A Playbunny Speaks Her Piece

by

10/16/2003

59th st. & Fifth Avenue ny ny 10019

Neighborhood: Midtown

Now Elle stands to demonstrate the Bunny dip— Playboy’s signature manner of serving drinks. She is all cool grace: knees together, a slight roll, the bosom strategically directed away from the customer while the Bunny tail rises.

“When I got out of school in 1965,” Elle says, returning to her stool at the bar, “every job I went for: they wanted you to type! I had platinum blonde hair and wore too much make-up…. I couldn’t get a job. They wanted navy blue suits and little white gloves. I just didn’t fit the bill.”

When she walked into the New York Playboy Club at 59th and 5th, however, a glitzy but innocent Italian girl from Queens, she was promptly hired. Her wizened collegues dubbed her “The Lone Virgin.”

She says in the 60’s, those early days of the Club were about celebrities, glamour, exclusivity — guests needed a Playboy key to gain entrance; it was a kingdom unto itself. The swanky playmate bar on the first floor. A living room above on the mezzanine with a decadent buffet and glossy dancing floor. On the third level was a velvet VIP room with fine French dining and specially trained Bunnies wearing blue velvet costumes to match. Upstairs, the playroom and then the penthouse playing four shows a night of jazz, magic acts, comedy, musical reviews to packed houses.

“And back then,” Elle tells, “a drink was $1.50 and a filet mignon was $1.50. That was a lot for a drink. In those days, most bars charged 40 cents for a shot.” Naturally, the Bunnies did very well. One night while working the showroom, a patron told a wagging bunny, “‘Every time you walk by my table, I will give you fifty dollars.’” Elle pulled in $500 a week when the average secretary was making $75. But as good as the money was, Elle’s most animated when talking about the camaraderie.

“That Bunny dressing room was a magical place,” she whistles. “It had everything you could need from mascara to a shoulder to cry on. . . . It was a safe haven. There is something about standing stark-ass naked next to another human being day after day.”

While the Playboy logo is synonymous with sex and hedonism, she says that the club was actually rather tame. “As liberal as the magazine is, that’s how conservative the clubs were. You saw more cleavage on the women who came into the club than on the women working the floor.” Customers were not allowed to know a Bunny’s last name nor any other personal information, and they certainly could not pet or date a Bunny. If a problem arose, Elle would tilt her head and smile to summon the room director. “The Bunny,” she informs coolly, “was always sweet as pie.”

Savvy and an acknowledged master of the Bunny dip, she steadily climbed the ranks during her 17 years at the club. “Hef’ set it up right. Playboy always promoted from within.” By the end of her run, she was the Mother Bunny, rearing 120 bunnies of her own. “When I was Bunny Mother,” Elle says, “I learned if you treat ‘em like ladies they’ll act like ladies. If you treat ‘em like whores, they’re going to act like whores. I treated all my girls like they are going to do the right thing.”

The feminist perspective only aggravates her. She says she and the girls were happy to be there. So happy, in fact, that she only took three short breaks, twice to bare two children by her first husband and the third, when the club closed down in 1974 for renovations.

But when it re-opened back in 1976, the the club, like the world, had changed. “Most of the girls from the original era were not hired back. . . . In the ‘60s it was glamorous. We were stars. In the ‘70s, we had a lot more girls going to college, it was more of a job. And the girls, you had to twist their arms to put makeup on…. Women’s lib supporters picketing in front of the club…. ” She stayed on until the club closed in 1986. By then, tourists had replaced the glitter.

Today, the world is as different as it is the same. Elle owns the bar where she sits, and her bunny costume is stowed neatly, tenderly in the back of her bedroom closet. It is late on a Sunday, fall afternoon at Elle’s Homesick Bar and Grill on West 79th Street, and the brunch crowd is breaking up as bar regulars arrive to saddle up for a drink. Rambling talk and laughs fill the air. Elle rises to work the floor. Everyone looks happy to be there.

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