Sunday, 13 July 2008

Playboy bunnies hop back to UK

From The Sunday Times

July 13, 2008

Swinging Sixties icon to return with London casino

Ben Marlow and Maurice Chittenden

The bunny girl is poised to shake her fluffy tail in Britain again under plans to reopen the Playboy club, once a mecca for celebrities and gambling high-rollers.

Hugh Hefner’s Playboy entertainment empire, which was built on the American magazine with its famous Playmate centrefolds, is considering at least two sites in central London.

The new club would recreate one of the most famous landmarks of the Swinging Sixties, renowned for its waitresses dressed in rabbit ears.

With its bow-tied bunny logo on the outside, the venue could be open by 2010 to offer gaming at roulette wheels and blackjack tables. Guests will dine on everything from hamburgers to haute cuisine and dance to music played by leading European DJs.

The original Playboy club on Park Lane in Mayfair was closed 27 years ago after a police raid over suspected gambling irregularities, despite no subsequent evidence of wrongdoing. Its satellite clubs in Manchester and Portsmouth also closed.

Hefner’s group has already expanded globally to include hotels and television. With the decline of magazine sales and advertising in the recent economic downturn, it is looking to open new fields – and revisit others.

Two years ago it opened a Playboy club in Las Vegas that now takes three times as much money per gaming table as other casinos on the city’s famous Strip. A large Playboy casino and hotel is due to open in Macau, China, next year.

“We are looking for opportunities around the world. London will be logical for us. We had some very good years there,” said Dick Rosenzweig, executive vice-president of Playboy and Hefner’s right-hand man.

The most likely British site is the Sports Cafe on Haymarket in London’s West End, which showed sporting events on giant screens for more than a decade. The Sports Cafe chain went into administration in January with reported debts of £10m.

It is understood that Playboy has signed an agreement with Agilo, the London hedge fund that owns the cafe. The company will then seek a gaming premises licence from Westminster council.

Although the government has its own plans for a new network of casinos, the Playboy application will go through under existing rules.

Westminster already has 20 casinos. Playboy could win its licence in as little as two months after applying if it meets all the requirements.

The former London club opened opposite Hyde Park in 1966, six years after the first Playboy club was launched in Chicago. For 15 years the London club, on five floors, was a welcome distraction from worries such as the IRA, strikes and riots.

Nicknamed “the Hutch on the Park”, the London venue’s clientele included Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Joan Collins, the actors, and George Best, the footballer, who married Angie MacDonald-Janes, a former bunny.

Roman Polanski, the film director, and Sharon Tate, the actress who was later murdered by followers of Charles Manson, held their wedding reception there after marrying at Chelsea register office.

The club was run by Victor Lownes, a London-based American who became the highest-paid executive in Britain. Lownes, now 80, married Marilyn Cole, a former Playmate of the year.

He said last week from his holiday home in Spain: “It was a huge success and ran like a dream. We had a discotheque in the basement, several restaurants, a VIP room and a casino with roulette and blackjack. The average bunny lasted two years and then married a millionaire.”

The new club is likely to have different entrances to keep the gaming, dining and dancing separate.

Playboy has recently launched several CDs of dance music in the UK, mixed by such DJs as Dimitri from Paris and Bob Sinclar, to raise its profile among young people. Last year it opened a clothing and home accessories shop on Oxford Street in London.

The casino could be operated under licence by George Maloof, an American of Lebanese extraction. Maloof, a friend of Britney Spears, the pop star, and Paris Hilton, the heiress, runs the Playboy gambling club at his Palms casino in Las Vegas.

The original London club had been the most successful in the world. According to Lownes, it netted £15m (about £40m at today’s prices) profit in his last year in charge and was sorely missed on the London club scene.

Lownes came unstuck when he was involved in a feud with another casino firm.

One of Lownes’s high-rollers was approached by the other casino after it spotted his car outside the Playboy club.

Lownes reported the rival to the gaming authorities, claiming that it was illegally poaching his members.

The rival casino was closed down but not before it reported Playboy for allegedly extending credit to gamblers.

Lownes was sacked and new management was brought in. But after the club was raided by Scotland Yard detectives in February 1981, it never reopened even though it was not found to have broken any laws.

Jeff Georgino, Playboy’s senior vice-president in charge of locations, said last week: “We are actively looking at locations which are on the market in London. We are at various stages of discussion with different clubs. We would love to get a casino licence in London. It all depends on that.”

Hefner, still presiding over the Playmates at his Playboy mansion in Los Angeles, dressed in his silk smoking jacket and monogrammed slippers, is likely to hold a party to mark the London opening.

He said recently: “Things that become old-fashioned in a certain time frame, in a new time frame take on a whole new kind of mystique. That is exactly what happened to all things Playboy.”

Pamela Anderson, who has graced the cover of Playboy magazine 12 times, treated him to a surprise dance at his 82nd birthday party at the Palms hotel in Las Vegas. She reportedly wore only her high heels.

Fluffy fame

The bunny girl was born when Hugh Hefner came up with the idea of staffing his Playboy clubs with croupiers and cocktail waitresses dressed in rabbit ears and a fluffy cottontail.

In all 25,000 women served as bunny girls between 1960 and 1988. In America they included Debbie Harry, later the singer with Blondie, who claimed that girlfriends of patrons would stub out cigarettes on the legs of bunnies; and Lauren Hutton, the actress who starred opposite Richard Gere in American Gigolo.

The London Playboy club employed 600 bunnies at any time, working in three shifts, seven days a week.

Carol Cleveland, the actress from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, was one of the first London bunnies in 1966 at the age of 24. Cleveland, now 66, said: “I started soon after graduating from Rada.

“During one quiet period I became one of the first London Playboy bunnies. It was all good experience and it did land me a film role in Salt and Pepper, working with Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Lawford.”

Pamela Marsh, a London bunny between 1977 and 1980, said: “I ended up dating Victor Lownes, the club’s boss, for nearly two years. I met lots of famous people from Jack Nicholson to John Cleese. John even became my chess partner, but he always lost as I was a great player. I also played Roger Moore.”

She added: “I met Muhammad Ali at the Playboy club after his most recent fight. Ali showed me his black eye under his sunglasses, winked and said: ‘You are the only person who will see this, so keep quiet’. I was overjoyed as he was my hero.”

No comments: