Tag Archives: playboy club

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 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

 


 

Jimmy Van Heusen—One of the original Playboy’s

I’m delighted to learn that the long-awaited documentary, Jimmy Van Heusen …Swingin’ With Frank & Bing, is finally airing on PBS stations this month.  (Check your local listings for further details.)  This is an excellent film by Jim Burns, a Syracuse-born producer-director who long lamented the absence of his fellow countryman from the general discussion of the great contributors to the classic American songbook.  You’ll learn a lot about Van Heusen that you didn’t know, and you’ll also get to hear nearly all of his classic songs.

One can only imagine that James Van Heusen (1913-1990) frequented the Playboy clubs in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, although, alas, there’s no concrete documentation of exactly when and, as yet, no photographic evidence of Van Heusen posing with bunnies. Yet the story of the songwriter, who was born Chester Babcock in 1913 (there were all kinds of big centennial concerts last year) is particularly germane to the Playboy experience: he was, in fact, one of the original playboys.  Van Heusen was a single man for most of his life, and he lived and embodied the Playboy dream for decades even before Hugh Hefner thought to capture that ideal in magazine format.  He was the original high-rolling, hard-living skirt chasing swinging bachelor; when Frank Sinatra played that character in his movies like The Tender Trap or Come Blow Your Horn, he was unabashedly modeling that role on his close friend Van Heusen.  Famously, Sinatra also began emulating Van Heusen in his personal life as well.  (Van Heusen’s lyricist-partner Sammy Cahn said in a much-quoted quip, “The trouble with Sinatra is that he thinks he’s Van Heusen.”)  Van Heusen’s songs, like his title tune from “The Tender Trap,” helped define an era – while “Come Fly With Me” heralded the beginning of the age of the Jet Set.

You’ll see tons of rare footage in the new documentary, but there’s precious little of the Man himself.  Van Heusen was hardly a recluse, but he somehow managed to be absent whenever a TV or movie camera was turned on. Considering that this is the man who wrote more hit songs for more hit movies than anyone, the irony is obvious. Unlike his hero, George Gershwin, who loved to play in public, and unlike Sammy Cahn, he didn’t enjoy being in the spotlight: he much preferred to hear Sinatra sing his songs than to sing them himself.  Jim Burns did manage to unearth an interview from the early 1960s that is virtually the only known footage of Van Heusen talking on camera, and that in itself is rather miraculous.

In March 1960, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen appeared on Playboy’s Penthouse – so far this is the only known footage of the two of them appearing together as a team.  Jim declined to include any of it in of the documentary because Van Heusen is so reticent to perform that even though he happily accompanies Sammy – and looks very dapper in his tuxedo – the composer doesn’t speak so much as one word. He doesn’t even open his mouth to sing along as part of the chorus on “High Hopes!”  This was shortly before the Academy Awards – Sammy explains that they’re hiding out from Hollywood – when they were just about to receive the Oscar, in fact, for “High Hopes.”

Sammy doesn’t have the voice of a Sinatra or of Frank D’Rone, the Chicago based crooner who joins them on the show, but he was a natural born entertainer some, including Sammy himself, would say “ham,” as non-kosher as that was.   Sammy loved writing “special lyrics,” as he called them, and they’re especially funny here, as when he sings “Be my love / For no one else can stand my singing” and has D’Rone sing ‘I’ll walk alone / For to tell you the truth, I read ‘Playboy.'” One wishes Van Heusen would have sung something, but it’s a very entertaining 12-minute segment just the same. Alas, this show hasn’t yet been released on home video.  Write your Playboy representative at once!

On another occasion, a longtime friend of Van Heusen’s had the opportunity to be in the kitchen of the composer’s bachelor apartment.  He reported that the refrigerator contained nothing but empty, chilled martini glasses.  You can’t get more Playboy than that.

