Stars of the Playboy Club

Lonnie Shorr

Lonnie Shorr

Lonnie Shorr

 

The southern comedian, Lonnie Shorr—whose delivery has often been compared in the tradition of Will Rodgers—worked the Playboy circuit for two straight years. He told us, “I’m glad I did! It was a great learning experience and an opportunity to perfect your act —although you never really reach perfection.

 

“I found my niche working for Playboy because you did so many shows for them. It was a ‘floating‘ schedule because usually you did two shows a night. But if the last show had an attendance of fifteen percent of the room capacity, you had to do another show! In other words, if the room sat a hundred people and you had fifteen people in the audience—you did another show. So theoretically, you could be doing a lot of shows!

 

Lonnie Short and Juliet Prowse

Lonnie Short and Juliet Prowse

 

“One thing about Playboy that was different from the way things are today is that you couldn’t use four letter words. Nobody did that. If you did, you had an unfavorable report written about you. This report was sent to the company headquarters in Chicago, and if you received too many bad write-ups you were dropped from the circuit, and no one wanted that. There were guys that were a little suggestive, but no cursing.

 

“The Playboy Clubs were one of the few places we worked that had standards, very high standards for everyone—the staff, the Bunnies, and the entertainers. The other day, I had a guy from one of our local newspapers ask me about the entertainment scene today, and I told him I thought that the  Playboy principle of entertainment was what they needed today in some of these other clubs.

 

The Playboy Clubs always had two acts—once in awhile they’d have three acts in the bigger clubs. It was a place where you could go and see a show and, at that time the prices were really nominal –then you could go downstairs and listen to some music while actually talking to the person you were with. That’s the kind of place we could use nowadays.”

 

Lonnie Shorr

Lonnie Shorr

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Duke Hazlett

Duke Hazlett as Bing Crosby

Duke Hazlett as Bing Crosby

Duke began his career as a Sinatra tribute artist at the Le Bistro in Atlantic City. He told me that when he sang there, the club would put a sign outside saying “If you like Sinatra, you’ll love Duke.” Sinatra also played in Atlantic City, but when he did, it was next door at the 500 Club and he’d often quip to his audiences, “If you like Duke, you’ll go cuckoo over me.” Duke continued, “Frank, on occasions when we’d meet was always nice to me and would kid me by saying, ‘Just remember, I’m still the Chairman of the Board—but you can be the Vice-Chairman.’”

Dukes voice wasn’t the only similarity to the famous Rat-packer; he was also synonymous in appearance. And he was so convincing and his performance such pure fun that he was invited as a guest on the most popular variety shows, including The Steve Allen Show and Jack Parr Show. He was also induced to take part in an entertaining subterfuge. As Duke tells it: “I was working at a club in Chicago and Hef [Hugh Hefner] would come to see me because he was a Sinatra fan. Well, this one night he told me that he had been looking forward to having Sinatra perform at his upcoming Jazz Festival, but Frank’s plan changed and he couldn’t make it. However, he had an alternative that he needed help with. He wanted me to appear and do a few of the songs I usually did in my show. I told him I’d be overjoyed to do it just because it sounded like so much fun!

“The night came—August, 1959. The search lights were crossing in the sky as I walked down the aisle with a brigade of twelve police officers escorting me to the stage. I had a trench coat flung over my shoulder and a straw hat with a white band cocked on my head. As soon as I hit the stage, Count Basie’s Band started up and I swung into “Come Fly With Me”—and the crowd went wild, just wild! I received a standinDuke Hazlett

g ovation and Mort Sahl—the MC—introduced me afterwards by my real name, saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Duke Hazlett.’ But people hear what they want, and the next day one of the Chicago newspapers reported that Frank Sinatra had appeared at the Playboy Jazz Festival and did a fantastic job! I’ve appeared since at many prestigious clubs and engagements and been on some wonderful shows, but that’s the one time I relive over and over.”

