Playboy hops out of Chicago after 60 years

April 24, 2012

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Nearly 60 years after the first issue of Playboy was put together in Hugh Hefner’s Hyde Park kitchen, the enterprise will complete its gradual migration to the Left Coast when it closes its Chicago headquarters at the end of the month. The last of the 170-some remaining Chicago employees will transition to Los Angeles, where Hefner himself moved in the mid-'70s. Though Hef still thinks of the Gold Coast when he remembers Playboy’s golden era.

“It was the beginning of so much for America and for Playboy. And it was all happening right there on the Near North Side. That was my kingdom,” Hefner recently said of Chicago in the 1960s during an interview with Time Out Chicago’s John Slania of Chicago in the 1960s.

At the beginning of 1960, Playboy’s monthly circulation topped one million. The Playboy Club opened its doors at 116 E. Walton Street in February of the same year. And buzzing mere blocks away, the original 72-room Playboy Mansion on North State Parkway stood as the third vertice of the Playboy triumvirate. University of Missouri history professor and author of Hugh Hefner: Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream Steven Watts told Afternoon Shift that he thought that Hef and his cohorts thought of the mansion and club as “bringing the magazine to life.”

For 60 cents—and a little imagination—revelers could experience the Playboy lifestyle. But only keyholders and high rollers had access to the club, the booze and the bunnies. And the door of the mansion featured a brass plate on the front door with the Latin inscription si non oscillas, noli tintinnare, or “If you don’t swing, don’t ring.”

Longtime Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the map of his “emotional geography shifted toward Chicago” the moment he laid eyes on a friend’s father’s collection of Playboys:

“The women we found in those other magazines had no existence apart from their pages. They came into the world full-blown as we saw them, wearing polka-dot bikinis or holding Japanese umbrellas, and after the photo was taken they ceased to exist. They didn't come to work, go home from work, eat, sleep, sneeze, or have any corporeal existence. They were pin-ups. The women in Playboy were real, and lived only 135 miles from Urbana, Illinois, and in some unlikely but thinkable universe I might meet them.”

Ebert vowed to make it to Chicago—and to visit the Mansion—and he did. So did Candace Jordan; only she didn’t visit the mansion, she lived there. In the fall of 1974 she moved into one of the Bunny dormitories found on the upper floors of the Mansion. She began working the door at the Playboy Club and was soon noticed by the magazine’s photographers and designers. A few years later she was a centerfold; and a few months after that, she was on the cover of the February 1980 issue. The shot was a close-up of Candace’s icy blue eyes peering out from under a white fur hat; the image went on to win a national design award. Candace went on to become a society columnist and fabulous staple of Chicago’s posh party scene.

Playboy has left an indelible impression on Chicago and vice versa. Hef recently penned his own goodbye to the city in a column for the Chicago Tribune:

"I like to think the magazine's presence provided the city with an edge, a reminder to the rest of America that the first steps of a sexual revolution took place at a card table at 6052 S. Harper Ave., ran wild in a State Street mansion and grew into a global presence on Michigan Avenue visible to anyone driving down Lake Shore Drive. Together we took those ideals of sexual liberation from Loop newsstands to the farthest edges of the planet. Playboy could not have happened anywhere else but Chicago."

Before the enterprise hopped out of town forever, Professor Watts and Candace Jordan joined Steve Edwards on Afternoon Shift. They were also joined by Carolyn Bronstein, associate professor at DePaul University's College of Communication and author of Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976-1986.