Tuesday 30 May 2017

Hoppy days or hare-brained? Playboy Bunnies return to Big Apple

Waitresses pose inside the Playboy Club at the Sands Casino in Macau in 2010 (AP)
Waitresses pose inside the Playboy Club at the Sands Casino in Macau in 2010 (AP)

The tightly-corseted Playboy Bunnies, complete with rabbit tails and ears, will soon be back in business in New York City.

Three decades after the original Playboy Club closed in Manhattan, an apparent victim of changing American tastes and views on women, a new one will debut later this year in a hotel a few streets from Times Square.

The club in West 42nd Street "will be one of the most chic and sophisticated venues in the world", promises Playboy Enterprises spokesman John Vlautin.

It will have a lounge, a restaurant, a game room and of course, the Bunnies, though with updated outfits.

Other Playboy clubs are already operating in London, the Vietnamese capital Hanoi and several places in India, and a nother is due to open in Shanghai in the spring.

New York's club will be in the Cachet Boutique New York Hotel, replacing the gay-themed Out Hotel, which closed last year.

If the club opens as scheduled, it will be in a city that began the year with hundreds of thousands of women taking to the streets to protest against the presidency of Donald Trump, in part because of remarks he made that were perceived as chauvinistic.

The timing may be off, says travel guidebook publisher Pauline Frommer.

"Retro is in, but I'm not sure this type of retro," she said.

"We live in this era when thousands of women are gathering in marches to protest.

"I'm not sure the zeitgeist is right for Playboy now."

Industry observers say the key to success is how the brand will be presented to prospective guests.

Will it be seen as a luxurious enclave, a nostalgic throwback, or a place where "75-year-old guys walk around in silk pyjamas"?, travel guru Peter Greenberg said.

"As a concept, Playboy has the word anachronism written all over it - outdated, irrelevant - so I don't know what the cachet is today."

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner opened the first club in Chicago in 1960 and quickly expanded the operation to 30 clubs around the world.

A chance to leer at the Bunnies was not the only attraction - the clubs also featured top musicians and other entertainers.

New York's version opened in East 59th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues in 1962.

The next year, feminist Gloria Steinem worked as an undercover Bunny and wrote an expose for Show Magazine, entitled A Bunny's Tale.

Among her revelations: The pay was lousy; male customers propositioned female staff; and she was forced to have a gynaecological exam and take a test for venereal disease before she was hired.

But former Bunny Kathryn Leigh Scott has fonder memories of the New York club.

Ms Scott, an acting student who lived on her minimum-wage pay, plus generous tips, was 19 when she got the job.

"Yes, it was chauvinistic by today's standards, but back then, one felt protected and there were stringent rules we used to laugh about," she said.

"It was more paternalistic than chauvinistic."

Ms Scott, 74, is now a Beverly Hills resident and actor who starred in the cult television classic Dark Shadows.

She said she was never asked to undergo a gynecological exam and was "treated extremely well."

"It was an opportunity and it was fun. You put your school clothes in a locker and put on a satin costume," she said.

Ms Scott is the author of a history of the Playboy club, The Bunny Years, for which she interviewed 300 former Bunnies.

The original clubs remained popular and lucrative for years before faltering in the 1980s.

"Bunnies Go From Risque to Passe," said a Los Angeles Times headline in 1986, the year the club there closed, as did the New York one.

The original clubs were all defunct by 1991.

Changing mores have altered Playboy magazine, too, lately. The magazine, still sold in 23 countries, no longer allows full nudity in the US edition, favouring articles and images of broader news interest.

Cooper Hefner, the 25-year-old son of 90-year-old Hugh, is now its chief creative officer.

Some industry experts say there may also be marketing appeal left among millennials and fans of Mad Men, a TV show set in the New York where the Playboy Club thrived.

"I spend my days with millennials," says Bjorn Hanson, professor of hospitality and tourism management at New York University.

"I'd say there will be a large segment of millennials who will be curious enough to try to experience this as lifestyle, not as the Bunny costume - and they won't need to apologise to friends and family for going."

The luxury hotel housing the New York club will have 107 rooms.

The project is a partnership between Playboy Enterprises, Merchants Hospitality and Cachet Hospitality Group and the club is expected to open later this year, the companies say.

"The only way you could actually do this is, don't call it a new club; call it a museum and display the artefacts and Bunny outfits!" said Mr Greenberg.

"There's only one option: if they do it with a wink, a nod and a joke, and you go there to laugh."

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