Monday, February 15, 2010

5 Things You Didn't Know: Playboy

image The emergence -- and instant success -- of Playboy magazine in 1953 was no accident: Its timing was perfect, arriving primed and ready on the porch just as the morning newspaper had for decades before. The Victorian era ended with the First World War, which was followed by global economic collapse and then the Second World War. Men emerged from these times utterly disillusioned and ready to reject the role of breadwinner, to renounce that responsibility and assume a leisure consumerism.

However, consumerism -- shopping for yourself, indulging in that kind of vanity -- was at the time reserved largely for women, and decidedly effeminate for men. It was not the lifestyle associated with the strong heterosexual male. However, anyone who reads Playboy’s first issue can very easily hear Hugh Hefner’s staunch defense of this emerging lifestyle:

“We don’t mind telling you in advance -- we plan on spending most of our time inside. We like our apartment…. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzche, jazz, sex.”

With that mission statement in mind, here are five things you didn’t know about Playboy, the magazine that helped to launch a revolution


#1 - Playboy wasn’t originally called Playboy

What we know as Playboy today came very close to being known as Stag Party, which perhaps only seems awful in posterity. Hefner’s preferred title was stifled by another magazine, an outdoor rag called Stag, which threatened him with legal action if he went ahead with that title.

The name Playboy came at the suggestion of Hefner’s associate Eldon Sellers, whose mother had previously been employed at the then-defunct Playboy Automotive Company.

#2 - Playboy hosted TV’s first desegregated program

Playboy’s Penthouse premiered in late October 1959 and it served a few purposes -- among them it was hoped that the show would introduce Hefner to a wider audience and eliminate any notion that he was little more than a perverted smut peddler. Granted, he was not the most engaging host, but he did explain the format on air to comedian Lenny Bruce, saying, “We're trying to build the personality of the show out of the magazine itself and make the thing a sort of sophisticated weekly get-together of the people that we dig and the people who dig us.”

To that end, Hefner featured blacks and whites “partying” together, becoming the first nationally televised show to do so. Playboy’s Penthouse featured such acts as Ella Fitzgerald, Nat "King" Cole and Sarah Vaughn.

#3 - The Playboy rabbit head is hidden on almost every cover

The tradition of concealing Playboy’s rabbit head logo on the magazine’s cover began in the 1960s as nothing more than “a lighthearted way to challenge readers.” By the mid-1970s, Playboy’s headquarters were inundated with so many requests from bewildered readers who searched and searched but could not find it that the editors began offering hints on where to find him on the contents page. But even before the popular draw of the rabbit head, Playboy’s mascot was so recognizable that a reader was able to address a letter to Playboy’s headquarters by simply drawing the mascot on the envelope.

#4 - Playboy’s financial empire was built on clubs and casinos, not magazine nudes

There is no doubting the success of the magazine; the first issue sold out quickly, and the company was doing well enough in the following years to launch a short-lived television show. However, no other business venture brought the company the kind of exorbitant income the way its Playboy clubs and casinos did during the 1960s. For Playboy, they were an unprecedented revenue juggernaut.

Hefner’s format for the club was, in short, a copycat of Chicago’s Gaslight Club, which Playboy had featured in a 1959 issue; members owned “keys” that gave them exclusive access to the clubs, where attractive, scantily clad women served drinks. The feature was such a hit that Hefner and partner Victor Lownes decided to open their own based on the ”Playboy” lifestyle. Being a member was a status symbol; in fact, although membership fees were $50 for locals and $25 for out-of-towners, it is estimated that only a small percentage of those members ever even entered a club. By the end of 1961, 132,000 members passed through its doors, making it, at the time, the busiest nightclub in the world.

By the end of 1961, clubs had opened in New Orleans and Miami (ultimately about 40 would open worldwide), and in that first year alone those clubs garnered the company an astonishing $4.5 million in gross profits. The expansion into England, where the clubs were also casinos, earned Playboy more money than any other venture, before or since.

#5 - Playboy’s iconic logo was created in half an hour

All things considered, Playboy’s beginnings are extremely modest. The first issue was written almost entirely by Hefner in his Hyde Park, Chicago kitchen. Seeking a mascot of sorts, he envisioned a rabbit because of its “humorous sexual connotation” and its “frisky and playful” image. The tuxedo was added for sophistication.

Additionally, he choose a rabbit as a means of standing apart from Esquire and The New Yorker, which used men as symbols. According to Art Paul, Playboy’s first art director and the man who drew the logo, “If I had any idea how important that little rabbit was going to be, I probably would have redrawn him a dozen times to make certain I was doing him justice. … As it was, I did one drawing and that was it. I probably spent all of half an hour on it."

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