. If you were a little thinner it gave you curves, and if you were a little on the heavy side it gave you that very skinny waist. You had to be really out of shape to not look good."
The ideal woman, as propagated by Hefner, has major curves up top, a tiny waist and long legs, and the Playboy Club uniform, by hook or by crook, created the illusion that every woman working there conformed to that fantasy.
Turning to the former Bunnies, actress Tatum asked: "But didn't you feel, the second you put on that costume, that you were in character? You walk out into this club and you transform from your regular day life into your Bunny character?" Rizzo and another former Bunny, Gloria Hendry, answered in unison: "Absolutely."
"At first I was nervous," Hendry said. "I went to work for at least six months to a year, I'm not exaggerating, my stomach would just flutter until I got over that fear. It was stage fright. It was like entering a stage, that's exactly what it was. Playboy was theater and once you were onstage, that was it. And when it was over you could take off the costume and you could breathe, your feet no longer hurt and you went back to your regular life."
Hendry made her way to club in 1965 after leaving a post at the NAACP, where she had worked after graduating high school. "After all the tragedy of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, my gut couldn't take it anymore. I wanted some beauty in my life. I just had to change. So I was looking in the newspaper and I saw Playboy and the girls were making a lot of money. At the NAACP I was making about $150 a week. So I applied and I was accepted, and there I was at the Playboy Club. I mean, traumatic. Putting that costume on was a rude awakening rude meaning, my core was like, 'Oh my God, what am I doing here?'"
Hendry is unequivocal when asked if the uniform was comfortable for eight hours at a stretch: "No, it was not." Tatum talked about cutting back on the amount of food and liquids she consumes while wearing the costume for the TV show: "You just have to prepare." Trips to the restroom are complicated: "You have to take the whole thing off," Hendry explained. Also, one can't really sit comfortably in the outfit; it tends to ride up in all the wrong places.
As with anything, there were pluses and minuses to the job. Hendry seemed most at ease of all the former Bunnies talking about both. She worked at the club for seven years and said she made $1,000 to $2,000 a week, as a table Bunny (often carrying 30 drinks on her tray at a time) or as a cigarette Bunny.
"People were giving me $50 tips just by (my) saying (seductively), 'Cigars, cigarettes, cigarillos, Playboy lighters?' In New York we were classified as celebrities. We were really pioneering in those days. Where in the world could we make that kind of money? It was the money I needed to go to school. It was a means to an end, and they helped you make that bridge."
Reading back through Steinem's expose (which still stands up as an entertaining piece of writing), one senses that she never quite embraced the idea that for many, being a Bunny was a performance, nothing more.
Kathryn Leigh Scott was among the former Bunnies in town last week. She worked at the New York club starting in 1963 when she had just turned 19 and went through Bunny training with Steinem.
"When her article came out, we were a little bit disappointed and dismayed that she hadn't portrayed us as she knew us to be," said Scott. Almost 30 years later, Scott ran into Steinem. "She turned around looked at me like she knew me and I said, 'You wouldn't remember me, I was Bunny Kay, we were in Bunny training together,' and she stepped way back and then said, 'Well, are you doing anything now?'"
That prompted Scott to write "The Bunny Years: The Surprising Inside Story of the Playboy Clubs and the Women Who Worked as Bunnies and Where They Are Now," a compilation of interviews with more than 250 former Bunnies that is being reissued this month. Scott made it clear that she thinks Steinem got it wrong, but it took repeated attempts to get Scott to name specific points.
As part of the interview process, Steinem was required to have an "internal exam" by a doctor on the Playboy payroll, which also included a test for venereal disease. "It's for your own protection," she was told. Scott said she never had (nor was asked to get) a gynecological exam as a prerequisite, but Hefner admitted to the policy in a letter to Steinem after her piece ran and thereafter abolished the practice.
Steinem also talks about the issue of tips. Bunnies who served drinks were allowed to keep 100 percent of their cash tips, but only half of any tips added to a charge account. And coat check Bunnies were not allowed to keep any portion of their tips, but were instead paid a flat rate of $12 per shift: "I was to put all the tips in a slotted box attached to the wall, smile gratefully and not tell the customers that the tips went to the club," Steinem wrote. The coat check pulled in $1,000 in tips the night she worked. (Interestingly, the club's coat check service was just for men: "Only if the club was uncrowded and the coats were not fur was the Hat Check Room available to women.")
In 1963 two ex-Bunnies sued for back tips and "misrepresentation" of the amount of money a Bunny could earn. Eventually the Bunnies went on strike, said Hendry, who participated. But as Steinem heard, the tips were bigger in Chicago: "They're dumber there," a Bunny said. "I mean, it's easier to make them think you'll go out with them, and then they tip you more."
The Chicago club, being the original, was the basis for all others in look and setup. It subsequently moved over the years, ending up in Lincoln Park (at Clark Street and Armitage Avenue) before closing for good in 1986. But as the Tribune reported last month, a new Playboy Club is expected to open in Chicago by early next year.
Whether or not this reincarnation is viable remains a question. "You are holding the top job in the country for a young girl," the Bunny manual from the early 1960s announced, a statement that probably seemed enticing at the time but sounds ridiculous today.
The NBC show, however, aims to dig up glamorous '60s-era anachronisms of Bunnies fending off handsy clientele, like one of Steinem's overheard conversations in the dressing room: "A girl with jet-black hair, chalky makeup and a green costume stopped at the door. 'My tail droops,' she said, pushing it into position with one finger. 'Those damn customers always yank it.'"
Twitter @NinaMetzNews
Copyright 2011, Chicago Tribune
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