The empire of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who died Wednesday at 91, once extended to a club at Park Square in Boston, complete with its own cottontail-wearing “Bunnies.”
Playboy of Boston, which opened in 1966, was part of a chain of nightclubs — or “hutches” — that operated in cities across the country. The Boston franchise featured a Playmate Bar, where businessmen could unwind with their cocktails, and a penthouse that offered live entertainment.
And then there were the Bunnies.
The young women, wearing bunny ears, bowties, and custom-made costumes with cottontails, sashayed around the club in 3-inch heels, carrying trays of cocktails. Most patrons were men, but occasionally women visited, too.
Joy Tarbell, who worked as a Bunny at the Boston club and then on Hefner’s Playboy jet, kept in touch with Hefner over the years. They exchanged Christmas cards and she and her husband visited him at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles in 2011.
“Working for Hef for six years was a trip . . . so many parties and famous people,” she said. “Yet he helped me realize that I could do anything I wanted.”
Tarbell said she had fond memories of her experience at Playboy of Boston.
“It was a great group of girls,” Tarbell said. “It was great. Sort of like family in a way.”
The women were supervised by a Bunny Mother, who had to make sure they always looked their best (she’d even ask them to step on a scale to check their weight). Tarbell said her Bunny Mother really cared about the waitstaff.
“She took a personal interest in the girls,” Tarbell said.
Each Playboy Club charged an annual membership fee. Patrons could purchase a “Playboy key” for $25 that gained them admission to the club and Playboy Clubs in other cities.
A 1967 advertisement for Boston’s Playboy Club promised each customer VIP treatment: “When you present your gleaming gold, black and white credit key to the Door Bunny (she may be a Playmate from the gatefold of Playboy) she will place your name on the lobby board. Closed-circuit TV then telecasts your arrival to friends throughout our many fun-filled rooms.”
Two years later, Playboy of Boston made headlines after two of the club’s managers were shot to death in the club during a holdup in July 1969. Hefner offered a $10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the individual who committed the crime. (Michael Ware, 25, of Georgia was arrested and later convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the double murder).
Playboy of Boston made news again in March 1970, when members of the Women’s Liberation Movement staged a demonstration in front of the club. At one point the protesters asked to go inside and speak to some of the bunnies. The club’s assistant manager, Frank Bellucio, smiled and said no, he didn’t think that would be a good idea. Then they asked if some of the bunnies could come outside and talk. “No,” Bellucio said. “I think you’d agree with me that they’re not exactly dressed for the occasion.”
After a year of working at the Boston’s Playboy club, Tarbell was picked for a coveted gig working on Hefner’s DC-9 jet known as the “Big Bunny.” She became a Jet Bunny and moved into a “bunny dorm” in a wing of the original Playboy Mansion in Chicago.
Tarbell said Hefner was respectful and “brilliant,” and she enjoyed her time working for him. She recalled how Hefner always wanted an ice cold Pepsi to be put in his hand as soon as he boarded the plane.
“I got to know him very well,” she said. “He was my boss, and he was also my friend.”
Playboy of Boston closed its doors in 1977. The building was eventually demolished to make way for new development. The posh Four Seasons hotel now occupies the spot where the club once stood.
Tarbell left Playboy in 1976. She got her real estate license and bought her first investment property that same year —“back when banks frowned upon single women getting a mortgage,” she said.
“Hef always said the American Dream is related to personal freedom, economic freedom, and political freedom,” she said.
“Hef was an amazing person.”Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.