The Phoenix Playboy Club was the place to see and be seen in the 1960s and ’70s - East Valley Tribune: Home

The Phoenix Playboy Club was the place to see and be seen in the 1960s and ’70s

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Posted: Sunday, December 14, 2003 6:48 am | Updated: 1:06 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Movers and shakers. Giggles and jiggles. And a heck of a lot of fun.

Gigi McMillen remembered it all as she reflected back on her years as a Playboy Bunny, a time in her life when her charm, work ethic and 40-23-35 figure made her a local celebrity.

"People asked me for my autograph," she said. "We were on television. We were everywhere." The 63-yearold Scottsdale resident still gets fan mail from men worldwide.

McMillen, now the owner of Gigi’s Second Time Around resale boutique, worked for the Playboy Club for 16 years. Most of her years were spent at the downtown Phoenix location on the top floor of the Mayer Central Building, 3033 N. Central Ave. While the eight-story building still stands, the club closed in June 1983. Now, it exists only in photographs and the memories of longtime Valley residents.

Playboy celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, and Phoenix has a long history with the company. Even though it was smaller back then, on Dec. 19, 1962, the city became home to the sixth Playboy Club, following Chicago (the first to open, in 1960), Miami, Fla., New Orleans, St. Louis and New York.

The clubs’ heyday coincided with the rise of the women’s movement. While Hugh Hefner was building an empire around the image of the suave, sophisticated, macho admirer of the female form, in 1963 Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique." That same year, Gloria Steinem went undercover as a bunny for three weeks and wrote a scathing article condemning the treatment of women at the clubs by both the management and customers.

Not all bunnies felt demeaned, though.

"Bunny life was the greatest life you could have," McMillen said.

PLAYBOY PRESTIGE

Today, when someone mentions a gentleman’s club, it’s often a euphemism for seedy topless joints like the Bada Bing on "The Sopranos." But the Phoenix Playboy Club, say those who were there, was classy and respectful.

"There was always somebody in the club watching to make sure there was no one touching us, no one bothering us," said Donna Ritchie of Fort Worth, Texas, who worked at the Phoenix club from 1967 to 1970. She’s now a homemaker with two grown children.

The Playboy Club was private, too, and members had to have a certain income to become keyholders. And there was a dress code — for a while.

Webb Ellis of Phoenix, who managed the club from 1966 to 1972, said that in the early years men needed a jacket and tie to enter after 5 p.m. The club had a row of blue blazers for customers to borrow, but pathetic was the playboy who had to don one.

"These things were terrible," Ellis said. "The Salvation Army wouldn’t take them."

He said one member, a multimillionaire, routinely came in wearing jeans and cowboy boots and would have to slip on one of the shabby jackets.

"It frustrated him," Ellis said, so he persuaded the Playboy organization to drop the dress code, citing the casual Valley lifestyle.

Other standards were universal. Men could look but never touch, and if they got drunk or rowdy they were asked to leave — or, heaven forbid, their membership could be revoked.

"Playboy was a status symbol," Ellis said. "We had some very high rollers come in there. They liked to flaunt their money."

Lawyers, doctors, dentists, auto racers, athletes and politicians were spotted in the Playboy Club. Ellis has photos of former Secretary of State and Gov. Wesley Bolin, former Gov. Jack Williams and former Phoenix Mayor Milton Graham posing with bunnies. Actor Joe E. Ross of the television series "Car 54, Where Are You?" is pictured at a Playboy charity event to collect soap for the troops in Vietnam.

One undated photograph shows a young Jerry Colangelo and Johnny "Red" Kerr, coach of the Phoenix Suns for the 1968-69 season, flanking a woman identified as "Bunny Susan."

Even Hugh Hefner sometimes stopped by.

"Hef would come to town every year because his mother lived at the Biltmore," said Alan Moschioni of Phoenix, who managed the club from 1976 to 1980 and is now an insurance agent. Hefner would take his mother, son and daughter to dinner at the club.

