The Joint That Made 'Sexy' Cool

Playboy Club put KC on the ramparts of the sexual revolution.



Margo Shoopman

   

   Few remember it now, but a landmark of the ‘60s sexual revolution once graced the top floor of the old Hotel Continental at 11th and Baltimore.

   Kansas City’s Playboy Club, famous for its scantily-clad, look-but-don’t-touch waitresses, known as Bunnies, served up food, drink and entertainment to holders of coveted “key cards” for more than a decade.

   A book due out this month on the history of the clubs, “Playboy on Stage” by Patty Farmer, has put a new spotlight on the establishments that were viewed as trendy and even naughty in their day, even if they seem tame by current standards. There’s more to see nowadays on TV in prime time or on a college campus in summer.

   Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire was in its heyday at the time, bridging the moral and cultural gap between the prudish ‘50s and the anything-goes ‘70s. Some KC joints were raunchier (anyone remember the Pink Garter?), but Playboy clubs introduced new levels of glamor and sophistication. The local club opened in June 1964, making KC one of nine cities in the chain.

   Sultry singer Lanie Kazan and pioneering black comedian Flip Wilson were among the many nationally known entertainers who performed at the KC club as a stop on the Playboy circuit. But one regular was homegrown: jazz vocalist Marilyn Maye.

   In the book, she recalls how the local club’s setup made her appearances there a family matter.

   “The fabulous thing about playing Kansas City was that it had two rooms — the showroom and the lounge,” Maye says. “My daughter Kristi is also a singer, and around the holidays, they’d book her to sing in the lounge with a trio while I performed in the main room. She was 19 or 20, and it was a great way for us to get together for Christmas.”

   Even with great entertainment, a competent bar and a decent menu, the club’s lure was the Bunnies. They were gracious, efficient, classy and attractive. Their individually tailored form-fitting uniforms were little more than strapless one-piece swim suits — including the iconic fur tail — accented with satin rabbit ears and high heels.

   It was the Mad Men era in America, and the measure of a male’s sophistication was whether he could ogle a Bunny casually without leering. However, many a modest Midwest patron (including me) found himself awkwardly steering his eyeballs toward anywhere but where they really wanted to look. Even the slightest flinch toward touching meant firm and instant ejection. (In reality, however, plenty of Bunnies broke the rules to date customers or other employees.)

   Female customers were almost always with husbands, boyfriends or business colleagues. Most appeared to stoically endure the experience as socially unavoidable under the circumstances.

   As tolerance levels changed, other clubs raced past the Playboy Club to ride the trend. Eventually, the Kansas City club succumbed to the new normal and closed. Others followed suit, and various attempts to revive and reshape the concept in the United States and abroad have mostly failed.

   Trying to capitalize on the Mad Men craze, NBC aired a series called “The Playboy Club” in 2011.

   It lasted all of three episodes, proving that sometimes, history shouldn’t even try to repeat itself, no matter how sexy it might be.