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Playboy Was All About The Music

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Patty Farmer, author of Playboy Swings: How Hugh Hefner and Playboy Changed the Face of Music. Images provided by Real to Reel.
Much More Than Just Monthly Nude Centerfolds, Playboy, As Chronicled In A New Book, Heavily Influenced Popular Entertainment, And Especially Music And Comedy

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Aug. 24, 2015 — It may seem incongruent – perhaps blasphemous – to mention Walt Disney and Playboy impresario Hugh Hefner in the same breath. But according to Patty Farmer, the author of a new book, Playboy Swings: How Hugh Hefner and Playboy Changed the Face of Music, Hefner was every bit the visionary that Walt was.

The book, which publishes Sept. 14, doesn't dwell on the commonly recognized aspects of the Playboy brand – the magazine pictorials of beautiful women or “Hef” in his trademark silk bathrobe and jammies cavorting with an ever-changing harem of beauties at the famed Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.

Farmer, via dozens of first-hand accounts from the famous artists who performed at the Playboy Clubs and Jazz Festivals, focuses on the top-flight entertainment that was also a signature of the brand.

“Hef was the visionary, the driving force,” said Farmer. “He was a certified genius and no major decision happened without his knowledge or approval. He was a master of branding long before anyone heard the name Trump.”

Indeed, before there were Hard Rock Cafes, the “Bunny Dip” was being performed for key holders at Playboy Clubs around the world. The first club opened in Chicago in 1960 and the chain expanded throughout the country and the world and was one of the last bastions of cocktail chic for more than two decades. Locations even included all-American cities such as Kansas City, Omaha, and, arguably, his most posh resort in Lake Geneva, Wisc., which was a popular getaway for Chicago’s elite.

Talk about incongruous!

As much as musical artists took center stage, comedians were also a staple at the clubs.

For up and coming comic Joan Rivers, “Lake Geneva had the best F…ing corn in my life.”

For two decades, through the magazine, clubs, record label, TV shows and jazz festivals, Playboy was, according to Farmer, one of the largest employers of artists in the world.

The TV shows as well as the clubs featured an eclectic mix from comedian Lenny Bruce to pop singers such as Vic Damone, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Mathis, Ike and Tina Turner and Sonny & Cher.

Far from dens of inequity, the Playboy Clubs featured the iconic bunnies and provided a positive work environment, said Farmer.

“Hef established stringent rules and regulations for each club,” she said. “Performers, especially the comedians, had to perform clean, PG-13 at most.”

Veteran comic and character actor Larry Storch said there was no cursing allowed and you could only be moderately suggestive. Not surprisingly, George Carlin was one comedian who crossed the line and suffered the temporary ire of Hefner.

“Hef stayed on top of all the acts as all room directors had to submit evaluations for each show,” said Farmer.

While the magazine was noted for its monthly cover “Playmate,” and accompanying pictorials, the inside pages of the magazine reflected Hefner’s tastes in popular culture and included extended and insightful interviews with artists as varied as the Dorsey Brothers, Dick Gregory and Groucho Marx.

The Playboy Club concept petered out in 1988, a victim, said Farmer, of changing times.

“Disco and Studio 54 came about, people’s taste in entertainment changed and many of the legendary artists that were part of the Clubs died or were no longer performing,” she said.

A lot has been written about the mythic Hefner and his Playboy Empire, but Playboy Swings is about the artists who populated his venues and helped define the brand beyond bunnies.

“Anybody who likes 20th century entertainment history as told by the people who were part of it, will enjoy the book,” she says.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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