Ellis said Hefner never visited the club when he was manager, but he did get a tour of Hefner’s private plane, the Big Bunny, once. It was used to fly in a male gorilla from Baltimore in hopes that it would mate with a female at The Phoenix Zoo.

Phoenix hairstylist Ron Thomas wasn’t a keyholder, but he went to the club with friends who were.

"We would go there to dance because it was one of the few places that had good live music back when," he said. "You could also go up there and catch live comedy."

All of the big 1960s comedians would appear. McMillen remembers comics including Pat Morita and Henny Youngman getting their start on the Playboy Club circuit, and Ellis has photos of Pat Paulsen.

The entertainers performed in the penthouse. There was also a convention room for private business meetings, a living room for dinner and cocktails and a playmate bar, where customers could play pool — sometimes with the bunnies. There was also a gift shop directly across from the elevators.

In addition to the view of the employees, the panorama was another big draw.

"What a magnificent view of Central Avenue," Thomas said. "You could see all over the city."

THE BUNNY LIFE

Working as a bunny kept the girls hopping.

Carol Pittel of Scottsdale, who worked at the New York club, said bunnies couldn’t sit down during a shift. When they weren’t busy, they had to pose — just so — holding an empty tray above their shoulder.

"I fell asleep one time like that, standing up," she said. Pittel is now an artist with five grown children.

Bunnies also had to do a fair amount of promotions, which often meant charity work, outside of their regular hours. Ellis said they would collect toys and throw a Christmas party each year for an Apache village in the White Mountains. It was good for the company’s image — "As time went on, I think we built a very good reputation," Ellis said — but it meant long weeks for the bunnies.

And beauty wasn’t always pretty.

"The suit we wore was incredibly uncomfortable," Ritchie said. "You couldn’t go to the bathroom without someone going with you."

The bunny suit had fasteners down the back and acted like a corset to cinch waists and push up bosoms, giving the illusion of bustiness even where there was none. Pittel admitted that many of the women — including her — used bunny tails, cut in half, to stuff their suits.

And each club had a "bunny mother" on staff who inspected the women before they went on the floor. Their hose could have no runs, their nails had to be manicured and their satin ears couldn’t be crooked. If a bunny gained weight, she was given two weeks off to get back into her "bunny image," McMillen said.

Despite all this, the women fondly remember their years with Playboy.

"I worked long hours and I was never tired," McMillen said. "It was so exciting."

The money didn’t hurt morale, either.

"It was nothing for people to throw $50 tips at you," said Sharon O’Connor of Surprise, 53, a bunny from 1973 to 1974. Now a medical transcriptionist, she said she averaged more than $100 a shift in tips. McMillen said a large party once left her $500.

And they enjoyed a certain amount of local celebrity. O’Connor said that at local nightclubs bunnies could cut to the front of the line. They also met movie stars and millionaires — McMillen has a picture of herself with actor James Garner, and O’Connor met singer Roger Miller.

There was a strict policy in place against dating customers. The club would hire spies, McMillen said, who would offer bunnies up to $2,000 just to go on a date to see if they’d jump at the carrot. Bunnies who violated the policy were fired.

However, it was permissible for managers to date bunnies. Which means Ellis — a gentle, grandfatherly type who wears golf shirts and drives a white van — must have been the envy of men Valleywide, though he’s too humble to say so.

"I only took advantage of that policy once or twice in the six years I was the manager," said the retired U.S. Army colonel. He added that he’s become more impressed by his position as he’s gotten older.

"I guess that’s why my wife and I go to Hooters a lot," he said.

Bunnies, reunite!

Gigi McMillen wants to locate former employees of the Phoenix Playboy Club — bunnies, bartenders, seamstresses and others — to invite them to the Playboy Club reunion scheduled for April 18 and 19 in Las Vegas. For more information, e-mail her at gigi2ndtimearnd@aol.com.

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