After waiting this famous clip from the Steve Allen Show let me know if you would have been fooled into thinking you just saw Frank Sinatra at the first Playboy Jazz Festival in 1959.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Polly Bergen

Polly Bergen

Polly Bergen

Polly told me that she felt the Plaza Hotel was a selective venue, and The Persian Room—in that hotel—the most beautiful room in the world to work in. When I asked which talent she enjoyed the most, she replied singing, even though she became a household name through her numerous and varied stage appearances. Polly won an Emmy Award for her portrayal of singer Helen Morgan in The Helen Morgan Story.  She also costarred with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in the very dramatic Cape Fear and again with Mitchum –almost twenty years later—in The Winds of War and “War and Remembrance” (garnering Emmy nominations in the process). Then Polly’s career took a comic turn in Kisses for My President, where she portrayed the first female president, and Move Over Darling with Doris Day and James Garner.

Polly attained star status when barely out of her teens when, just after studying math in community college, she caught the interest of legendary producer Hal Wallis. Mr. Wallis is best known for producing and winning an Academy Award Casablanca, but that is just one in a very extensive line of significant movies he produced. “I was playing a small club,” said Polly, “and I didn’t have an agent or manager or anybody at that point. Well, Clarence Freed came in, heard me sing, and said he’d like to handle my career. I said, ‘Great. Fine.’ And he sent a picture of me, along with a recording of me singing a wild hillbilly song—“Honky Tonking”—to all the well-known producers in Hollywood. The photo he sent was a very glamorous shot of me in a low-cut dress with my hair swept to one side to revel long rhinestone earrings. It was quite a combination—this very sophisticated looking girl and this honky-tonk song.

“One of the producers Clarence sent it to was Hal Wallis, and he was kind of mesmerized and asked me to come in. I met him, and he signed me that same day. He put me in my first three movies with Martin and Lewis.” Those films were At War with the Army, That’s My Boy, and The Stooge.

“I adored Dean Martin more than life itself, and I always played his wife or girlfriend.  But I had a very hard time with Jerry. He wanted to screw everybody he worked with, and that was just the way it was. Jerry made my life a living hell, because I wouldn’t play ball with him. Every day on the set was so horrendous that I finally walked away. He would not take ‘no’ for an answer!”

Sadly, we lost Polly on September 20, 2014,  but she lives on in her friends and her work.

Polly Bergen

Polly Bergen

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Jack Jones

Jack Jones

Jack Jones

I’ve been longing for an opportunity to talk to Jack Jones – one of the most popular vocalists of his time—for over a year, but his busy schedule didn’t ease up until recently. It was worth the wait.

Jack, born John Allen Jones, is the only son of actress Irene Harvey and singer/actor Allen Jones – best remembered for acting the straight man in the Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races , as well as his chart topping hit song The Donkey Serenade.

After signing a recording deal with Capitol Records while still a teenager Allen invited his son to join him on stage for his engagement at The Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas. This was Jack’s first professional gig. They sang duets, including “Donkey Serenade” and then Jack sang a solo – his first in front of such a sizable paying audience— and he liked it.

Capitol Records and Jack soon differed on the direction his music should go and they parted. He found that the progressive record label Kapp was a much more compatible match. The first song they recorded together, “Lollipops and Roses” snared Jack a Grammy for Best Pop Male Vocal Performance. This was swiftly followed by “Wives and Lovers” earning him another Grammy and a spot at the table with the big boys, an engagement at The Persian Room!

Jack entertained sold–out audiences many times at The Plaza, starting with his first in December of 1964 and until October 1975. “That was my debut” says Jack. “I was scared to death and excited at the same time, I had hit the big time and had hardly paid any dues at all.”

“John Doringer was my PR guy. He was the top PR guy in New York, and he handled the opening—did a marvelous job. Everyone was there. Lesley Caron was going with Warren Beatty – they were both there – and of all the people in the room: I forgot to introduce them. Warren was a friend and he kiddingly gave me trouble over that for a while.”

“Ethel Merman was there—and yes, I remembered to introduce her. She was a good friend of mine throughout the rest of her life. So many people were there it was a real star-studded audience. That entire time surrounding my first successful opening at The Persian Room was so exciting. Just prior to that I was playing a tiny club called The Living Room, so it really happened quite quickly.

“Funny story about that initial success: Peter Leverson worked for John Springer, my PR guy. One day we were sitting around my suite talking on the phone, doing PR stuff, and Peter called the hotel operator for something – I don’t remember what – but I hear him say, ‘Operator …enough, enough…I’m talking to you from Jack Jones’ suite and I want you to XYZ….’ When he hung up I said to him, ‘Peter, it appears to me that my new-found fame has gone to YOUR head!’ And we both had a good laugh.”

“I remember another time there,” Jack continued. “I got a call in my suite, from the matri de, John, who was a real character—very European, and he knew what to do and how to handle everything. One of his tasks was to keep tabs on who was coming to the show. So this particular night he calls and very excitedly says, Mrs. Kennedy is coming in! ‘It’s wonderful’ he says, and I agreed, it was great. So they pull out the best china The Plaza has to offer. There are amazing flower arrangements. Her table is especially beautiful and the staff is polished right down to their last button.”

“Then John starts calling me saying, ‘Jack, you have to hold the show, she hasn’t shown up yet.’ ‘Okay I say, but let’s hope it’s not for too long; I don’t want the other people getting mad at me.’ ‘No, no, no, it will be fine,’ he assures me.’ He calls me two or three more times with updates – basically to say she’s not here yet! Okay, but I can’t hold the show much longer, so I leave my room and go downstairs to just wait and keep a lookout from behind the kitchen’s swinging door.

“Finally, he comes and tells me she’s cancelled. ‘How can she do this to me?’ he moans, ‘Oh me, oh my’ and so on and so on. “I say, ‘You? How can she do this to you?’ Even though I never had a chance to meet her, she was reportedly a big fan. The show was delayed about 45 minutes by this time, but I went out and made some kind of excuse and began the show. It was fine. These things happen – you hope they don’t, but they do and you just roll with them.”

“My ex – wife, Jill St. John, might have been there at some point when I played that room…wait a minute …she was! I remember this because we used to go around the corner to the jewelry store Van Cleef and Arpel!” Just like a man to have his memory jogged by that! “We also enjoyed the Palm Court.”

During the 60’s and 70’s, Jack was a staple on all of the popular TV variety shows, as well a guest star on the most widely watched TV shows of the day. One of his most recognizable songs is the catchy theme song for Love Boat.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

 

Shelley Berman

Shelley Berman

Shelley Berman

We’re excited to obtain a copy of the DVD Shelley Berman on Location, filmed live at the Los Angeles Playboy Club in 1977.  This is from a rather unique period in cultural history: the Playboy Clubs were at their zenith, but there was a new player entering the entertainment game which would eventually be called premium cable TV.  This was so early in that particular game that Shelley doesn’t even say “HBO;” he refers to the company as “Home Box Office” and keeps talking about it as if it were a new term, something which neither he nor most of his audience has ever heard of.

The irony of HBO shooting a comedy special at the Playboy Club is overtly apparent 35 years later. During the Playboy Clubs great years, this was pretty much your only chance to could see a major comic like Shelley Berman in his full-length glory.  And that’s especially true for Shelley, even though he was all over television in the 1960s.  He was on every program, from The Hollywood Palace to The Jack Paar Show—in fact, he was a constant presence on television.  He was on so often that, by an apparent coincidence, he guest starred alongside Ethel Merman on The Perry Como Show in 1960 and then again on The Judy Garland Show four years later. One wonders if the two stars ever considered co-hosting their own program, which would have been called, of course, The Merman-Berman Hour.

But he only did brief, but hysterically funny bits on TV variety shows.  If you wanted to see him stretching out at length, and doing all of those classic bits that made him a star, you had to wait until he came to a Playboy Club near you to catch him live.  That’s why HBO made such a difference: they gave you everything you could get in a club.  In fact, it was cable TV that created a boom in comedy in the 1980s.  This became the number one factor in the downfall of nightclubs because they were no longer necessary: since the comedy clubs were merely feeding the cable TV stand-up comedy shows, people eventually realized that they didn’t have to leave their homes anymore to see the great headliners like Shelley Berman.  In a sense, when HBO filmed Shelley at the Playboy Club, it was the slow beginning of the end.

