Miami-Dade County

Playboy bunnies were at the center of club life in Miami. Then they hit some problems

The Playboy Club in Miami.
The Playboy Club in Miami.

Mention club life in Miami, and it once meant Playboy. There was a club on Biscayne Boulevard. And a hotel in Miami Beach. The club later moved to an inn near the airport, but didn’t last there long.

Playboy eventually abandoned the two hotel sites. And it left its landmark club building on 77th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. An auto parts store is now on the site.

The club opened opened on May 10, 1961. Here are the stories of the Playboy presence in Miami, as told through the Miami Herald archives.

In 2008, the founder of the Playboy empire sat down with The New York Times to talk about his influences, his well-publicized lifestyle and his labor of love.

THE MAN BEHIND IT ALL

Published Sept. 29, 2017

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. Hefner, who created Playboy magazine when he was 27 in 1953, turned it into a multimedia industry.

All the while, his own pajama-clad image proved as recognizable as the Playboy Bunny. Hef died on Wednesday at his home, the Playboy Mansion, in Los Angeles. He was 91.

Yet 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.

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.

The first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in 1960, and the second opened in Miami in May 1961 at 77th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.

The Miami Playboy bunnies, “they came on my radio show at Pumpernik’s,” King said. “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,” writer John Dorschner wrote in a Feb. 14, 1971, feature in Tropic, the Miami Herald’s former Sunday magazine. Both are long gone. The Plaza wouldn’t make it out of the ‘70s disco era. T

he Playboy Club closed its Biscayne location in 1983 and moved to the Miami Airport Inn, where it, too, closed in 1985.

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 December 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, at a Flagler Street bus stop in downtown Miami. 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. 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.

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 Beach. 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 nightclub on South Beach, with his then flames Sandy, Mandy and Brandy — “Wouldn’t travel without ‘em,” he told the Herald.

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A 1980 file photo from the Playboy Club.

LOOKING FOR BUNNIES

Published June 13, 1984

Candidate No. 4 wore a hot pink bathing suit and matching lipstick. She had a model’s poise as she glided in for the interview and sat down with back erect, legs crossed, hands clasped on her lap and a smile on her face. Yet beneath that veneer of calm and confidence was a knot of nerves that caused Terri Christie’s voice to quaver when she began to answer questions.

“I wasn’t that nervous until I sat down in that chair,” Christie said after her audition Thursday at the Miami Airport Inn for one of the club’s waitress jobs. Audition is the right word — Christie was trying to become a Playboy Club bunny.

The inn on LeJeune Road will become the site of Miami’s new Playboy Club, scheduled to open Feb. 13 to replace the old lounge on Biscayne Boulevard.

Christie’s screening was brief and basic, about seven minutes. The leggy blonde told the interviewers she previously had worked for the federal government and in her husband’s gym, but never as a cocktail waitress. Despite her husband’s objection to her auditioning, Christie, 28, of Hollywood, said she bought her swimsuit just for the occasion. She said she wanted to look her best for the job.

“It does seem like a glamorous job,” she said when asked why she wanted to work for Playboy. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. This is for me.”

If the judging was based on looks alone, nearly all of the women would be winners. If the judging was based solely on body dimensions, there still wouldn’t be many losers. But it takes more than a pretty face and fine figure to qualify for a tailored cottontail costume and set of satin rabbit ears — the sexy global symbols of Hugh M. Hefner’s Playboy Clubs International Inc. So say those in charge of the selection.

“It’s something about a girl when you see her and she speaks, the way she carries herself and, of course, her personality,” explained Judy Sharp, a bunny mother and one of the interviewers.

From noon until 9 p.m., Harriet Bassler, international bunny director; and Richard Smith, international director of club operations, eyed and examined one applicant after another, looking for the “Playboy image” as Smith calls it.

“They ask a lot of questions,” said dark-haired Sue Farley, 22, laughing as she sauntered from the interviewing room.

But Farley, a native of Thailand who is a cocktail waitress in Fort Lauderdale, wondered jokingly about how much the questions they asked related to the job.

“You get so nervous waiting,” Farley said, “then you walk in and expect to be asked all these questions about why you want to be a bunny and they ask you — do you know any good Chinese restaurants around.”

