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Playboy Hopes It’s Back Front and Center

LAS VEGAS – The Playboy bunnies, once scorned as sexist relics of the swinging 1960s, are back.

Friday night, at one of this town’s most popular casinos, a new generation of leggy ladies spilled across the opulent gaming room at the new Playboy Club at the Palms Casino and Resort.

Bowing as they served drinks, the rabbit-eared waitresses pushed their signature white, puffy tails in the air while patrons tossed dice and slapped cards onto green velour tables. About 10:15 p.m., founder Hugh Hefner laid down the first live bet, surrounded by a posse of blonds one-third his age.

Besides serving up martinis, dealing cards and flirting with customers, the modern Playboy bunny has a more important job: helping the venerable 53-year-old publishing and entertainment concern get its mojo back. The company that once provided a generation of men with a blueprint to a swinging lifestyle got stuck in middle age.

The Internet has brought a glut of accessible pornography, much of which makes Playboy’s signature brand of soft-lens sexiness seem quaint at times. “Lad” magazines such as Maxim and Stuff – their pages brimming with raunchy articles and brash pictorials – have enticed young men away from Playboy’s flagship magazine. Places like Hooters lure customers with buxom waitresses in a sports-bar environment.

So it’s back to the clubs for Playboy Enterprises Inc., which hopes to open a new chapter by reshaping the company into a licensing powerhouse for a generation for whom Playboy is no longer a must-read.

“A post-feminist generation is thinking back to the 1970s and wondering what they missed,” said Hugh Hefner, Playboy’s 80-year-old founder and editor in chief, at the club opening. He was flanked by his three live-in girlfriends. “It’s a great time for me.”

Starting in the late ’60s, Playboy opened clubs worldwide. At the height of popularity, there were 22 of them, staffed by an army of more than 25,000 bunnies.

Some 7 million monthly devotees of the magazine could write in and order a Playboy key, which gave them access to the private clubs. Inside, young women wearing skimpy, low-cut outfits made men feel comfortable as they talked over drinks. Celebrities such as Milton Berle, Tony Bennett, Ringo Starr and Zsa Zsa Gabor could be found sitting at tables.

“You felt a little bit important; not everybody had a key,” said Frank Silveria, 69, of Houston, who was a key holder in the ’60s and ’70s when he was a traveling salesman. “You could sit there and have a conversation. It wasn’t like Hooters at all – it was very mature, and they were very sophisticated kind of gals.”

The clubs were part of a larger Playboy entertainment empire that seemed to have no limits. There was the magazine, the “Playboy After Dark” TV show, the clubs, a record label and film projects. Hugh Hefner’s pipe-smoking profile was as recognizable as Playboy’s bunny.

But the sexual revolution caught up to Playboy, and what was once daring seemed commonplace. Feminists such as Gloria Steinem criticized the bunnies as denigrating to women, and the swinging Playboy lifestyle became something of a caricature. Playboy closed its last U.S. club in 1988, followed three years later by the last international locale, in Asia.

“Society has moved on,” Hefner said then.

Since that time, Playboy Enterprises has had to struggle with red ink, making a profit in just one of the last seven years, and a languishing stock price as it tries to expand into arenas such as cable TV, the Internet and even hard-core porn. Although Playboy is still the largest men’s magazine, its circulation of 3 million is less than half what it was during the 1970s.

Now Playboy is aiming to sell itself to young men and women drawn to the mystique and nostalgia the name symbolizes.

“I don’t think the Playboy brand has changed much at all – it’s always been sophisticated and aspirational,” said Playboy Chief Executive Christie Hefner, Hugh’s daughter.

But unlike the halcyon club days, Playboy this time is effectively leasing out its name and iconic bunny to others who are eager to exploit it. Playboy won’t manage the clubs itself. Even the 50 bunnies who staff the club in Las Vegas were chosen and are employed by the casino.

“We have no desire to go back to running a chain of stand-alone nightclubs,” said Christie Hefner, who is based in Chicago while her father, who still controls the company, is at the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills.

Licensing the name and logo for clothing and other merchandise already is highly lucrative. It generates more than half of Playboy’s operating profit now.

Christie Hefner expects the Vegas club to generate an 80% profit margin for the company. Playboy anticipates collecting $4 million a year from the Palms through royalty payments and a percentage of the profit. Future clubs are planned in London and Macao casinos.

“They are doing a lot of basically trading their name and brand recognition for equity,” said analyst Dennis McAlpine of McAlpine Associates. “They can exploit the brand name as much as they can, but they have to have something to exploit. And the brand recognition has to come from the magazine and entertainment.”

The Palms was considered an ideal match for Playboy because it has become one of the most popular resorts for young people, having been showcased for a season as the home of MTV’s “The Real World.”

The venture was bankrolled by the Maloof family, which owns the casino. Led by casino operator George Maloof, the family spent $650 million on the “Fantasy Tower” that houses the Playboy club, a nightclub, a restaurant, a Playboy store and a Hugh Hefner sky villa.

Guests can rent the two-story suite for $40,000 a night, which will buy them, among other things, a night in a rotating bed, surrounded by a collection of artwork by Hugh Hefner.

No longer appealing for its shock value, Playboy now must rely on its retro appeal. Film director and producer Jan Marlyn Reesman, a former bunny in Miami, New York and Chicago, said it was hard for her to imagine the club now with sexual mores so much looser.

“I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and it was a great time,” Reesman said. “Our outfits were so not revealing compared to what people wear on the streets today, so I’m not sure what they’re going to do. It will be the same name, and it won’t be the same place.”

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