Shelley Berman on Location is a performance blissfully ignorant of that realization—classic Shelley at his peak.  You’ll note that he begins with one of his trademark “telephone” routines.  This was a long-time staple of his act.  Just like Eddie Lawrence doing countless variations on his “old philosopher” routine (“Is that what’s bothering you, Bunky?”) or Johnny Carson’s many long-running routines, all Shelley had to do to incite gales of laughter was hold his hand to his ear to mimic a phone call.  There was something contagiously funny about hearing half of a phone conversation. The timing lent itself perfectly to one-man stand-up comedy, it was almost like an verbal Abbott & Costello vaudeville routine where you only hear Abbott while the presence of Costello is suggested but never made explicit. [In fact, that’s the classic image of Shelley Berman – hand to ear.]  Shelley will be 90 in a few months, but he remains as important – and as funny – as ever.

 

Here’s a clip of Shelley doing one of the all-time funniest of his many telephone routines, this one on The Judy Garland Show in 1964:

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Movie Night

Movie Night at the Mansion

Movie Night at the Mansion

It doesn’t get too much better than hanging out with Will Friedwald and Hugh Hefner for dinner and movie night at the Playboy Mansion. This night’s choice was His Kind of Woman, a 1951 cult, black-and-white film noir starring Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum, with wonderful supporting roles by Raymond Burr and one of my all-time favorite actors, Vincent Price.
Hef is famous for gathering interesting groups of people together for evenings like this—similar to the soirees of old. This evening’s party was no exception, with the diverse and interesting group including: the lovely Terry Moore (actress and long-time companion of Howard Hughes), blues musician Joel Berliner, film historian Ron Borst, band leader Ray Anthony, actor and former pro footballer Fred Dryer, prominent film director Elliott Silverstein –most notably the director for Cat Ballou in 1965, friend and educator Mark Cantor, and actress Colleen Miller. I know I’ve probably overlooked someone, but hopefully they’ll forgive me. And of course Hef and his charming wife Crystal were the most wonderful hosts—even sending us home with peanut butter sandwiches cut into fourths for the road.
My brother isn’t impressed that I have a book. His opinion of me has risen because I get to go the Playboy Mansion!

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Los Angeles Playboy Club Opening

Playboy Club on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood California

Playboy Club on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood California

“The United States has a new bunny – it’s the Playboy Bunny!”  After spending the last two years or so talking to as many veterans of the Playboy organization as I could, it was a delight to see what one of the most famous original Playboy Clubs – and some of the key members of the behind-the-scenes team – looked like “in the flesh.”  This is a TV news story covering the opening of the Los Angeles club, which opened on December 31, 1964, with a combination launching event and New Year’s Eve party.  This is when Los Angeles was just another stop on the circuit tour – well before Los Angeles became home base for Hefner and the Playboy Corporation.

First the celebrities: the biggest star present, by far is Milton Berle, television’s “Uncle Miltie,” getting his bow tie straighten by a very happy sandy-haired bunny.  You’ll see Hugh O’Brien, better known as television’s “Wyatt Earp,” and Julie Newmar, years before she became the Cat Woman – and yet wearing a leopard print!  There’s also Don Murray – best known for playing Marilyn Monroe’s leading man in the 1956 film of Bus Stop—now there’s a Playboy connection.  And there’s Barbara Rush, this being right around the time she did her two famous roles opposite Frank Sinatra (Come Blow Your Horn and Robin and the Seven Hoods) and Shirley Jones, looking resplendent in white ermine. We had the honor to talk with regarding her own involvement with the Playboy organization during her recent run at New York’s Cafe Carlyle.

