Playboy of Dallas

 by Paul Heckmann, Executive Director, Memories Inc. A 501c3

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness... if Charles Dickens had been born a century later, he could have been describing the golden age of nightclubs.

And did that ever apply to Dallas nightlife scene. And Playboy of Dallas was at the forefront.

Bunnies, Bunnies, Bunnies!

It was a different era, a time gone by. Cigarette smoke filled the rooms. The beautiful people came out in droves, dressed to the 9s. Seems like every penny of the paycheck went to wardrobe, hair styling, cool shoes, accessories, cologne or perfume. Dallas had recently changed the liquor laws and the club scene was going crazy.

The Playboy club itself was was in a building officially known as Expressway Tower, locally as Cowboy Towers as they were headquartered there, or as the folks that worked there, simply 6116. It was on the corner of Central and Yale, which is now called SMU Boulevard. The 15 story building had been built in 1967 for the purpose of housing several of the Murchison's businesses, specifically the Dallas Cowboys.

However that particular property was not the one first intended to house the Playboy club. More on that later from the first owner and the man responsible for bringing Playboy to Texas, Lenny Licht.

In its heyday, Playboy of Dallas had a reported 50,000 keyholders.

Lenny Licht

the original owner of Playboy.

Paul: Lenny, thanks so much for giving us this interview. Can you tell me about how Playboy of Dallas came to be?

Lenny: The Playboy deal was always interesting to me because it really started out as a bet. We were officing at 2001 Bryan Tower in the mid 1970s. There were about eight or nine of us who would meet up at the top at the 2001 Club. I remember Mike McCullough said, 'We're gonna make you a bet. We bet you $5,000 you can't bring Playboy to Texas'.

Lenny Licht and wife Gina

So what happened was I was accepted to Harvard Law School, but I had to take some undergrad courses first. During that time I spent a lot of time in Boston and that's where I met Christie Hefner and other people from Playboy.

After this challenge from Mike, I decided to talk to the Christie and told her 'you haven't opened a new Playboy Club in 12-14 years, right? How would you like to open one in Texas?'

She replied that they always wanted to open one in Texas but they did FBI investigations and the people that tried to open them didn't passed the FBI tests.

I told her I would pass that test of the FBI so she said to come on up to Chicago and meet everybody. After meeting all of them, they said 'We would like you to have that franchise if you pass all the other requirements...' which of course I did. They ended up selling me the franchise for $25,000, which included everything in the state of Texas."

Paul: Lenny, what was your connection to Joey Cimino?

Lenny: Playboy were the ones that recommended the architect Girard Cuchini, and  Joey Cimino who owned several clubs and restaurants in Boston. We met up in Boston and then we all flew to NY and toured some clubs up there. That's how I got Joey as the Manager of the club in Dallas and how Girard came to design the Dallas Club.

The original building intended for Playboy at 1000 Commerce. Across from the Cabell Building.

Its kind of a funny deal. Do you know where the downtown McDonald's is on Commerce Street? That was where the Playboy club was supposed to be. It used to be the Aaron Brothers Fur and the Dorsey Building. It was a 6 story building that everyone tried to buy but nobody could get the deal done. I was friendly with them. The reason I wanted to buy it, is it is an entire city block. You could make an entire circle around the location which was highly unusual in downtown Dallas. So anyway, I knew the guys that owned it and went ahead and bought it with the idea we were going to put the Playboy Club there.

Then I became friends with Gene from the TEFCON construction company which was owned by the Murchison family. They also owned Expressway Towers. There was a 25,000 sq ft restaurant that had opened a few months earlier that had gone bust, Chateau Madrid. I met with Gene and the guys from Murchison and they said we'll cut you a deal on this restaurant space. So I went ahead and sold the Aaron Brothers building to McDonald's and pretty much doubled my money.

Paul: Now this was your baby from the start, and you invited Joel and Mark in, correct?

Lenny: Yes, that is correct. It was my deal and I needed about a million and a half dollars and I didn't want to put in all the money so I got Mark Robertson involved. Mark was close friends with Joel McQuade. He introduced me to Joel, Joel was in the computer leasing business.

We turned out to be great friends. Every day at 5pm I would be at the backgammon tables at Elan, we always had a table reserve and Joel would meet me there and we would play backgammon until 11 at night and that's pretty much how Playboy came about, Joel put up most of the money.

