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Bonnie Jo Halpin; Prototype for Iconic Bunnies at Playboy Clubs

April 29, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

When key-holders walked into the Playboy Club in Chicago on opening day in 1960, the first bunny they saw was the young woman at the front door, Bonnie Jo Halpin.

Halpin, who died March 31 at the age of 65, served as the prototype for the club's bunnies, who became icons of the sexual revolution: a beautiful, petite brunet with a bubbly personality.

"Bonnie Jo Halpin was the very first 'door bunny' on opening day at the very first club, so it's quite appropriate to refer to her as the very first bunny," said Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who started the Playboy clubs with Victor Lownes and restaurateur Arnie Morton. "She was a very special lady."

Halpin appeared on the cover of the October 1962 issue of Playboy, but not in the now-legendary, satin bunny costume: It resembled a strapless, one-piece bathing suit cut high on the leg that included the famous bunny ears, cottontail, and white cuffs and collar with a black bow tie.

Three weeks before the Chicago Playboy Club opened on Feb. 29, 1960, Halpin appeared in her bunny costume in an advertisement in the Chicago Tribune seeking "beautiful, charming and refined young ladies" to work as bunnies. Noted the ad: "Waitressing experience unnecessary."

Several hundred women showed up with dance leotards or swimsuits to have a Polaroid picture taken and be interviewed.

Thirty were chosen to open the multilevel club designed, as Hefner wrote in Playboy, for "urban fellows who are less concerned with hunting, fishing and climbing mountains than with good food, drink, proper dress and the pleasure of female company."

Halpin had grown up in a Catholic orphanage in the Chicago area with her two brothers and sister. Before becoming a bunny, the former Miss Chicago runner-up worked in the advertising department of Standard Oil and then as a junior fashion model.

"Playboy was always looking for the girl next door and she had that bubbly, effervescent persona," said Kathryn Leigh Scott, author of the 1998 book "The Bunny Years," a history of the Playboy clubs as told by the women who worked as bunnies.

Added Scott, who met Halpin when both worked as bunnies in the New York Playboy Club: "Until the day she died, she had the girlish, bubbly, wholesome appeal."

Halpin later helped open the Miami, New Orleans and New York Playboy clubs.

"She really was the quintessential bunny," said Hefner's brother, Keith, who became director of training for Playboy Clubs International. "We used to talk about bunny image and she really had it all."

When Playboy decided to open a club in New York in December 1962, they again used Halpin in newspaper ads headlined: "Step Into the Spotlight ... Be a Playboy Club Bunny."

Applicants had to be "pretty, between the ages of 18 and 23, married or single, and want a fun-filled, pleasant and always exciting job while you enjoy a new measure of financial independence."

Among those in bunny training a month later for the New York Playboy Club was journalist and future feminist Gloria Steinem, on an undercover assignment for Show magazine.

Scott said Steinem shared the "door bunny" job at the New York club with Halpin.

After spending several weeks as "Bunny Marie," Steinem wrote of her experience, which she found humiliating and felt she was treated as a "thing, to be ogled, grabbed and propositioned."

"Although I'm now a fan of [Gloria's]," Halpin is quoted as saying in Scott's book, "at that time I thought the article she wrote ... was a terrible put-down. When [Gloria] asked me how I liked working at the club, I told her that when I worked at Standard Oil I made very little money. Playboy changed my life."

In 1963, the 25-year-old Halpin left the Playboy organization to "see the world," as she later told Scott.

In more than two decades of operation, the Playboy clubs, along with hotel, casino and resort facilities, eventually included 40 properties in 25 states and seven countries.

But in 1986, Playboy closed its last big-city clubs, including the club in Century City and the flagship club in Chicago. "Society," Hefner said at the time, "has moved on."

Halpin had held a variety of jobs since her bunny days, including working as a personal trainer.

She was a marathon runner, a longtime volunteer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and a devoted animal rights advocate.

Halpin died in her West Hollywood apartment after being seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident while walking her dog near her home more than a month earlier, said Joyce Nizzari, a friend and former bunny who worked with Halpin in Chicago.

A Los Angeles County coroner's office spokesman said the death was reported as a possible accidental overdose of the prescription painkiller Vicodin. Autopsy results are not yet available.

Halpin, who never married, is survived by a sister, Delores Halpin; and a brother, Brian Halpin, both of the Chicago area.

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