This silent news footage is amazing, in that it caught the actual workings of a Playboy franchise just as the idea was beginning to catch fire and the clubs were starting to proliferate; it’s great to see such little nuances as an eager bar bunny bopping up and down to the music (we wonder who was actually playing – the musicians aren’t shown) in her rabbit outfit and little white heels. None other than our friend Keith Hefner takes center-stage; in a sequence filmed (obviously) before the actual opening, we see Keith putting the girls through a “rigorous course” of training; we are shown the manual, and photos of the different kind of keys.  And we get a demonstration of the famous “bunny dip,” and the lesser known method of emptying an ashtray so that only the one proper cigarette remains.  The Bunnies show us how drinks are prepared, selecting the proper glass and garnish – whatever – it was all done by numbers.

We are also shown some of the different showrooms in the Los Angeles outpost, such as the Playroom and the “very plush” Penthouse.  We are told that the hard-working bunnies have to go up and down the stairs as often as a dozen times every hour, and though it’s hard on their feet, the sight of them doing so is easy on our eyes.  We see one bunny lighting a customer’s cigar in front of a wall of Leroy Neiman drawings of his famous “femlin.” (You’ll know her, she’s the beguiling creature shown in long boots, long gloves, and that’s all.) And that’s after a brief shot of Neiman himself; he isn’t identified, but it’s hard to mistake that famous mustache for anybody else.

Near the end of this ten minute featurette –presented in two parts on YouTube—the New Year’s Festivities reach a climax. Cost of admission per couple? A whopping $65!  We are shown the hands and instruments but not the faces, alas, of the drummer and bassist, and a rather amazing shot of three bunnies dancing right on top of the bar, in front of an appreciative crowd in tuxedos, gowns, and party hats.  What most viewers may not appreciate today is the degree to which the club is integrated: the only African-Americans we see are working for the club, not patrons, but at least one member of the band is black and at least one bunny is what they referred to at the time as a “chocolate bunny.” It’s difficult to appreciate today (and thank God it is!) how widespread segregation was throughout the nation as late as 1964 and for many years to come; especially in New Orleans, the casual integration of the Los Angeles club was unimaginable.

However, we don’t need to bear that in mind as we enjoy the simple, even innocent image of three beautiful girls in bunny suits and high heels dancing on top of a bar, and, like everyone else in the room, having the time of their lives.  “Our cameras have visited countless openings and parties,” says the unidentified commentator, “but this one looks like its New Year’s Eve every night.”

 

 

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Shecky Greene

Shecky Greene performing at the Sands Hotel Las Vegas

Shecky Greene performing at the Sands Hotel – Las Vegas

How many comedians are in the world who can be introduced by Groucho Marx and have their routine not be anti-climactic?  Shecky Greene is one of the few.  Where some comics are measured and deliberate, Shecky belongs to the same class as the late Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams; he makes you feel like he’s completely improvising everything, making it up as he goes along, and that he’s willing to go out on any limb imaginable for the sake of entertaining us and getting a laugh. In fact, he could have been a latter day Marx Brother; Fred Sheldon Greenfield could have just as easily changed his name to “Shecko Marx.” The first time I saw him live was an unscheduled guest appearance at Keely Smith’s first opening at the old Feinstein’s at the Regency in New York: he grabbed the mic and started riffing on the singer’s Native American heritage; “I remember whenever you used to sing,” he quipped, “it would rain like a son-of-a-bitch!”

Schecky’s primary association with Playboy came in the early 1970s, when he worked the new Great Gorge resort.  He talked about that experience with me. I won’t recap the whole story, but he told me how he was one of the first headliners that was hired when the Great Gorge resort initially opened. The resorts were never as popular as the original clubs had been, and this particular enterprise was predicated on the hope that gambling would soon become legal in this part of New York State.  (You might say that the Playboy Corporation was itself gambling on that very idea.) However, that never happened, and the whole Great Gorge project was only a qualified success at best.