Paul: Speaking of money, I know you put up $25k for the franchise. What were some of the other costs?

Lenny: It cost about about a million and half dollars to build the club out. If I was gonna do it, I was gonna do it right. I felt like my only competition was the Venetian Room down at the Fairmont Hotel back then for the big name show acts. That was the only place that had the big names like the Platters, the Supremes and so forth. If I was going to have club that drew the big names, it was going to have to be first class from the furniture to the showroom.

I had a half a million dollar a year entertainment budget. People like Mel Torme, Lanie Kazan, Hughes Corporation, Jose Feliciano, Frankie Laine, Della Reese and so many others - I competed with the Venetian Room for the same acts.

Paul: The question everyone wants to know, tell me about Hugh Hefner.

Hugh Hefner at the Dallas club

Lenny: I only met him a couple of times. I met him once in Chicago before we opened up the club, then again when he was in the middle of moving from Chicago out to Los Angeles. The thing that really sticks out in my memory of Hef is that he drank up to twenty-six Diet Pepsi's a day! He had a Diet Pepsi thing, you rarely saw him with one not in his hand. He was really an interesting character.

I really liked him. And he really, really wanted to build a club in Dallas. Dallas had been his next choice of clubs if he had been able to take on another one.

Paul: Tell me about the Bunny Search

Lenny: That was down at the Fairmont Hotel. We had 2,500 applicants and we hired 125 people. That was pretty crazy. Ron Chapman was one of the judges and kept things lively.

Paul: Lenny, skipping forward a year, why did you sell your part of the club?

Lenny Licht: About a year after I was in it, I sold my piece to Joel. He bought me out and I was pretty happy. I came from the oil and gas business and as it turned out the club business just wasn't for me. I wasn't really a club person, I didn't drink. So going to the shows and having dinner was about it for me.

Paul: Wasn't that when the management changes came around?

Lenny: Yes, I think so. I wasn't really involved but I think the Boston crew pretty much left and Joel brought in some other folk.

In retrospect, the crazy thing is, if my my dad hadn't been a lawyer, my brother-in-law hadn't been Dean at the University of Dallas and wrote me the letter of recommendation for Harvard, if I hadn't met Christie Hefner there in Boston doing some undergrad work, hadn't gone to the Playboy Club, if Mike McCullough hadn't bet me $5,000 I couldn't get the Playboy to Dallas - any one of these dominoes would have stopped Playboy from ever coming to Texas.

Expressway Towers 6116 N Central

Jill Bogan Day-Schuler

one of the Bunnies hired during the Bunny Search:

Jill: I was one of the original Bunnies. It was crazy. Even though they hired over a hundred of us, we had to weed out the ones that found out it was hard work.

"Bunny Jill" Jill Bogan Day-Schuler

Paul: So that tells me that you were probably a waitress before.

Jill: Yes, waitress and room service for a hotel, the Flagship Inn in Arlington. I grew up in Hurst when it was a much smaller place, so coming to Dallas was cool. And I also worked at The Old Church.

During the Bunny search, we had to meet with the Bunny mother, then we got a callback for more interviews, either one or two. Next was the catwalk.

I remember going home to bed sick as there were just so many beautiful women there, I was thinking 'oh my god, there is no chance at all'. Just absolutely gorgeous women. Anyway I think I got a call telling me that I had been hired. I went crazy.

Paul: Tell me about your first day

Jill: Well I was one of the last Bunnies on the floor. They had me float the first night. Of course I was petrified, it was kinda intimidating the first time you walked out there. I was nervous to go out in the costume, then I saw the other girls in them and realized it wasn't that big a deal for us. Nobody stared at you like you were all by yourself. You blended in with a bunch of other Bunnies.

I'm sure my experience came in handy working at the Old Church. I already knew how to work hard.

Paul: Tell me about working the front room.

Jill: I remember that disco floor! They had the grooves in them and our heels kept getting caught in the floor.  And the main bar had those really neat stainless steel tops but the corners would snag our pantyhose. We had to wear two pair so when you had to replace them, it got really expensive, very, very quickly.

Paul: And the bunny hutch?

