Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine and its once iconic clubs are inextricably linked with Chicago and Los Angeles.
But Hef had big footprints — or would that be bunny prints? — in Miami and throughout South Florida.
Miami was a perfect setting for Playboy’s philosophy, a world view shaped by Hefner’s advocacy for sexual liberation and freedom of expression.
“It was all so loose and open,” broadcaster Larry King said of the city in April as he cruised Miami streets to film segments for a 60th anniversary retrospective of the start of his career in Miami.
“Nothing seemed permanent. Tourists and girls. It was an anything goes place. Lenny Bruce was arrested everywhere but he was never arrested in Miami. We accepted. Open. Liberal. It was a terrific place,” King said as his driver passed 7701 Biscayne Boulevard.
For nearly a quarter century, starting in 1961, 7701 Biscayne was the site of the Playboy Club, where King met his third wife, Alene Akins, a bunny. Today, it’s an auto parts store.
In addition to the Club, trailblazing Playboy photographer Bunny Yeager found bunnies all over Miami, including Bettie Page, as she put the 305 in the magazine’s centerfold. Former Miami Herald reporter Laura Misch (Miss February 1975) even covered the covering up of Playboy magazines in Broward stores for the paper as a new wave of conservatism swept through President Reagan’s America in the 1980s.
Some centerfolds were homegrown, and some, sadly, lost their lives in South Florida.
The Playboy Club
The first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in 1960, but the second, and one of the most storied of the seven franchises, opened in Miami in May 1961 at 77th Street and Biscayne Boulevard in a building with a bead and bamboo entrance.
In an unflattering 10-page feature in the very first issue of the Herald’s former Sunday magazine, Tropic, dated Oct. 15, 1967, the headline snickered, “Lettuce, Not Bunnies, Make the Rabbit Run Or What to Do Until the Check Comes: Yawn.”
While the image suggested a swimming pool of “baby spotlights throwing an aqua green and turquoise hue on nymphs gliding around naked as goldfish” writer Robert Hardin instead opined otherwise.
“A proper appraisal of the Playboy Club doesn’t begin with the hutch at 77th and Biscayne Boulevard; doesn’t start with the fact that instead of a swimming pool there are only the turgid waters of the Little River Canal, carefully shuttered from view (contrary to Playboy ads, nobody arrives by boat); or that the ‘Penthouse’ is a room without windows on the main floor of a two-story building.”
What was there, then, for the man about town, the bon vivant, the pre-Playboy playboy? the writer wondered. “Plenty, of course,” Hardin allowed.
Take King, who had interviewed Hefner countless times on his local radio program on WIOD 610 AM and later on “Larry King Live” on CNN. The TV talk show host, now 83, sighed wistfully as he glided past his old hutch haunt. “She was an original bunny,” he said of his former wife Alene, who died in February. “She was a grand lady,” he tweeted.
King would adopt her son, Andy, in 1962. The Miami Playboy bunnies, “they came on my radio show at Pumpernik’s. She was awfully pretty. Black hair. Blue eyes. She was making twice what I made in tips. That was the biggest fad here, the Playboy Club. Everyone had keys.”
Nine years after opening the Playboy Club on Biscayne, Hefner invested $15 million to open the Playboy Plaza Hotel on Miami Beach’s Collins Avenue in December 1970.
“A new fantasy for Miami Beach,” Tropic writer John Dorschner wrote in a Feb. 14, 1971 feature. To get away from traditional Miami Beach decor of the time — a bit old and worn — Playboy added a circular bar to liven up a previously dull lobby and tore down some cabanas on the deck area to allow for an ocean view from poolside.
Both are long gone. The Plaza wouldn’t make it out of the ’70s disco era and its location at 5445 Collins Ave. has been numerous venues including Miami Beach Hyatt House, the Konover Hotel, the Castle Premier Hotel, Castle Beach Condominium and Design Suites Miami Beach.
The Playboy Club closed its Biscayne location in 1983, the same year Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” remake changed the region’s reputation nationwide, and moved to the Miami Airport Inn near the airport, where it, too, closed in 1985.
Living and dying in 305 time
Yeager's photographs of Page, an actress-model who lived in an old house by the Miami River, turned both women into household names when Yeager was 25. Yeager’s shot of Page kneeling next to a Christmas tree in a Santa hat and nothing else was selected by Hefner to be the centerfold of the January 1955 issue of Playboy. That image cemented the pop culture status of the “Playmate of the Month” title a couple years after Marilyn Monroe graced the first issue in Dec. 1953 as its “Sweetheart of the Month.”
Yeager was one of Hef's go-to photographers, shooting eight centerfolds along with pictorial spreads. She found one of her models, Carol Jean Lauritzen, in downtown Miami at a Flagler Street bus stop.
Carol Ann Marie Vitale, another Yeager model, joined the Miami Playboy Club hutch at 21 after making the 1969 Miss Florida-World finals. She was Miami’s Bunny of the Year in 1972 and Playboy magazine’s cover girl in August 1972 and its centerfold in July 1974.
For her cover appearance she was clad in a white bikini, encircled by a red, rabbit-shaped swimming tube. Vitale was still posing for Yeager’s camera in Miami Shores into 1997, when she appeared in a Playboy pictorial, Playmate Revisited.
Vitale, who died in 2008 at 61, once said she “cherished every moment” of her Miami Playboy Club years. “I worked diligently and considered myself to be a star student. … Every job was executed with pride.”
Playboy’s April 1986 Playmate of the Month Teri Weigel was born in Fort Lauderdale and graduated from Deerfield Beach High in 1979. She was Miss Dearfield Beach that year, before appearing in Playboy as a cover model in Nov. 1985 before her centerfold appearance and later landing parts as an extra in a bathing suit in “Scarface” and an actress on “Miami Vice.”
Her 10-page pictorial in Playboy in 1986 was titled, “Miami Nice.”
Alas, Wiegel, now 55, was sued by Playboy in 2000 over her use of the Playboy logo on her website after she became the first Playmate to cross over into the porn industry. Playmates who do porn are not allowed to represent the company.
Sadly, some celebrated Playmates, like 1993 Playmate of the Year Anna Nicole Smith, and Miss February 1977, Star Stowe, lost their lives in South Florida.
Smith died at age 39 on Feb. 8, 2007, in a room at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino near Hollywood, of an overdose of prescription drugs.
Star Stowe, a paramour of Kiss bassist Gene Simmons at the time of her February 1977 Playmate of the Month appearance, was found strangled at 40 in Coral Springs in 1997. Born Ellen Louise Stowe in Little Rock, Stowe drifted into prostitution, drugs and alcohol after moving to Fort Lauderdale in 1986. Her murder remains unsolved.
Laura Misch, meanwhile, parlayed her Playmate of the Month experience into a successful journalism career. In the 1980s, Misch wrote feature stories for the Herald’s former Sunday magazine, Tropic, documenting South Florida’s freewheeling city governments and Cocaine Cowboys. Amusingly, Misch also had to report on her former employer when she did stories on a group of angry pastors in Broward county who blasted Playboy as “the father of the entire smut industry.” The protest movement called on South Florida 7-Elevens and other convenience stores to stop selling Playboy, and its competitors like Penthouse, or bag ’em up behind the counters where they couldn’t be seen.
After Misch’s sojourn in the tropics, she moved to Colorado and wrote for The Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post, and has published several novels, including “Yours Truly, the Queen” in 2012.
Hef in the house
Even the 80s — the decade and his age — didn’t slow Hef’s club crawling. And when the head honcho wanted to get down he often came to South Beach and South Florida.
Hefner celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Playboy Club at the former club Set on Lincoln Road in 2010 with a bevy of Bunnies and DJs.
In 1999, Hugh Hefner ran in the Breeders’ Cup race at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale. Well, this Hef was a horse named for the Playboy founder. But Hefner watched his namesake with his pal, the horse’s owner, Ed Nahem. Hefner, also in town to promote the launch of Playboy TV International, a joint venture between Playboy Entertainment Group and Cisneros Television Group, partied at Chaos, a former nighclub on South Beach, with his then flames Sandy, Mandy and Brandy — “Wouldn’t travel without ’em,” he told the Herald.