For most of his career, Shecky worked in Las Vegas; that was his home base.  Many performers regarded doing live shows in casinos as a stepping stone to other kinds of work, movies, TV, Broadway.  But for Shecky, Vegas was an end to itself, a destination, rather than a stop on the tour. He liked the spontaneity of working in front of live audiences in an unstructured setting. And, perhaps even more importantly, he liked to be where the action was.  Where many showbiz legends had their excesses, Shecky didn’t chase girls and he didn’t abuse his body with dangerous substances—which partially accounts for why he’s currently in such good shape at age 88. His major vice was gambling, especially horse-racing. There was even a thoroughbred later named in his honor.

Shecky liked Vegas so much that it was difficult to get him to leave and accept other kinds of work: Shecky’s most famous acting job was as a semi-regular on the hit dramatic series Combat; his character, “Private Braddock”—no first name ever seems to have been given—he was easily the most memorable on the show, but Shecky disliked the whole Hollywood scene; whenever the cameras started rolling, all he could think about was getting back to his beloved horses.

As “himself,” rather than playing a character, Shecky appeared on a wide range of variety and talk shows over a 50 year period; he was particularly effective on the two major variety shows of the 1960s, The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS and Sullivan’s chief rival, The Hollywood Palace on ABC.  In fact, this monolog from 1965 plays up the competition between the two shows: one of Shecky’s opening bits is a dead-on impression of Ed Sullivan, which brings out the fact that even though hosting the show was Sullivan’s only performing talent—meaning that he didn’t sing, dance, act, or do comedy—Sullivan was a famously awkward, tongue-tied emcee, who very often mispronounced the names of the guests on his own show. To be completely fair, Sullivan had other skills behind-the-scenes, of course.

Shecky uses the trick of repetition very artfully, bringing back the Sullivan gag at several points for maximum comic impact, and weaving it through a funny story about a Chinese restaurant. These days, his Chinese impression would not be considered politically correct, but he portrays his Chinese subjects as being considerably more on the ball than, say, Ed Sullivan.  He drifts his way through a routine about Frankie Laine—probably the single funniest and most on-the-money impression of Frankie Laine’s stylized belting style that’s ever been done—and a longer bit about Al Jolson that builds his eight-minute monolog to an hysterical conclusion.  You might not think it’s possible, but if there’s such a thing as a living comic who’s truly worthy of sharing the stage show with the legendary Groucho, it’s Shecky Greene.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Tony Bennett & Playboy, Part Two:

tony bennett the playboy club

Tony Bennett

On February 13 1960, Tony Bennett was a guest on the first season of Hugh Hefner’s TV show, Playboy’s Penthouse; this was almost exactly in between the inaugural of President Kennedy and the opening of the first Playboy Club, in Chicago (less than two weeks later). This particular show is a remarkable document of the singer at an early pinnacle.  When Tony Bennett played the big concert houses, such as Carnegie Hall—where he debuted in 1962 (on the heels of “San Francisco”)—he had a full orchestra with strings behind him, and that was true of the major Vegas amphitheaters as well. But when he played at the Playboy, in the best tradition of the magazine, he cut everything down to the bare necessities.  The 1960 show documents Tony working the way he would at the clubs just a short time later, with his most prolific accompanist, the brilliant Ralph Sharon, and a trio with bassist Hal Gaylor and Tony’s longtime drummer and sidekick Billy Exiner. It starts with Tony and Hef making small talk – joining them is Phyllis Diller, who has just done a comedy routine (and who’s in almost every shot of Tony’s segment and whose trademark cackle is heard throughout).

Looking immaculate in his tux, Tony and Ralph swing out with a bright, bouncy, opener “Just in Time,” a 1956 song from Bells are Ringing that Tony had already helped make into a standard with his highly-successful Columbia single. Seated next to Ralph on the piano bench, he takes out a pack of cigarettes and lights one. On a more serious note, he then sings what he announces as “an old Gershwin song,” namely  “Love Walked In.” It’s serious, but never dire, Tony delivers it looking vaguely upwards, as if in prayer, with a joyful expression, even as Sharon supplies block chords reminiscent of George Shearing.

At this point, Tony briefly introduces the Ralph Sharon Trio, and lunges into “You Can’t Love ‘Em All” (a new Sammy Cahn – Jimmy Van Heusen song from the Marilyn Monroe movie Let’s Make Love). He’s especially playful here, toying with the melody and ad-libbing like crazy in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to in a more formal setting.  He runs up a staircase on the line “there are mountains that you can move,” and dances his way down, exclaiming, “I feel like Fred Astaire.” In the second chorus, he does something that he may not have ever done elsewhere on film: just out of sheer capriciousness he hits some deliberate flat notes on the key word, “You can’t love ‘em all, no you can’t love ‘em all!”

Everyone’s spirits are unbelievably high, as the camera pans around and we see some of the other guests, among them Count Basie, Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert, and Annie Ross. Still, somehow it’s Diller who requests the next song from Tony, asking for her favorite song from The Sound of Music, which had just opened on Broadway less than three months earlier.  It’s a musical theater hymn that he sings without an overabundance of either piety or levity, a perfect balance of both; it’s reverent but not saccharine. I don’t think there’s ever been a more appealing version of this archetypical Rodgers and Hammerstein anthem.

Holding Diller’s hand – or at least her black opera glove – Tony then swings an exciting homage to what was already one of his favorite cities, the 1922 jazz classic “Chicago.”  He’s even looser and more jubilant here, almost bouncing around the room, throwing in a reference to someone named “Eddie Hubbard” rather than “Billy Sunday” as the guy who was unable to shut down the windy city. As he heads towards a climax – literally surround with Diller to his right, Basie to his left, and Hefner in back of him – he does a few running-in-place style time steps, as if he’s got so much energy that singing isn’t enough, he’s got to be dancing at the same time.

It’s an amazing and unique moment. It’s almost as if Hugh Hefner and Tony Bennett are single-handedly christening the new decade, the new administration, and the new era of entertainment that was about to come, all in a single stroke.

We are extremely fortunate that this show exists, and that it has been issued on home video.  Here is a link to Tony’s entire 10-minute segment, with all four songs: Tony Bennett complete segment Playboy’s Penthouse (February 13, 1960)

 

To be continued.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Tony Bennett & Playboy, Part One:

tony bennett performing at the playboy club

Tony Bennett performing at Playboy’s Lake Geneva resort, Wisconsin, late 60s. Courtesy of Playboy.

I talk about the basic nuts-and-bolts day-to-day operation of the Playboy clubs. These were small-ish venues laid in a well-managed circuit across the country (and, eventually, the world), each encompassing several rooms within.  By comparison, the more traditional nightclubs, like the Persian Room, the Latin Quarter, or the Copacabana were gigantic venues with gigantic cover charges.  The Playboy rooms were more in the spirit of the Village Vanguard or the Blue Angel, and priced within the range of the average Joe.  The key word that everyone uses to describe the Playboy club – that is to say, all the rooms in all the clubs – is “intimate.”  Hugh Hefner wanted to put the Playboy lifestyle within the reach of every man, and he knew he wouldn’t achieve that goal if he priced himself out of the game.  From the beginning, the clubs were a destination for men who had more taste than they did money.

Another phrase that everyone uses in reference to the Playboy circuit is “up and coming talent”; today, the buzz word would be “emerging artists.”  The mathematics of the situation – the size of the rooms and the reasonable cover charge – dictated that Playboy couldn’t outbid the Copa for superstar headliners like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, or Judy Garland.  Playboy was a place, were new talent was discovered, nurtured, and eventually sent on its way to bigger and better-paying venues. As is well known, for instance, Playboy hired both Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand before anyone had heard of them.  It wasn’t until later, when the company opened its large-scale resorts, like Lake George, that Playboy had Vegas-style showrooms and paid Vegas-level fees to the talent, that they were able to attract iconic names like Bob Hope and Sammy Davis, Jr…

The major exception was Tony Bennett: he was probably the single biggest name ever to work the Playboy clubs, and probably the only Playboy regular who came to the club circuit at the height of a career that already included a ten year-run of hit singles.  He was already a huge headliner by 1960, when the first club opened in Chicago, and his star rose even further when, at the zenith of the Playboy era in 1962, Tony landed the single biggest hit of his life – one of the biggest-selling records of the era, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”  This turned out to be the beginning of a new lucky streak of successful singles that continued with “I Wanna Be Around,” “The Good Life,” “Watch What Happens” and “If I Ruled the World.” More than any other Playboy artist, Tony was continually on the charts throughout the 1960s.