 

 

Frank Sinatra and Jimmy

Frank Sinatra and Jimmy

Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Jimmy, Doris Day and Nat King Cole

Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Jimmy, Doris Day and Nat King Cole

 

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

 


 

Marilyn Cole—London Playboy Bunny—Centerfold—Playmate of the Year

Marilyn Cole working as a Bunny in the London Playboy Club

Marilyn Cole working as a Bunny in the London Playboy Club

Marilyn Cole Lownes is an important figure– no pun intended! – In the history of Playboy.  And over the last year or so, I’m delighted to report she’s also become a dear friend of mine.

Marilyn went through every stage of the Playboy experience: from bunny to centerfold model to wife of one of the key executives in the organization—all that in addition to being a participant in the behind-the-scenes operation of Playboy Enterprises.

bunny marilyn cole

Marilyn Cole

I first met Marilyn last year when I came to interview her husband Victor at their fashionable “flat” in Manhattan’s midtown east; her story, and their story, was already well known, but she told me a few things that weren’t in the history books – starting with how she left her native Portsmouth at about the age of 20 with the sole ambition of becoming a “Bunny girl” at the London Playboy club.  It was Victor who first noticed her and pointed out her potential as a model to Hefner, by having her pose for some test photos and then shipping the proofs to Playboy HQ in Chicago. Hefner agreed and she became the centerfold for January 1972.

marilyn cole playboy bunny

Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Cole

That pictorial went over so well that Marilyn soon was the Playmate of the year for 1973. Although it was Victor who first “discovered” her, she was initially romantically linked to Hefner, before becoming involved with Lownes. Both men were more than 20 years older than Marilyn, who was born in 1949.

Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Cole playboy bunny

Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Cole

Marilyn was easily the most famous Playboy model of her time.  In 1972 and ’73, much was made of how she was the first completely uncovered woman in the magazine.  In retrospect, however, it seems what made Marilyn so unique was, in a sense, not just her beauty, but her very Britishness.

When she posed for the centerfold in 1971, it had been five years since the London Playboy club had opened.  As the first English Playmate of the Year, Marilyn became a symbol of Playboy’s new international status – her very presence, her accent, her image reminded everyone that we weren’t in Illinois any more, the experience had gone universal.  She embodied the kind of high culture that Playboy had aspired to when Hefner put out the first issue almost 20 years earlier.

marilyn cole playboy bunny

Marilyn Cole poses for Roxy Music

It’s equally significant that Marilyn also soon became one of the most famous rock-and-roll album cover models of all time when her image appeared on Roxy Music’s Stranded.  In fact, her photo was spread over two panels, very much like a centerfold; it had been in the magazine that she was first noticed by Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry.  Ten years earlier, when the original American clubs were first opening, Playboy was still an open secret – everybody read it, but they hid it under the mattress.  By Marilyn’s time, the sexual revolution was reaching its apogee, and she was as much a symbol of it as Hefner.  Now a Playboy model could be a full-fledged celebrity – someone out in the open and take home to meet your mother.

marilyn cole lownes outside playboy masion

Marilyn Cole outside of the Playboy Mansion

The union of Marilyn and Victor must surely count as the most successful marriage amongst those that either Lownes or Hefner ever had – they’ve been together for over 30 years at this point, and are still one of the world’s great power couples.  They have highly compatible tastes in music, from Roxy Music to Mabel Mercer, and can often be seen together at the tonier nightspots like 54 Below (when in New York), Crazy Cog’s (in London),or any of the many events produced by the Mabel Mercer Foundation.  They made a sensational appearance together at the opening of the new London Playboy club in 2011, with Marilyn looking resplendent in a silver-white gown.  In fact, they were treated like royalty – which is exactly what they are.

 

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

 


 

A Visit to the Playboy Mansion

Keith Hefner and Patty Farmer
It was such a beautiful, sunny day on a recent visit to the notorious Playboy Mansion. I had a tour of the impeccable grounds with none other than Keith Hefner himself. Keith is an accomplished American singer, songwriter, composer, actor, and the younger brother to the infamous Hugh Hefner. I got to sit and chat with Keith about the Playboy Clubs.  Stay tuned!

 

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

 


Sonny Rollins

I had the honor of interviewing the legendary Sonny Rollins last week. What an honor- the greatest living jazz saxophonist ever!

sonny rollins saxophone player

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