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Friday, October 22, 2010

New Playboy Club for London


Well, this news has perked up Agent Triple P on what has been a rather dreary post-trip week.  Hugh Hefner has announced that Playboy will be opening a series of clubs around the world next year including one in London.

The London Playboy Club at 45 Park Lane


The London Playboy club, of which Triple P's father was a charter member, opened in 1966 and. at the time was the most opulent of them all.

The Gaslight Club in Playboy November 1956

Hugh Hefner got the idea for the Playboy Club when he ran an article about the Chicago Gaslight Club in the November 1956 issue of Playboy.  The idea of key clubs, where members literally had to be in posession of a key to let themselves into the club (something that originated in the era of prohibition) wasn't peculiar to the Gaslight, or even Chicago but Playboy's article, which dwelt on the food, drinks, waitresses and exclusivity made it look like a very desirable concept indeed.  So desirable, that Playboy received over 3,000 letters asking how they could join the club.  Given that the then membership was around 3,800 Hefner realised that he was on to something.  This wasn't a quick, impulse decision, however; the first Playboy club didn't open until February 1960.

Bunnies on the stairs of the London Club

Eschewing the 1890's atmosphere of the Gaslight Hefner wanted something as contemporary as his magazine.  Just like the Gaslight, however, beautiful waitresses were a key to the concept.  Initially Hefner wanted his girls to be dressed in baby-doll nighties.  It was Victor Lownes who pointed out the impracticality of this and came up with the prototype bunny costume (which his mother ran up on her sewing machine). 


Bunnies on the phone in London 1966

Hefner marketed the club by direct mail shots to potential customers.  A long questionnaire had to be satisfactorily completed before membership was approved.  Hefner himself admitted that the membership and the readership of the magazine only overlapped to the tune of 15% to 20% with the club members being an average ten years older and earning twice as much as the average reader of the magazine.  Food was a key part of the package that Hefner created with a one price per drink and food item although the range was rather limited and wasn't exactly haute cuisine, even by the standards of the day.


"Is there anything here you fancy, sir?" 
"I'm tempted to say yes immediately but maybe I should look at the menu first."
A customer attempts to concentrate on the London club menu

The real attraction, of course, were the bunnies.  An advertisement in the Chicago Tribune on January 4th 1960 called for "the most beautiful girls in Chicagoland...To serve our exclusive clientele and decorate the club we are looking for  thirty single girls between 18 and 25.  Experience is not necessary.  Just be beautiful, charming and refined."  Earnings of $250 a week were promised. 


Bunnies discuss the menu in London


It was Victor Lownes who thought that Playboy should take its clubs to Europe. Arriving in the middle of Swinging London at the end of 1963 he also discovered that not only was London where it was happening but, with the passing of the Betting and Gaming Act in 1960, Casinos were spreading like wildfire. Lownes realised that these were making huge amounts of money in London and so thought up the idea of making the London club a casino as well, something that previous Playboy clubs in the US hadn't even contemplated.

The London Playboy Club

A new, Walter Gropius designed, seven storey building came onto the market at the junction of Park Lane and Curzon street right between the Hilton and the Dorchester.  Lownes acquired the lease for 83 years at a cost of £80,000  a year. 


The first six british Bunnies.  The pneumatic Miss Read is on the far left.  The others are Doreen Allen, Kathleen Bascombe, Joan Findlay, Catherine MacDonald and Magie Adam

Lownes decided he needed to recruit the first British bunnies personally (often the interviews were very personal) and in the autumn of 1965 the first six girls recruited were flown, with great publicity to Chicago for training, where they were met by bunnies from the Chicago club holding placards saying "welcome bunnies from Britain" 

Off to the Windy City in 1965
 
 
An enthusiastic welcome in Chicago with Dolly in the lead

One of these was a pneumatic former beauty queen and actress who had held the most appropriate title of "Miss Bristol Teenager"; Dolly Read.  During her training session in Chicago she was spotted by staff photographer Pompeo Posar as potential Playmate material.  Two reasons we should imagine.


Dolly tests the engineering on her bunny costume.  No chocolate for you, dear

She would later become the Playboy Playmate of the month for May 1966. Dolly would later settle in America and would win the lead in the Russ Meyer film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls where she would display her 37-24-37 figure to good effect.  She eventually married comedian Dick Martin of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In fame (a programme we remember from our childhood with great affection)

Hefner arrives at Heathrow.  The striking bunny in the Union Flag costume is none other than Generation Game hostess and future Mrs Bruce Forsythe, Anthea Redfern

In June 1966 Hefner, on only his second visit to Europe, arrived to open the London club with a black tie party of 1,500 guests held on June 28th. Guests at the opening included Ringo Starr, Rudolf Nureyev, Ursula Andress and Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Hefner in London

He had been greeted at Heathrow Airport by 32 bunnies waving American flags. An event which sparked a protest from the US ambassador who felt that the flag was being waved "in circumstances not befitting the dignity due to it".

Bunny auditions in London for some of the 95 places available


Twenty thousand members paid the five guinea subscription to join the London club in the first few months.  After a slow start the club cleared a $1 million profit in the first year.  By 1977, when the Arab invasion of London was in full swing, the London club was making £23,000,000 gross profit and, effectively, subsidising the rest of the organisation. 


The London Playboy Club Casino in 1969


However, a nasty feud developed between Ladbrokes and the Playboy Casino in London.  Ladbrokes had been accused of dirty tricks relating to their string of casinos in a (well researched) article in Private Eye.  lownes, attempting to seem whiter than white supported the removal of Ladbrokes gaming licence.  Ladbrokes retaliated by compiling a dossier on irregularities in the conduct of the Playboy Casino.  When Ladbrokes went down they took the Playboy London Casino with them.  Without the revenue from gaming the club was no longer viable and closed in 1981.

So, can a Playboy club work in London again?  We are somewhat sceptical.  Will the proposed two floor establishment in Mayfair live up to the glory days of the original?  Aimed, no doubt, at the Middle-Eastern, Asian and Russian market there are plenty of other casinos in London.  The lure of a bunny girl is not likely to be enough for most visitors when they can go to Stringfellows or Spearmint Rhino.  Even Hefner, years ago, admitted that the bunnies were a rather old fashioned concept. How will Playboy recruit Bunnies, given UK sex equality legislation?  We can't wait for the first man or hijab wearing Muslim girl to claim discrimination when turned down for a job there. At its best, it will be full of footballers, Russian oligarchs and Japanese businessmen serviced (so to speak) by droves of Eastern European bunnies.  Is the this the sort of place that Agent Triple P would want to be seen in?  There is only one way to find out...  Our cheque is in the post, Mr Hefner,

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this excellent article and thanks for making me remember those great moments

    ReplyDelete