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Hef's Pad

The Playboy Mansion Isn't What It Used to Be



Here, in a small closet, are the relics rescued when the Playboy Mansion was turned into a dorm: a menu from the 24-hour kitchen that touted such "Bunnie Bounties" as a purple milkshake concocted with grape juice, an assortment of Barbi Benton albums in a box marked "Hefner's Record Collection," and a few decorative plastic rabbit heads.

And that's it. These few items in a closet, which the house manager puckishly labels "The Archives," can't begin to hint at what went on in this Gold Coast manse in the hey day of the watusi, the $20,000 VCR, and Day-Glo hot pants. But what's this? A ruffled blue taffeta gown, sheathed in plastic, hangs on a hook. Is it Barbi's? Or a memento of Bobbie Arnstein, the secretary who committed suicide in this suite? "Actually, it's mine," blushes Sue Haldemann, director of Hefner Hall. "It's a dual-purpose closet."

In 1984, Playboy Enterprises turned the mansion, which is at 1340 N. State Parkway, over to the School of the Art Institute at a sawbuck a year. Before the lease expires next August, Playboy president Christie Hefner has vowed to donate the mansion to the school.

In the meantime, Haldemann's mission has been to ease the 85-year-old Victorian palace into its new role as a residence for 33 art students and a classroom complex that serves 160 students in a given term.

"While there's a great emphasis put on all the notable individuals who were here in the Hefner era, we now are entering a new era of the up-and-coming," Haldemann says. "Twenty years from now, will people talk about the artists who lived in Hefner Hall and influenced each other's work? We'll have to watch."

The up-and-coming are not apt to remember that once the mansion swung to the rhythm of Hefner's hi-fi, or to imagine the previous residents working in satin ears and cotton tails. Beth Krugh, who is studying painting and metals, admits that when she applied for a room at Hefner Hall, "I didn't know anything about the mansion. And I didn't associate Hefner Hall with . . . Hefner." Lenore Manzo of the fashion department adds, "The only thing that ever reminds me of the past is the furniture in the lounges--it brings you back to the 1970s."

In fact the furnishings date from an earlier decade. Back then, the psychedelic love seats and mod scoop chairs were among the milder confections in what Time magazine called a "candy castle." Tom Wolfe frothed that the house was "a fantasy of a potentate's control of the environment" in which the universe revolved around a round bed that was "just paradise." Norman Mailer described a mansion bash as "timeless, spaceless. . .. One was in an ocean liner which traveled at the bottom of the sea, on a spaceship wandering down the galaxy along a night whose duration was a year."

But now, whenever prospective students and their parents tour the mansion, only the patriarchs get the palm sweats. "The dads are looking for any recognizable memento of the Playboy era," Haldemann says. "Often they'll say they recognize a room from a particular photo session in Playboy magazine, or theyll ask, where's the secret passageway, or where's the trapdoor? What about this or that?"

From 1960 to 1971, Hef's Hutch was a gadget wonderland, a state-of-the-art electronic womb. Walls parted at the press of a button, movie screens descended from the ceiling, and Hefner's bed vibrated and spun. Windows were covered with heavy velour drapes, and parties began, as Playboy once put it, in the "whee hours"--or 4 AM.

Now, guests of students are shown the door at 2 AM on weekends and midnight on weeknights. The curtains--in many rooms replaced by black mini-blinds--are open so that natural light can brighten the artists' canvases. Today's mansion looks like what it is--a tasteful dorm in what used to be a stately house. Imagine a bachelor pad remodeled by a mother-in-law, or Graceland made over as a ballet school. As one mansion minion describes it, "It's a very uncolorful place now."

At one time Gold Coast debs mixed in the ballroom with celebs like Frank Sinatra, Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce, Danny Kaye, Don Adams, Martin Luther King, and Bob Hope. Hundreds of hobnobbers came to witness the decadence--the Playmate of the Month doing the frug beneath Picasso's Reclining Nude, Nelson Algren dishing out party quips to a replica of medieval armor. Meanwhile the sound of Hef's 15-foot-long hi-fi boomed Peggy Lee ballads through the high-beamed rooms.

"The ballroom still looks the same, doesn't it?" Marvin Meadors prods, hopefully. Meadors is the only former Playboy Mansion employee on the Hefner Hall staff, and he isn't surprised to see heads shake sadly when he asks the question. Hef liked to poke a button to open the trapdoor during parties, revealing whatever couple was reveling in a secluded grotto on the floor below.

Now when Meadors pokes the button, nothing happens. "It's sealed shut," he says. Across the room, behind a coatrack, is another hidden switch; this one made the wall pivot to expose the secret stairway to Hef 's bedroom. The stairway was replaced with a kitchen for a visiting artist's apartment.

Next we peek into the Red Room, where guests could spend the night and, if so inclined, sleep. During a concert tour, the Rolling Stones clawed the red wallpaper and burned the mattresses. Shel Silverstein hid out there, emerging whenever the bunnies bounced into the ballroom. "He had a sixth sense," Meadors winks. The room, Seminar A now, is painted a pale shade of classroom gray.

"Remember the fireman's pole?" Meadors asks, leading the way downstairs. Of course--from beside the pool, bunnies still dewy from skinny-dipping would slide down the brass pillar and land on a beanbag cushion in the bar that overlooked the depths of the pool. Now a circular scar in the bar's floor shows where the pole has been uprooted. Through the picture window you can see an overstuffed chair squatting at the bottom of the empty pool.

Through another corridor is Hef's one-lane bowling alley, muffled in orange shag carpeting on the walls and ceiling. Because the ball-retrieval system needs repair, the lane (like the underwater bar and the pool) is off-limits to students. A tote board lists scores of frames bowled two decades ago; topping the standings is "Gene" (Siskel). In the middle of the board, where Hef's name used to testify to the host's mediocrity in the slow lane, is a bare space.

Down the corridor is a game room with a pinball machine that depicts Hef and two bunnies. In the center of the room is the pool table. The cue rack on the wall may well provide the perfect metaphor for the Playboy Mansion's current state of emasculation. "Look," says Meadors, lifting a 20-year-old stick out of the rack. "The tips keep shattering, and I keep sawing off a few inches to put on a new tip. Pretty soon these are going to be toothpicks."

Upstairs the student lounge has been furnished with the brown leather couches that used to grace the ballroom. There is a fireplace with lions carved in the stone, and the curtains are pulled back to reveal North State Parkway in front and the parking lot in back. This used to be Hefner's bedroom. Only bare feet trod the white plush, ankle deep, that covered the floor then. The round carousel bed wheeled clockwise or counterclockwise at the poke of a button in the headboard. One twist of the controls carried the occupants to the TV set, the VCR, and the video camera (focused on the bed); another, and the stereo swung into view with its swiveling aluminum globe speakers.

These days, Haldemann points out, many of the students' rooms are equipped with stereos, TVs with remotes, and VCRs. The vibrating, pirouetting bed has been dismantled and packed off to a warehouse.

"When Hefner came to visit on an official tour, the students very discreetly stole away and came up here," says Haldemann. "So by the time he opened the door, they were all seated, waiting for him. He made some joke about all these people showing up in his bedroom. And then he wanted to see the Roman bath, and we had to tell him it was gone."

The Roman bath, where once two dozen bunnies at a time could splash in the herbal undertow, where colored lights played on the water and a soft drizzle fell at the touch of a button, is under concrete. Students stow their Schwinns on top of it. "It was quite a beautiful thing in its day," Meadors muses. "If they ever wanted to use it again, they'd have to do a lot of digging. I think that finding out it was gone was Hefner's biggest surprise; that Roman bath was his pride and joy."

The next room we visit was once stocked with a roulette table, pinball machines, an air hockey game, and a slot-car track. This shrine to boyhood fantasy, now Seminar B, contains eight young women. None is in a bikini or heels. "This is 'advanced knitting,'" explains the instructor; spheres of yarn twitch beneath computer looms. "They're learning to make mittens." In the conference room, where Hefner and his staff used to huddle around a light table to view slides of the women who dreamed of being centerfolds, is a class in feminist studies. Back by Haldemann's office is a soft-drink vending machine. Ironically it offers every major brand except Pepsi, which Hefner drank at the rate of 24 to 36 bottles a day. "The funny thing," says Haldemann, "is that when Hefner came back to visit, we had a couple of bottles of Pepsi here for him. But he brought a can of it with him, and when he left, we found the empty Pepsi can by the front door. So I put it in the drawer of a desk as a souvenir. Later I asked someone I'd just hired if she'd seen the can. 'Oh sure,' she said, 'I threw it out. It's just trash, right?'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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