CINCINNATI -- Wednesday marked the end of an era for Playboy magazine: Its founder, longtime cultural provacateur Hugh Hefner, died at 91 in the Playboy mansion.
Bill Porter of Bond Hill remembers the end of another era at Playboy enterprises: the closing of its members-only club at Seventh and Walnut streets in downtown Cincinnati.
Still spry at 88, Porter was a chef for five years and then executive chef for 14 more at Cincinnati’s Playboy Club. Porter -- a Walnut Hills native and Hughes High School graduate -- helped open new clubs in cities such as Detroit, Atlanta and Miami and helped run 10 kitchens for the Playboy Club at his peak in the 1960s and early 1970s.
He said he remembers the day the Cincinnati club opened to great fanfare in September 1964 as well as the day it closed quietly in September 1983.
What was that last day like?
“The daily routine,” he answered.
When he left the club for the last time, Porter carried off more than the box of printed memorabilia and pieces of Playboy history he keeps in a curio cabinet in his home office.
He left with memories of what he called “the best job I ever had,” fortified all these years later; he hosts occasional staff reunion parties in his home and gets Christmas cards every year from some of the 1,000 Playboy bunnies he met over his 19-year career with the company.
He heard from Hefner, as well.
"On my 80th birthday, I got a card from Mr. Hefner,” Porter said. “I used to see him all the time, especially when we opened new clubs. He was a meatloaf man. He ordered meatloaf with mashed potatoes and peas and told me, ‘From now on, this is what I’ll have.’”
Cincinnati Ballet and Middletown Symphony Orchestra conductor Carmon DeLeone performed at the Cincinnati Playboy Club from 1964 to 1968, playing drums for the Bill Engel Trio in the club’s lounge, one of the club’s four rooms on the top floor of the Executive Building, 35 E. Seventh St.
Cincinnati’s was the 11th club of the 40 the Chicago-based Playboy Enterprises that opened worldwide from 1960 to 1984.
“Cincinnati was a big-league town with top-notch football and baseball teams. Playboy saw that and invested in Cincinnati,” DeLeone said. “The Playboy Club, when it opened, was one of the highest-class clubs in town. Along Walnut Street there was the Penthouse, the Living Room, the Blue Note, all kinds of clubs with live music."
DeLeone is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He abandoned his regular gig at the Playboy Club to become assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, launching a 52-year conducting career.
But he still regards the club job fondly.
“It was a great job for me. I was very pleased to be working there,” he said.
The club was on the Midwest circuit of some of the top entertainment acts of its era. Comedians such as Flip Wilson, the Smothers Brothers, Zero Mostel, Henny Youngman, Redd Foxx, Jay Leno and Gabe Kaplan performed in Cincinnati.
Headliners ran the gamut, from the international star Sammy Davis Jr. and contemporary crooner Mel Torme to African-American jazz artist Carmen McRae, vaudeville actor Don Ameche and actress Florence Henderson, known best as Carol Brady on television’s “The Brady Bunch.”
The club also afforded great opportunities for local jazz musicians such as the Engel Trio, Mary Ellen Tanner and the Dee Felice Band, who benefited from rehearsing with those big-name acts.
Porter, who is friends with DeLeone to this day, said he had little interest in celebrities at the club.
“They’re just people,” he said.
He was at the Playboy Club to cook.
“Our club was one of the top clubs in the organization because we were noted for food,” said Porter, whose kitchen staff numbered 25. “We served the best buffet in the city. We introduced the first salad bar.”
According to a 1981 “Dining Out” column written by Cincinnati Post reporter Dale Stevens, every day Porter’s staff served up to 225 lunches off the menu and 400 buffet meals, which accounted for about 60 percent of its business.
Porter recalls getting phone calls from Chef Georges Haidon of the famed Maisonette French restaurant, which was located a block away from the Playboy Club on Sixth Street.
“He’d ask me, ‘Are you full?’ I’d say ‘Yes.’ And he’d say, ‘Send some of them over here,’” Porter recalled.
Among the club’s regulars, he said, was Ted Gregory, founder of the Montgomery Inn.
“We used to joke all the time that (Gregory) should bring his bed down here,” Porter said.
Porter said he felt honored to run an important kitchen in an era where opportunities like that were scarce for black men. He praised Hefner for his open-mindedness and for giving young women good jobs.
“He was a great man. He was good to me, and he was good to the girls. They made good money, and I got paid well,” Porter said.
Many of the Cincinnati bunnies, he said, went on to be as independent as the Playboy Club’s recruiting brochures promised they could be.
“A lot of them are still around. They’re career women, business women and doctors,” Porter said. “In my 20 years, I knew about 1,000 bunnies. … I keep in touch with a lot of them. We have parties here at the house.”
When disco was the craze in the mid-1970s, Playboy remodeled the Cincinnati club and changed its theme accordingly. Other clubs in hot spots like Mount Adams were drawing big crowds, taking potential customers away from Playboy.
Cincinnati writer and journalism instructor Kathleen Doane remembers having lunch at the club in the late 1970s. “Even when I was young, it was passé to go there at night. We went to Mount Adams.”
But with its location across the street from the Schubert Theater and being in the heart of “a Midwestern city where a lot was happening,” Doane said the Playboy Club was a natural draw for people doing the night club circuit.
That circuit petered out in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, the Cincinnati Playboy Club is just memories, its eighth-floor space occupied by Curiosity Advertising.
“It was a great place for a show, for entertainment, and the meals were very reasonable,” DeLeone said. “It was a notch above the rest of the clubs, but it deteriorated over the years.”
Bill Porter said he's proud of his run with Playboy. He cherishes his keepsakes, especially two brass rabbit heads that used to be on the club’s door knobs and a nylon flag he captured upon the club’s closure. The large flag is orange with a black field out of which pops Playboy Enterprises’ signature image of a white, bow-tied rabbit.
The past was good for Playboy, Porter said, but he would make no comment about the magazine’s future without full-nude photographs in its magazine.
“I never paid attention,” he said.
For him, it was all about the club — and cooking.
Fun facts about the Playboy Club
- A membership key cost $25 in 1983 when the club featured “Night Alive” on Tuesdays, a talent competition hosted by local TV personality Bob Shreve that was a precursor of today’s karaoke.
- Some 1983 prices: entrees were $4.25-$12, snacks were $2.25-$2.50, beer and wine were $1.75 a glass, and cocktails were $2.75. There was a charge of $2.50 to get into the Penthouse, where sirloin and filet mignon steaks were served until 1:30 a.m.
- Bunnies worked eight-hour shifts. They were assisted with their schedules, make-up, hair and costumes by a Bunny Mother, who also interviewed bunny candidates.
- Bunnies had to be between 18 and 25 years old. They had to have a charming personality, cheerful disposition, intelligence and common sense, a pleasant speaking voice and good references to land a job. Applicants were required to list their height, weight, hair color and measurements of bust, waist and hips.
- A late 1960s recruitment brochure boasted that a bunny could make up to $200 a week. Their “brightly colored costumes (bustiers), with rabbit ears and white cottontails, added beauty and glamour” to the club’s ambience, which was “inspired by the pages of Playboy magazine. … When you become a bunny, your world will be fun-filled, pleasant and always exciting while you enjoy a new measure of financial independence.”