Tony worked at the Playboy clubs not because, unlike most of the artists around him, he needed the break: he worked there because of his friendship with and admiration for Hugh Hefner. Tony understood the Playboy ethos because he had a part of it from the very beginning: he knew that Playboy’s mission statement wasn’t just about sex, or even just about music: the operative word was “fun.” It was a kind of fun that involved attractive people, good music, informed conversation, and a healthy dose humor. Playboy was creating a sophisticated, dressed-up party scene for adults; the kids had their rock-and-roll dance parties and sock-hops, the older folks had The Lawrence Welk Show, this was something for the 20 and 30 year olds.  That party was the basic content, and the packaging or delivery system was an ever-evolving sequence of different media: first the magazine, then a music festival, then television, and then a series of clubs that blanketed the globe.

Later on, Bob Dylan famously described the composers who were based in the Brill Building as having songwriting “down to a science.” The same thing can be said for Hef: he had party-making down to a science.

Tony and Hef were both born in 1926 and both served their country during the Second World War; they met in Chicago in 1956, at a point when Tony already had landed his first hits and Hefner’s magazine was barely two years old. Tony loves to tell the story of how he first broke though in Chicago thanks to another one of that city’s favorite sons, the legendary Nat King Cole.  In the early 1950s, Tony enjoyed a hugely successful run on the charts with hit singles like “Because of You,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Blue Velvet,” “Rags to Riches,” etc, led to a string of successful engagements around his native New York.  “I was very big in New York City – everybody knew me. I played Ben Maksic’s Town and Country in Brooklyn; I used to fill the place up for two-week engagements four times a year.  But nobody knew me outside of the east coast. Not in Chicago, the Midwest or Los Angeles.”

Then, through an unusual series of events, Tony recalled, he was asked at the last minute to fill in for Nat Cole at the Chez Paree in Chicago. “President Eisenhower invited Nat to come to Washington and sing for him at the White House.” This was the White House Correspondents Dinner on May 24, 1956, which interrupted Cole’s run at the Chez Paree. “So Nat said, ‘Tell them to get Tony!’  That’s how he broke me into Chicago. Because I took Nat’s place that night, I went over real big at the Chez Paree, and then they booked me regularly after that.”

Tony took to Chicago like it was his second home town; he particularly liked hanging out at the Black Orchid in the Near Northside area, which was owned and operated by Paul David “Pauly” Raffles.  “That’s where I met Hef,” Tony said.  “Those were great days, those Chicago days.  The Black Orchid had great comics, like Larry Storch and Jack E. Leonard, and Pauly invented the piano bar in the lounge. He had girls in scanty clothes, and a little showroom in the Black Orchid.  It was the hippest place to go to.  You’d see a great show with a comic and a singer, and then they’d always have a great piano player, like an Ace Harris, then we’d all go over to Pauly’s apartment at like two AM, and stay there until seven in the morning, and just have big jam sessions.

“There also was another spot we liked, the Key Club, which was in the back of the Chez Paree, where Erroll Garner would come over there and play after all the public left, it was just the chorus girls, Lenny Bruce, Hef, and all of us guys. Hugh was in the middle of all this.” As Tony puts it, “He was a very introverted, quiet guy.  His genius was that he saw all this fun that everybody was having, and he figured out a way to incorporate it. That’s how those Playboy Clubs came about—which was ingenious!  He was a bright enough businessman.  He just said, ‘Take something where everybody’s having fun and make it a product.  Make it work.’  And it worked, boy!  It worked into millions and millions of dollars.”

To be continued,

First of a series

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents