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The Big Party

FROM JULY 2009: After launching the Playboy empire here in the 1950s, Hugh Hefner turned Chicago into a frontline of the sexual revolution, acting out his sybaritic fantasy life behind the walls of his mansion on North State Parkway. But as the freewheeling sixties gave way to the decadent seventies, things changed drastically for Hefner and the Gold Coast mansion he called home

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In the mid-sixties, a “Bunny Mother” confers with her young charges

In the mid-sixties, a “Bunny Mother” confers with her young charges Photo Gallery »
 

The new club featured several floors of sophisticated entertainment and fine food and drink in a setting designed to be the embodiment of the mod, hip, upwardly mobile lifestyle portrayed in the magazine. The star attraction of the dark, cozy leather-and-teak lair, of course, was the newly created Playboy Bunny, a typically busty, always pretty young woman dressed in a soon-to-be iconic one-piece satin swimsuit costume, stylized rabbit ears, cotton tail, and cleavage.

When it opened on February 29, 1960, the place was more than a hit—it was a sensation. Despite the frigid weather, long lines stretched out the door, and cars pulled up two and three deep. For $50, patrons received a lifetime membership and a key stamped with the Playboy logo. Diners enjoyed $1.50 meals and drinks, while listening to top-flight comedians and singers. Among the acts was a young black comedian named Dick Gregory—whose controversial hiring established Hefner as a staunch supporter of racial equality. Nearly 17,000 keyholders and their guests visited the club in the first month alone. “People were coming to Chicago from all over the world,” says Hefner.

In quick order, Playboy went from a low-key, barely noticeable suite of offices to a high-profile presence that dominated downtown. In the process, it began shouldering aside the long-held image of Chicago as a mobster enclave and replacing it with a new, hip, slightly naughty aura. “Chicago has become the sex symbol capital of the United States,” the syndicated columnist Art Buchwald wrote in a 1962 column. “If this is the wrong image of Chicago, it must be blamed on Playboy’s publisher, Hugh Hefner. . . . We were invited to his house one night to look around, which is to Chicago what being invited to Buckingham Palace is to London.”

Not everyone was pleased. The Catholic establishment disdained Playboy and so did Daley. “I had a very cordial relationship with Daley Jr. [Richard M. Daley], but never had a very friendly relationship with the father, because the father was in the hands of the church,” says Hefner. The two first clashed over the location for an event that would mark a defining moment in the development of the young magazine: the 1959 Playboy Jazz Festival.

Having first granted permission for the event to be at Soldier Field, Daley reversed himself after the Catholic church objected. The move turned out to be a blessing. Not only were the intimate confines of the new venue, Chicago Stadium, better suited for the concert, but it rained during the event. Still, Hefner and his magazine were on notice.

Among the public at large, however, the feeling toward Playboy seemed one of voyeuristic fascination. “Hardly any young man new to the street and the neighborhood can resist the temptation to glance at the imposing [mansion],” a 1969 story in the Chicago Tribune observed. “Sometimes men stop and stare, as if expecting to see the nubile Playboy Bunnies themselves cavorting at the few windows that remain undraped.”

Whatever Chicago’s opinion of Hefner, he wasn’t going away. For him, his magazine, and the people who were fans of both, the fun was just starting.

* * *

Hefner with the Playmate Karen Christy
Hefner with the Playmate Karen Christy Photo Gallery »

It was an extraordinary sight: the beautiful young woman, trailing a tangle of flowing, dark brunette hair, clip-clopping down Inner Lake Shore Drive on a gorgeous black gelding, riding from her Near North stables through Lincoln Park, over to North State Parkway, and up to the gates of 1340. The year was 1963, and Patti Reynolds, a Playboy Bunny and soon to be centerfold, and her horse, Frankie, were making their daily trip to the mansion, where she had moved into a small studio apartment on the same floor as the Bunny dorm.

“I would go get him about 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock in the morning, and I would ride to the mansion, right up to the butler’s pantry,” recalls Reynolds. “Hef would come out and pet the horse in the morning and there was a Bunny I was friends with, Marika [Lukacs], and she’d get on the back of the horse with me, and we’d go riding down State Street. In those days, the police would stop you, but just to talk because they knew who we were—Playboy Bunnies.”

Reynolds was 17 when she talked her way into a waitress job at the Gaslight Club, and still under age when she answered an advertisement in the Tribune seeking “beautiful, charming and refined young ladies” to work in the new Playboy Club. “I was afraid of everything,” she says. “I felt these girls were so beautiful. I couldn’t believe I had been hired.”

Reynolds, who would become the September 1965 Playmate of the Month, says the rules were strict, but that didn’t stop her or other Bunnies from making the occasional mischief. “I remember working with another Bunny,” she recalls. “She was very busty. When we worked the show rooms, she would be sitting on a chair, and she would pull her costume down. Some guy watching the show would grab his friend and say, ‘Look at that!’ By the time the other guy looked over, she had covered up and was sitting there like nothing had happened. Every so often we’d get fired by Hef’s brother, Keith, and we’d go running to Hef—‘Boo hoo, your brother fired us’—and he’d say, ‘All right, Patti, go back to work, but be a good girl this time.’”

Dianne Chandler, who was both Playmate of the Month and cover girl for the magazine’s September 1966 issue, was working as a waitress at the Pancake House in Champaign-Urbana when she saw an ad similar to the one that drew Reynolds. “I had just fallen off the turnip truck,” says Chandler, who grew up in Oak Park. She got hired and moved into the mansion, where she met Shel Silverstein, who had taken up semi-permanent residence in the Red Room.

“I had talked Hef into letting my baby sister stay for a night. So we were both in our baby doll jammies, sitting in bed watching TV, and all of a sudden the door opens from the bathroom and in pops this bald head. That was the time when he wore these kind of Mexican looking pants, with fringy bottoms and sandals, and he had his guitar and said, ‘What’s going on here?’ The next thing we knew, he jumps onto the bed with my sister and me, curls his feet under him Indian style, starts strumming the guitar and singing these hysterically off-color songs.”

Reynolds recalls walking past the steam room one day when a hand reached out and pulled her into a fog of giggling Bunnies. “Everybody was squealing and laughing and hands were everywhere,” she says. “When the steam cleared I looked to see who had pulled me in and it was Hugh O’Brian, the actor who played Wyatt Earp.” (“Could’ve been,” O’Brian told me when I reached him by phone at his Los Angeles home.) She escaped just in time to run into Hefner. “Having a good time, Patti?” he asked.

 

Photography: (top) Bettmann/Corbis, (bottom) Courtesy of PLAYBOY Magazine © by Playboy

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