Playboy wants to hire 25 bunnies for the new club, Smith said. Those interviewed Thursday will hear the results in two days. The successful candidates will get two to three weeks of training, learning such things as the “bunny dip” when serving tables. Bunnies are paid $2.01 an hour plus commission for 28 to 32 hours of work each week.

They are provided medical, dental and life insurance, and are entitled to a vacation after a year’s service. Posing nude for Playboy’s famous centerfold is optional — and also must be auditioned for.

For the ambitious, the benefits can be boundless, according to bunny Christy Buksan, still enjoying the fruits of being selected as Miami’s Playboy Bunny of the Year for 1983.

“You can earn as much as you want to earn,” Buksan said, adding that a $500 bonus, a watch, other gifts and promotional engagements were among the benefits she received . “All the opportunites opened up to me,” she said.

That is the attraction that drew Denise Dalby from Boca Raton. The shapely 24-year-old advertising saleswoman wore a black swimsuit with a white Playboy bunny across the front.

She said she would like to use a stint as a Playboy bunny to hop into a career in acting or modeling. But if it means posing in the buff, she has second thoughts. “Playboy has a lot of class,” she said, “but as far as posing in the nude, I’d have to think about that — a lot.”

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A 1971 file photo from the Playboy Club

NEW LOCATION

Published Jan. 12, 1984

The last bunny tail on Biscayne Boulevard will twitch Feb. 4, leaving behind a fading neighborhood that has become known more for prostitution and pornography than glitzy partying.

Playboy officials in Chicago cite the shift in Dade County’s population to the south and west in explaining the Miami Playboy Club’s planned Feb. 13 move to a location near Miami International Airport. But they acknowledge the role of the boulevard’s slide into sleaze in the decision to move.

“It had a good bit to do with it,” Chicago-based spokeswoman Janice Feely said. “The perception of this area is much worse than the reality,” said Seth Bramson, who has managed the club for 10 months. “But long-term, the neighborhood has faded. We have to make the change.”

So the club will forsake its home of the last 22 years, 7701 Biscayne Blvd., for a larger site at 1550 LeJeune Rd.

The move has been under consideration for “a long time,” and when the search for a new location suddenly turned up the Miami Airport Inn space, “we moved quickly,” Feely said. “We’ve had success being close to hotels, and the proximity to the airport will make the club more convenient for club members who are traveling through the Miami area.” And more appealing to them, too.

While the Biscayne Boulevard location boasted a view of the Little River canal and easy access to downtown, the Boulevard’s slide into a sea of prostitution and pornography made a trip to the Playboy Club a chancy proposition — literally, at times, as strolling prostitutes hawked their wares to any and all passersby.

A recent crackdown on prostitution has cleaned up the busy thoroughfare’s act, but the lingering effects keep many customers away, Bramson said. And the Club Pink Pussycat across the street, with its “continuous nude reviews,” only reinforces the negative side of the image Playboy seeks to project.

The righteous horror that the Playboy image evoked 22 years ago has dissipated. Grace Rockafellar, who heads the Northeast Miami Improvement Association, is as righteous a critic of Boulevard filth as anyone, but she says she will miss the club.

“I think it’s a shame. The club was good for the neighborhood. It’s a very nice place,” she said. In fact, Rockafellar is a card-carrying Playboy Club member. “Personally, I’m very disappointed,” she said.

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Playboy Club bunnies with manager Seth Bramson. Miami Herald File

BUNNY TRAINING

Published Sept. 1, 1983

Maybe this is symbolic, maybe it’s not, but the Bunny Dip is back in vogue at the Playboy Club of Miami. Bunny Vee, senior Bunny at the club and officially designated “Training Bunny,” will demonstrate: Tray balanced on one hand, she turns her back to a pretend customer and places his pretend drink on the table, while gracefully performing a sort of half deep knee-bend squat and a little wiggle of the furry white pompon sewn to her revealing costume’s behind.

Anyway, all the change boils down to, says Vee, “is serving graciously. You’re supposed to turn your tail toward each person you serve instead of bending over them.”

The Dip had always been standard procedure until standards at the Miami club were allowed to relax. Bunny Vee demonstrates how tacky, in her estimation, a standard serving method — bending forward, a lot of Bunny cleavage showing — can look in a low-cut Playboy Bunny suit.

Since the new management team came to the Miami Playboy Club on Biscayne Boulevard and 77th Street in May, “attitudes have changed,” says Bunny Vee. “There’s an excitement around here. A return to some of the old things, the old grace in greeting people. We’re just more up.”

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5/11/06--MIAMI HERALD STAFF PHOTO BY C.W.GRIFFIN - Miami--Advanced Discount Auto now stands on the old spot that was once the home of Playboy Club Miami. The Adress is 7701 Biscayne Blvd. C.W.GRIFFIN Miami Herald File

Seth Bramson, the club’s new general manager, identified attitude as one of the things that needed to be improved when he took over. “In recent years,” he says, “greeting by the Bunnies was nonexistent, or not as warm as it should have been. ‘Thank yous’ were conspicuous only by their absence.”

“The idea has sort of been to re-instill an enthusiasm, a pride in themselves,” says Judy Sharp. Sharp is the new Bunny Mother, the person in charge of the Bunnies. She was imported from the Cincinnati club to replace a woman who had been the Bunny Mother for nearly 20 years; the club has been in existence only 22.

“The next thing you know,” says Sharp, who was a Bunny once herself, “the nails aren’t done, the face’ll be off, the hair will be straggly, and the next thing you know after that, the image is gone.”

Ah, the image preservation of the illusion that is Playboy.

“It’s all part of the game,” says Sharp. “And if you don’t play the game, there will be no more game.”

And the game, says Bramson, when it comes to taking care of the Playboy Club customer, is one of “constant reinforcement.”

And so now, as the women exit the dressing and office area upstairs in the Playboy building, just before they emerge as Bunnies in the club below, they see a message painted on the door to remind them of their responsibility once they cross the threshold: “DO YOU LOOK PERFECT?” it asks. And “SMILE.” it commands.

It’s no secret that something was rotten in the state of Playboy. The company’s London casino had its gaming license revoked. The much ballyhooed Playboy foray into movie production in the last decade went nowhere. Hotels have been divested. The highly touted Playboy retreats at Great Gorge in New Jersey and Lake Geneva, Wis., became Americanas. (Anyone remember that the Konover Hotel on the beach was once the Playboy Plaza Hotel?)

And then the clubs began hurting. Not the clubs. The cornerstone, along with the magazine, of the Playboy mystique, with their Bunnies whose status as keepers of the American sexual myth lay just below that of starlets, just above that of cheerleaders; not the clubs, with their privileged private members, still called “keyholders” — even though actual keys were long ago replaced by modern society’s ubiquitous plastic credit-type cards. Not the clubs.

Say it ain’t so, Hef. All over the country, they began having trouble. The Dallas club folded. San Diego folded. Phoenix folded.

In Miami, the neighborhood around the club began to change. Hookers haunted the boulevard outside; cater-corner, a burlesque house, resplendent in neon, was doing a brisk business; down the block, an X-rated bookstore opened.

All of these things seemed to almost mock Playboy and its club, once leaders themselves in pioneering new sexual mores, now, somehow, lapped by institutions regarded with as much skepticism as, say, Playboy magazine was 30 years ago.

People thought twice about venturing too near such a sexually seedy strip as Biscayne Boulevard late at night.

The Playboy Club, the only “establishment” establishment in that several-block area, was becoming a victim of society’s unwillingness to commit to cleaning up the sexual commerce of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

And then came the Liberty City riots of 1980, due west of the strip. Jorgen Moller, owner of the popular Prince Hamlet Restaurant, six blocks north of the Playboy Club on Biscayne, remembers what that did to business. Before the riots, he served about 2,000 dinners a week, as many as 500 on a hot Saturday night.

“We were closed for two days with the 8 p.m. curfew. The night we reopened we had eight people for dinner. It took four months before we had 100 people for dinner again.”

