Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Is the Playboy Club’s place in Chicago a couple of lines in the history books?

It seems that Hugh Hefner is making a serious bet that the proposed television show “The Playboy Club” will be a success.

The program to air this autumn on NBC is set at the Playboy Club of old on Walton Street back in the early 1960s when the concept of waitresses showing ample cleavage (with uniforms designed in a way to push-up and accentuate their assets even further) was something new.

IF THE PROGRAM becomes a success (it is supposed to be about the culture clashes that were beginning to take place in those early years of the decade), I could well see some people wanting to check out “the real thing.”

They’re going to want to go to the Playboy Club to see if it is truly as lush, luxurious, elegant and sophisticated as Hefner always claimed it was – or if it is really nothing more than tacky kitsch.

The reality, of course, is that the Playboy Club is nothing. The club in Chicago closed down in 1986 (which also was the year that I first could have legally entered the club – I never went), along with all the other large-city clubs. It took a few foreign sites to keep the brand name going, but even those have all been gone since 1991.

So there’s nowhere to go.

UNTIL EARLY NEXT year, perhaps.

For it seems that Playboy Enterprises Inc. is working out a deal by which a private company would operate a nightclub that would be allowed to use the name “Playboy Club.” It won’t be run by anyone connected with Playboy, but they’ll get a share of the proceeds in exchange for use of the brand name.

Crain’s Chicago Business reported Monday that Boston-based Tremont Realty Capital LLC is the company that would operate the club, and that they are considering a one-time mansion on Dearborn Avenue just south of Division Street.

Can a modern-day namesake match the original Playboy Club image?

So the new Playboy Club would be a part of the Gold Coast neighborhood. It would be just a couple of blocks from the original club on Walton, and just about five blocks from the old State Parkway mansion where Hefner himself presided during his Chicago years.

CLOSE YOUR EYES, envision a few decades past, and you could almost envision Hefner walking these very same streets – on those occasions when he wasn’t holed up in his office, engaged in an all-night binge putting together the magazine, followed by a mid-day romp with a bunny or two.

The key word in this paragraph being “almost.”

Because somehow, I can’t help but think that the idea of a sexy, but sophisticated nightclub is passé – if not a complete contradiction of terms.

Not that sex won’t sell. But I’m wondering how many people of today will walk into a Playboy Club and will think the waitresses are wearing bathing suits with funny ears? Compare it to a “Hooter’s Girl” and that’s probably what many people are going to think.

IS THE PLAYBOY of old still sexy enough? Or perhaps the real question is, Do things have to become raunchy these days before they are considered titillating?

I couldn’t help but notice the observation of Wirtz Beverage Group Chairman Rocky Wirtz, whose father rented to Hefner the site of the original Playboy Club. He thinks the whole Playboy image is irrelevant to people under 30.

While at 58, he still recalls what Playboy once was, he told Crains, “You don’t want to open a place that would attract my age group.”

I could see a club that people visit once, just to see if it really is an over-luxurious orgy. When they figure out it isn’t, they’ll quit coming back. Which means I could see the new Playboy Club being gone within a year.

AND THAT’S ONLY if the television show becomes a hit. If it winds up flopping to the point where it doesn’t even last five episodes, I could see where the brand name becomes a serious drag on the club.

They won’t be able to ditch the name quickly enough.

Will a new Playboy Club be the butt of as many wisecracks as New Comiskey Park was? Photograph provided by State of Illinois.

For the old-timers, there will be nothing more enjoyable for them to do than to compare this new club to the original Playboy Club, and list all the ways in which the 21st Century version pales in comparison to the original.

It won’t matter how nice a place the club might be or what luxuries it will offer. The modern reality will fall short of the sepia-covered memories of the “real” Playboy Club.

IT’S NOT LIKE we in Chicago aren’t familiar with this phenomenon. Take the Chicago White Sox, who began playing in a new stadium with modern amenities some 20 years ago, and even put the same name – Comiskey Park – on the building as the old stadium carried.

Even though the old building had its flaws, the old-timers will still insist that the new building falls far short.

Which makes me wonder if “Playboy Club” will become to sex what the White Sox became to stadiums – something that can never live up to the original.

Perhaps it is best to leave the Playboy Club imagery in its place in Chicago history books.


No comments: