Friday, 07 October 2011 11:18
What TV didn't tell you about the real Playboy ClubWritten by Todd Mishler/Walworth County Sunday
A bevy of bunnies lines up outside the entrance to the Playboy Club, which was open in Lake Geneva from early May 1968 through March 1982. Gazette file photo
(Read the story in the e-edition HERE.)
LAKE GENEVA — Everything about it said — and sold — sexy and sophisticated. Membership in the Playboy Club offered keyholders immediate status as people flocked to the Lake Geneva venue, which became the 20th of more than 40 establishments in Hugh Hefner’s swanky kingdom.
The Lake Geneva club welcomed customers for the first time in May 1968, offering a luxurious hotel, the best in live entertainment and fine dining. However, the biggest attraction arguably was the beautiful women dressed in their trademark satin costumes that featured fluffy cottontails, bunny ears and high heels.
But those who worked at the club until it closed in March 1982 knew that bunny business meant no funny business. Customers could be kicked out and employees were fired for breaking strict fraternization rules.
That life wasn’t all glitz and glamour, and it was much different than the world depicted in the NBC series “The Playboy Club,” which aired at 9 p.m. Mondays before being canceled this past week.
The television show was set in 1963 Chicago, the site of the first Playboy club. It starred Eddie Cibrian as a lawyer and keyholder, David Krumholtz as club manager, Laura Benanti as bunny mother and, of course, several bunnies.
Under attack before the mid-September pilot even aired by the Parents Television Council and the anti-pornography group Morality in Media, sluggish early ratings doomed the program.
Former Lake Geneva club employees agreed that what they saw of the show provided much more reality TV than actual reality.
Sandy Farwell was a bunny during most of the club’s 14 years. She then worked at The Abbey for 10 years and has served as a concierge at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa the past 17 years.
She said the new series didn’t give viewers a true or complete picture of what life as a bunny was like.
“It showed that interest in the Playboy Club never dies, but I wish they would have kept it real,” said Farwell, 64, a Madison native who was living in Rockford when she was hired. “When I was at the Lake Geneva club, I’m sure that with 110 girls, that there were love affairs and dating. The rules said bunnies could date the entertainers, but they couldn’t date guests.
“I was one of the few married bunnies, and I couldn’t even sit with my husband unless I got special permission. They should have made it more true to life. But the new series, with the mafia and murder, was just trying to make it interesting.”
Su Guerzon, of McHenry, Ill., was 18 and working in a factory when fate brought her to Lake Geneva in the late 1970s. She gave the program mixed reviews.
“I saw about 20 minutes of one episode, and one of my best friends watched it, and I agree that parts of what they showed it was like to be a bunny were extremely accurate,” Guerzon said. “But for the most part, it was more of a soap opera.”
Jerry Pawlak, 77, of Fontana worked in his native Milwaukee for 13 years before joining the Playboy Club for eight or nine years, starting as the first bartender hired, working up to captain in the VIP room and taking over as maitre d’.
“The bunnies had to go through two or three weeks of training; they had to learn everything, including how to put on makeup, and the club was very strict,” Pawlak said. “Customers couldn’t grab the bunnies, and bunnies couldn’t date any of the customers. Some things in the TV show would never happen, like bunnies dancing with the patrons. They weren’t supposed to touch each other, let alone dance.
“To me, the show, with a murder and everything, made the club look so shabby,” Pawlak added. “It didn’t make the Playboy Club as glorified as I thought it was.”
Make no mistake about it, life at the club required a lot of hard work, and it was a dream come true for many employees.
“I was dating a girl from Chicago, and she told me that they were going to open up a place in Lake Geneva, and I had no idea what the Playboy Club was,” Pawlak said. “It was quite an opportunity to get a job there and work your way up from the ground floor. Eventually, I was involved in arranging the entertainment and reservations for all of the big rooms, so I worked closely with some big-name performers. Each of the rooms had 10 bunnies for food, 10 for cocktails and 10 bus boys, so there was a lot of responsibility.”
Among the giants of the entertainment world he worked with were Bob Hope, George Carlin, Ann-Margret, Sonny and Cher, Peggy Lee, Buddy Rich and Dyan Cannon.
“But it was so exciting and I could hardly wait to get to work every day,” said Pawlak, who pointed out that items on the original VIP menu totaled only $89. “The Playboy Club did it right by having everything on site, from two golf courses, trap shooting, the big-name entertainment and great food.”
Today, Pawlak lives across from The Abbey, where he worked for seven years before retiring about 10 years ago. He spent 40 years in the hospitality business, including stops in Michigan, New York, Texas and Arizona. He said his time in Lake Geneva was a wonderful experience professionally.
“It was a stepping stone and was one of the best jobs I ever had,” said Pawlak, who occasionally teaches classes at the Lake Geneva School of Cooking. “I got to work with everybody from the chefs and figuring out the menus to the VIPs. It definitely was a highlight.”
Meanwhile, bunnies endured a whole different set of circumstances.
Guerzon said the job sometimes became a roller coaster ride emotionally and physically, and many women didn’t last long.
“I always fondly refer to the training as like joining the Army, because it was tons of work and there were a lot of rules,” said Guerzon, who works in the banking industry. “Some of them couldn’t take walking in heels or wearing the costume all day, some just weren’t motivated and some couldn’t remember the drink orders. It was extremely vigorous, so it wasn’t all glamour and glitz.”
Another thing that bunnies had to deal with was the stigma that many customers had — and still have — that the clubs were the same as the Playboy mansion and that bunnies were the same as the magazine centerfolds.
“Yes, some bunnies did get into the magazine, but that was one of the biggest misconceptions,” Guerzon said. “They were completely different. Bunnies and patrons learned real quickly that the club wasn’t a free-for-all. The place had a recording studio and it was close to Alpine Valley, so all kinds of rock stars would be there and liked to party. You had a lot of 18- and 19-year old impressionable girls, and somebody like Tom Petty invites them to a party. They didn’t condone that, and if they got caught, they were done.”
And not everyone was happy when the club opened in Lake Geneva.
“Nobody wanted to have a Playboy Club here, a den of iniquity of sorts,” Farwell said. “But then they saw how classy and beautiful it was and all of the wonderful entertainment, and many people loved it and showed a lot of support after that.
“But as bunnies, we always were fighting that (negative) image,” Farwell added. “Bunnies were basically glorified waitresses, but most people pictured us as Playmates, especially conventioneers.”
Still, Guerzon and Farwell — TV show or not — said they are better people today because of their experiences as bunnies.
“I attribute much of my success to the time I spent at the Playboy Club,” Guerzon said. “It was a fantastic organization in that they had impeccable customer service. They liked consistency and conformed to a strict set of rules. I got to watch a lot of different types of people, and you learn that the choices you make can have massive consequences.
“I was a pretty attractive kid, but I definitely left there with more confidence,” she said. “You learn that good looks and a figure don’t always help you survive and be successful. It definitely can open doors for you, but it won’t keep them open. It has to go much deeper … you need more substance to you, and I know a lot of people and friends who didn’t learn that lesson.”
Farwell said there was far less drama and suspense than one might think, although the entertainment value brought a lot of Hollywood to Walworth County.
“I was 21 and waiting on Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.,” Farwell said. “You got to see parts of the shows and wait on all of those celebrities, so it was a big thrill and neat experience.
“Every now and then I’ll get total déjà vu, just walking up certain staircases or entering one of the rooms. I smile every time I think about it. One would think that a bunch of pretty young women would be so competitive, but the best part to me was the camaraderie and common bond that the bunnies shared.”
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