Moeller ran into other difficulties, too, and today he is still building back to where he once was. But he likes to think that the location is no longer a factor. “I still believe that a good establishment will make it in just about any neighborhood. As long as the food is good, the people will find their way.”

This, too, is what the Playboy corporation and Seth Bramson are counting on. There are still 30,000 Playboy Club keyholders in the greater Miami area. It still costs only $25 to belong. *

The Miami Playboy Club is one of five company-owned clubs. The others are New York, Chicago, L.A. and Cincinnati. There are “franchise” clubs in St. Louis, St. Petersburg, Columbus, Ohio, Buffalo, Lansing, Mich., Manila and three in Japan. There are 700,000 keyholders worldwide.

The corporation brought Bramson in to run the Miami club, said Richard D. Smith, Playboy’s Chicago-based vice president for club operations, because it wanted “a fresh approach to marketing and operating the club. In keeping with updating our operation, we felt an infusion of new ideas was necessary ... “Maybe in certain areas we were resting on our laurels,” he said. “Because we’d been successful in the past, maybe we’d relaxed and slipped a little bit. But I think we’re on top of things now.”

Bramson, 39, is a native Miamian, a graduate of the Cornell University Hotel School who once managed the New York Gaslight Club in Manhattan and for the last five years was catering director of the Epicure Market on Miami Beach. He won’t buy the “the-neighborhood-is-bad” rap. The riots are now ancient history.

“I can’t accept the location as an excuse,” he says, “when we are bordered by Belle Meade, a beautiful residential area, when we’re 1 1/2 miles south of the Shores, two miles west of North Bay Village, one mile from Palm Bay, and two miles from Bay Point. Hookers? There are hookers all over.”

The problems he saw with the club were internal, and correctable. The lack of enthusiasm. The entertainment, he says, was not as good as it could have been. He’s bringing in new people, some local talent, people like jazz pianist Billy Marcus.

The food, he thought, wasn’t as good as it could have been. So there is now a new menu; new prices; a new Happy Hour from 4:30 to 7:30 weekdays, with entertainment and free hors d’oeuvres and most drinks for $1.75; a complete Twilight Dinner for $6.95 from 5 to 7 weekdays.

“Part of the problem, too,” Bramson says, “was that the club had not been refurbished since 1971. We have to bring it into the ‘80s and ‘90s.”

The club doesn’t look at all bad; in fact, it seems well- maintained. Its dining area, bar (with centerfolds blown up and reproduced on the wall in plexiglass), gameroom and quiet nooks are clean, neat and natty.

But Bramson has the idea it feels somehow dated. The corporation has committed money to a facelift that will soon commence. In New York, the newly relocated Playboy Club will experiment with video entertainment, boost its efforts to attract more female members, and, in a radical departure from tradition, try opening part of the club to nonmembers.

If the concept is successful, similar procedures could be implemented at clubs throughout the country.

On the outside of the Miami club, for the first time, the name is visible from Biscayne Boulevard. And, for the first time in years, the four Rabbit-head flags are flying on their staffs, an American flag in the middle of them.

This new high profile also carries over to advertising the club, another Miami first, and in planning more promotions. Already, says Bramson, the numbers show improvement over last year at this time; gross beverage sales were up slightly from July of ‘82 to July of ‘83, from $43,682 to $44,046; food sales up nearly $4,000 from $44,633 to $48,408; and the number of customers up more than 200.

In all, he’s bullish on Bunny futures.

“What we are really,” Bramson says, “is a hospitality enterprise.”

“When people meet you,” says Bunny Vee, “they still think ‘Wow. A Bunny.’ We’re still up there. Bunnies are still glorified. People still have that concept about us.”

She is five-foot-two. She is, well, built the way Playboy Bunnies are supposed to be built. She is 29 and still has a baby-doll cuteness about her. She is still the living embodiment of Hefner’s “girl next door” ideal. They all are.

“Of course,” she says, “some things have changed with the times. We’re more accepted by women now then we ever were before. They realize now that we’re normal girls -- just very pretty.

But that we have more going for us than just our looks. That we’re intelligent women ... . “Of course when I run into a regular male customer, when I’m shopping or something, they still always say the same thing: ‘Vee. You look so different with your clothes on.’ “

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