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Friday, October 31, 2003

Was Playboy ever Relevant? 

A couple of days ago, Dana linked to a recent article wondering what, if any, influence Playboy has on society these days. The fact that they have recently moved their head offices to New York City and, in order to compete with the lad mags, aren't requiring their centerfolds to pose fully nude anymore. So what's happened?

I've long believed that Playboy lost any cultural importance whatsoever when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. They managed to hang on for a while, and when Hefner & co. moved the mansion from Chicago to LA, there was an artificial sense of relevance in that celebrities showed up to party and Hef managed to get arrested for something or another, but really, the moment was gone. This became crystal clear a few years back when I paid a visit to the Museum of Television and Radio in midtown Manhattan.

I was on a fishing expedition, after hearing rumors that my favorite icon, who I semi-jokingly refer to as "the Court Jester of Playboy," had made some appearances on a television show affliated with the magazine. In actuality, there were two: 1959's PLAYBOY'S PENTHOUSE, and 1968's PLAYBOY AFTER DARK (well, each show ran a couple of years but those are when they first aired.) As it happens, to the best of my knowledge Shel didn't appear in the former show as he spent much of the time recuperating from a near fatal-accident he'd sustained while doing one of his foreign correspondent-type things for the magazines, but I didn't know that at the time. And because my time was constrained I limited myself to watching the premiere episodes of both shows.

Boy, what a difference less than a decade made.

'59 was only about three years removed from the rambling manifesto that graced the pages of 3 consecutive issues (a manifesto, incidentally, that Silverstein himself wasn't exactly fond of. . Read the rest of the interview while you're at it) but already the main tenets were in place: late nights, low lights, dry martinis, jazz music, black tie and tails, and gorgeous girls. Lenny Bruce was the special guest and as he drank liquor live on the air, told off-color jokes about the rituals of Jewish funerals and why he disdained them. I was enthralled from the moment the first notes of the theme music began, absolutely fascinated when Hef, pre-toupee, stepped in front of the curtain to explain what was going on.

I wanted to be there. Forty-plus years and the difference between celluloid and reality separated me from that time, but if there was some way I could force myself into the screen, don a bunny suit, and serve alcohol to the leering guests, I was there in no time flat. It was cool, it was seductive, and of course it was absolutely manipulative. But whatever it was, Playboy possessed it in spades.

By 1968 of course, things had changed. The Camelot years were a fading memory. RFK was dead, and so was Martin Luther King. Hell, so was Lenny Bruce. The sexual revolution was in full swing, and regular folk didn't bother much with formalwear and certainly not jazz. Playboy struggled to keep up and one of the ways was to launch a new show. Thus, PLAYBOY AFTER DARK was born. Still in the mansion, but judging by the opening episode, the surroundings were miles different from before. Garish color, platform shoes, funk and soul as opposed to jazz. Instead of Lenny, there was Big Bill Russell, looking rather pained as he talked black politics. The people didn't float, they danced awkwardly. Hefner's rug looked like it had a life of its own.

The mood was all wrong. There was simply no it. In that hourlong episode, Playboy demonstrated just how utterly uncool it had become in the intervening years. And much as they tried to hide it, the evidence was there for people to access if they tried. Or still try.

I don't know if Playboy actually broke ground or just exploited it. But Hefner had a vision, and that was to create his own brand of cool that people flocked to emulate. That vision couldn't be sustained, but it certainly existed. How else to explain my own reaction, so many decades later? And they certainly had interesting people from near day one. He had John Dante running the clubs, Larry Moyer snapping photos, and plucked Silverstein from post-army misanthropy to draw cartoons, travel to far-flung places, and be a port of call for his creativity for more than 40 years. There was something for every guy--literature, interviews, cartoons, and of course, topless girls (later more.) The girls changed hourly, but the core group of Old Boys persisted throughout. Dante, Shel, Moyer, Reg Potterton, to name but a few. It was Esquire before Esquire was really it, in the late 60s/early 70s. Would there be lad mags without Playboy? Would there be Penthouse, or Hustler? Perhaps, but not in quite the same way, and without the same kind of vehemence.

So maybe the magazine isn't relevant and hasn't been for decades. But it certainly was, once. And when, like many of his cronies, Hefner finally shuffles off to his mortal coil, he'll have one hell of a legacy. Troubling, disturbing, at times offensive, but never anything less than fascinating. At least from this woman's point of view.


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