Thursday, February 26, 2009

Playboy Mansion Playground

OK, here's the story: first in Chicago, then in Los Angeles, my father worked for Playboy. In Chicago, it seemed like no big deal. Maybe my young age had something to do with it; certainly the Midwestern normalcy of Windy City operations also played a role. In Chicago, Playboy is business; in Los Angeles, it's THE Business (meaning Hollywood entertainment). We moved from Chicago to L.A. in 1979, so that my father could take on the position of Senior Vice President, Office of the Chairman. The Chairman at the time was Hugh M. Hefner; the "office" was his legendary mansion in the Holmby Hills neighborhood (though my dad actually did have an office in the boring-looking building on Sunset Strip, which I think no longer exists in that location). There are many stories-within-the-story, as you might imagine, but most of them are properly my dad's stories to tell and not my own. So, in this blog of firsthand memories, I will stick to my elementary-school view. And now, here's a dilemma: how do I relate any of this without it sounding over-the-top or impossibly spoiled? The name Playboy is so loaded with immediate assumptions, and yet . . . this is precisely what I had to cope with back then. I remember the day in fifth grade that, somehow, the name of my father's employer leaked out. By this time, an age/awareness line had been crossed: Playboy got a reaction among the boys that it never did in earlier years in Chicago (in fact, the "Where does your dad work?" question probably never came up among classmates to begin with, not that young). Actually, thinking back on it, I am surprised that I did not get teased a lot more once the Playboy connection was known. I got off easy. There were the occasional taunts, meant to embarrass me, like, "What is he . . . a pho-to-gra-pher?!" (the word drawn out in some incredibly long, suggestive way). I guess the implication was a kind of parental role-reversal of the classic yo-mamma "ho" jokes that also flew around the schoolyard. As though, if my father had been a photographer, surely he'd also have been sleeping with all the centerfolds. The teasing bothered me, but it wasn't unmanageable, and it just stopped on its own after a while. My consolation prize was that, every so often, I got to accompany my dad to the Playboy mansion and hang out there for a while, generally on a Saturday morning. In case you're wondering about the morality of a ten-year-old girl on such premises, I assure you that in the morning hours, there was nothing anywhere to suggest "pornography," sex, or even nudity, really. (Well, there was the "brass ass" finial knob at the top of the staircase that led to the private chambers, but other than that, nothing I can remember.) You could walk around the property and simply think you were at a luxurious resort, where you were the only guest. The place was generally abandoned (or slumbering) at that time, except for staff. I remember a sunlit kitchen for some reason, and fresh berries. (Or was it a breakfast nook, with the kitchen proper behind doors?) I remember walking around the right side of the mansion to where there were tennis courts set off by a very low stone wall on which a series of red and yellow cushions were placed end to end to create bench-style seating. Continuing along a stone path that went toward the back of the property, you'd come across the infamous "grotto," an open-air pool with water curving into a sculpted rock cave. Inside the cave area, a sign I thought was hilarious: "Welcome to our OOL. Notice there is no P in it. Please keep it that way." Walking around the grounds, I would look for Papa Dog and Mama Dog, two giant English sheepdogs I loved and wished were my own—but they were not the only animals. Behind the mansion was a private zoo. There were peacocks (who caused distress to neighbors who complained of their racket), plus other colorful birds. There were monkeys large and small—the tiny spider monkeys would eat grapes out of your hand. I'd stay with the animals a long time. Eventually, though, I would return to the front of the property and end up in the Game Room, a kind of detached bungalow filled with arcade games you could play at will, for free. Pinball (Playboy theme, of course), foosball, Pac Man. Plus, on a coffee table, a perpetually full dish of M&Ms. I remember meeting "Mr. Hefner" there at least once, where he came to say hello to me and my father before we left. He was alone, dressed not in silk pajamas but in jeans and a denim button-down shirt, wearing a tan cowboy hat and carrying his pipe. And somehow, because it was just the place where my father worked, and because my parents always kept it in that perspective, the whole excessive scene seemed almost banal—almost—stripped of its skin-show glamor, its notorious evening luster (or lust). You can get used to anything, I guess, and at the end of the day, a job is still just a job; Playboy paid the bills, but it didn't own any other part of us.

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