The success of the AMC period drama Mad Men certainly inspired the NBC network to hop around for its own series based in the same time period — the early 1960s — that had the same nostalgic components: drinking, smoking, sex, heavily lacquered hairstyles. Last Monday night, NBC trotted out its own 1960s period piece, The Playboy Club, based on the first nightclub, located in Chicago, inspired by Hugh Hefner's sexy magazine. The series continues tonight on KSHB Channel 41.
Not many people remember that Kansas City had its own Playboy Club (why would they? It closed decades ago) at the height of Hugh Hefner's fame. The club was a corporate-owned venue — unlike the St. Louis operation, which was a franchise — and featured a full-service restaurant that served lunch and dinner, two show rooms that offered both local entertainers and nationally known headliners, and a banquet room. The Playboy Club Kansas City opened on June 13, 1964, in the top-floor ballroom of the former Continental Hotel at the corner of 11th Street and Baltimore. It's now known as the Mark Twain Tower.
Kansas City residents who were around during the years the club operated, from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, have different memories of the club. A prim female professor at Rockhurst University was taken to lunch to the Playboy Club by her father, a noted local lawyer, in the 1960s and remembers it as "tacky and unimpressive."
Maye's daughter, Kristi Tucker, also performed at the Playboy Club, but in the lounge called the Living Room. "That room," says former Playboy Club assistant manager John Stallings, "was the smaller lounge, where the local acts would play, like the Pete Eye Trio. The bigger acts, like Marilyn Maye, Flip Wilson and Lainie Kazan would perform in the show room, called the Penthouse. Most of those acts played all the clubs on the Playboy circuit. They might go from here to St. Louis and on to Chicago and Cincinnati and so on."
Maye remembers the Kansas City Playboy Club as a great place to perform: "It had great lighting, a great sound system. A lot of very polished, well-dressed men were there, drinking on their expense accounts. You know, back when people had expense accounts."
Another local, Lillis Beihl, was eager to check out the nightclub because she had attended Smith College with feminist Gloria Steinem who had, famously, gone "undercover" at the New York Playboy Club in 1963 to write an expose of the difficult working conditions in the club for the women who worked there. (Steinem has recently called for a boycott against the NBC series.)
"I thought the Playboy bunnies were going to be smart and sexy, like Gloria," Beihl says. "But they
were just big blond women with big boobs who were heavily made-up. Attractive, but in a plastic way. Like dolls. They flirted outrageously with the men to get tips. They practically ignored the women who were there. But any women who were there, like me, were with their husbands, and that's who was paying the bill.
"They did serve food. Nothing fancy. I remember it was steak and baked potatoes and salad with blue cheese dressing," Beihl says.
"We served American cuisine," says former assistant manager Stallings. "We were famous for our $1.50 filet at lunch. It brought a lot of businessmen into the club."
Stallings says most of the women who worked at the Kansas City Playboy Club were nice girls. Not great beauties, either. "We could take an average girl off the street and make her beautiful with make-up and the costumes. They all had intensive make-up training and service training. The bunny outfits were form-fitting. We had a seamstress on staff who was there to make sure the costumes all fit beautifully at all times.
"People think it was very promiscuous," Stallings says, "but it wasn't. We had very firm policies about the girls dating customers or dating other employees."
Stallings never saw Hugh Hefner in the Kansas City Playboy Club. "I heard he came here once," he says. "I think that was it."
Stallings had already left the Kansas City club when it closed. He thinks times had changed so dramatically in the more sexually free-form 1970s. "More provocative nightclubs and discos were opening up in Kansas City, and the Playboy Clubs never lowered their standards to compete with those clubs."
The former Playboy Club is now being leased as a private event space called the Sawyer Room. Not even a frayed bunny tail remains as a relic of the days when this building housed one of the more swinging nightspots in town.