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Hefner and Ex-Bunnies Set to Toast the End of an Era

June 30, 1986|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

A bevy of bunnies from decades past surrounded Hugh Hefner, flashing come-hither smiles in response to photographers' requests--"Heads up, girls!" Hef, reveling in the media attention, screamed, "I've changed my mind! I can't give this up!"

About 180 former bunnies had turned up for a reunion at the Playboy Club in Century City, first in a week of events leading to the closing tonight of the L.A. club and the other two Playboy-owned clubs. They are the Chicago club and the ill-conceived Empire Club in New York, which debuted in November with male waiters, or "rabbits," as counterparts to the bunnies.

The Showman at 60

If Hefner, ever the showman at 60, was putting on a good act for the grand finale, an act was all it was. In private conversation he was conceding that it no longer seems "appropriate" to "try to keep alive something really properly perceived as a reflection of the swinging '60s."

Indeed, he acknowledged, "Society has moved on."

Former bunny Bonnie Lockamy, now a 39-year-old title insurance saleswoman, put it a little differently. In 1986, she said, a Playboy Club key is no longer a hot item because "men can join the Sports Connection. That's where all the beautiful girls are."

Restaurateur Nick DeCourville, a longtime Playboy Club member who will be hosting former bunnies at weekly parties at Nick's Fish Market in an effort to "keep the memory alive," said that today the marketing of sex, even as fantasy, is passe. "Men and women are very sophisticated, very selective today. There's diseases out there that kill you."

Whatever, Playboy Club memberships, which peaked nationwide at close to 1 million in 22 clubs in the mid '70s, according to a club spokesman, have dipped precipitously. And revenues from Playboy Enterprises' club division--26% of the $119.5 million total in the best year, 1970--this fiscal year dropped to 5% of total revenues of $192.3 million.

First Club in 1960

So tonight, simultaneous celebrations in the three cities will mark the end of an era that began with the opening of the Chicago club in February, 1960, and came here to Sunset Boulevard in 1965. (The L.A. club moved in 1973 to the ABC Entertainment Center in Century City.) The urbane, tuxedoed bunny logo will still beckon playboys to franchise operations in Des Moines, Iowa, Omaha, Neb., and Lansing, Mich. (all of which spokesmen report are "doing very well") and to four locations in Japan.

Beneath a canopy of bunny balloons, celebrants at the demise of the Playboy Club dodged paper streamers and screamed pleasantries above the din of rock music. If this bunny reunion was the ultimate media event, it was also a class-A party--drinks on the house and all the expensive things to eat.

Hefner fielded back-to-back TV interviews, stopping occasionally to nuzzle his live-in girlfriend of three years, 22-year-old Carrie Leigh. A statuesque former centerfold swathed in pale fox, Leigh spent much of the time tugging at her Day-Glo pink strapless gown, which kept slipping precariously, and smoothing her elbow-length Day-Glo pink satin gloves, over which glittered a rhinestone bracelet.

For the onetime bunnies, though, it was rather like a sorority reunion. Screeches of recognition and bunny hugs. Sharyn Shipley, 31, a bunny who became a playwright and promptly wrote a play "about Playboy bunnies, what else?" ("Carytids," produced here in 1978) bounced her 6-month-old daughter, Madison Rose, on her lap. For the occasion, the child was wearing a romper suit styled like a mini-tuxedo.

Judy Brandler, 41, who "opened the L.A. Club" and "set a world record" for longevity as the door bunny, a greeter's job she described as "like a human tape recorder," was exchanging reminisences with Bonnie Lockamy about bunny appearances on videos for Vietnam, the "Dating Game" and Solarcaine commericals.

"Once in a while you'd have somebody who'd sneak a little pinch," Lockamy recalled of her bunny days. But, by and large, these bunnies' memories had little in common with those of feminist Gloria Steinem, who in 1963 spent 17 days as a New York bunny on assignment for Show magazine. "Humiliating," Steinem said of the experience, noting that she was a "thing, to be ogled, grabbed and propositioned.

But it was the camaraderie that Brandler, now a first-degree black belt karate instructor, and her bunny sisters seemed to recall all these years later. "Fix it, tuck it, push it up, whatever, we helped each other out," she said.

Alice Nichols, 54, who was the first bunny mother, was there with her son Kevin, now 29. "He was 2 years old when I became a bunny," she said, in Chicago. Nichols was "about retirement age," which was 30, when she started her 11-year career as bunny and bunny mother but, she said, "if you still looked good, it was OK."

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