Jill: It was lots of fun, lots of girls, lots of mirrors, lots of glitter all over the floor, Ruby back there talking about all her men. wearing her most expensive Halston, and Kathy Goebel back there stretching, she was probably the first girl I knew that worked out a lot. This was back when women were afraid of working out as they were afraid they would get muscles. We'd go back there and get ready and do last minute touches, put glitter on our shoulders and chests...

Paul: And the Bunny gear.

Dallas Cowboy Tony Dorsett and Bunny Ruby Walker

Jill: Those Bunny uniforms, it was like wearing a corset all night. And those 4" stiletto heels. I remember crying one night because my feet hurt so bad, my calves would be cramping - we would go back in this little room next to the showroom. One of the bus guys would get us a tub full of ice and we'd stick our feet right into them for about 5 minutes before we could go back on the floor.

Paul: Do you remember the Cowboys coming in?

Jill: Oh yea. Their headquarters was still upstairs so they were always around. Tony Dorsett was there all the time. Golden Richards - he was a cutie, Roger Staubach, Randy White, Too Tall Jones and Harvey Martin.

Paul: I don't remember seeing Coach Landry down there.

Jill: Me neither, but lots of the other coaches were, Tex Schramm was there for an event.

Paul: I know you have some great pictures with Journey and the Babys at Playboy. Tell me about that

'Journey' and 'The Babys' at Playboy with Bunny Jill

Jill: Ha! I cant believe that I was close to John Waite in that picture - and I loved The Babys. I think that's what made Journey so mad at me, Neil Schon took a liking to me right away. He didn't like that I liked The Babys more. I remember one of the guys from Journey following me back inside the dressing room! I did end up going out with Neil for a while. It didn't last a long time, he was on to another gig.

But I did go out with Gary Puckett from the Union Gap for a long, long time. He was a really cool California dude and he can still sing really good today. He was really mellow and really taught me a lot about nutrition and health and stuff.

Paul: When did you leave Playboy?

Jill: Oh, I was there to the day they shuttered the doors. From the day they opened until the bitter end.

I made so many friends at Playboy. I really love those gals. Funny how you don't skip a beat when you see them again.

Bunny shoes that were available from the Playboy Gift Shop

 

Tracy Locke Custer

Playboy Bunny

Paul: Welcome Tracy! So glad we have a few minutes to talk. Can you tell me a little bit about your time at Playboy?

Tracy: I was very young, only 19. I didn't realize the magnitude of being a Playboy Bunny until much later in life, even after being chosen for a Playboy centerfold and shooting with Arny Freytag. Back then all that stuff really didn't mean a lot to me.

Paul: How did you first find out about the Playboy Bunny search?

Dallas Playboy Bunnies, sisters Tracy and Terry

Tracy: My sister Terry was already hired. I wasn't part of the original search, I came around about a year afterwards I think. Terry kept trying to get me to come work there, finally I did. Also, as I was so young they didn't put me on the floor. I ran the gift shop and worked the front door checking Keys. I worked the floor a little bit but pretty much stayed up front.

No matter who you were, as soon as you got off the escalator and turned the corner, there I was.

Paul: Who were some of the celebrities you met there?

Tracy: I met Hugh Hefner one night when he came into the club. And of course the Cowboys. Tony Dorsett, Too Tall Jones, Hollywood Henderson and several others. Also Professor Irwin Corey, JP Morgan, Ben Vereen and Frankie Avalon. And Terry dated Ricky Nelson, he was just cute as heck.

Paul: And of course Thomas Henderson's wife Wyetta was a Bunny there.

Tracy: Oh yes, she was so pretty.

I had just met my future husband - and also was working with Playboy Magazine on pictorial to be a Playmate about this time so I didn't get out much with you guys. I spent most of my time with my boyfriend.

I remember that I had to have my mother sign the deal with Playboy for the centerfold shoot as I was only 19, too young to sign for myself. I shot the centerfold with Arny over in a house on the M streets. He had to come to Dallas as I wasn't old enough per Playboy to travel. But then I became pregnant so they released me from the contract, I think that was late 78 or early 79. I had a 4 year contract with them. I remember Vicki Burns was in charge for them back then.

My sister Terry and I went over to a hotel to check out the pictures. I remember talking to Vicki and asking her what my options were since I was pregnant. She said 'we can just let you out of your contract' and I told her that lets just go ahead and do that - which in retrospect was crazy. I wasn't thinking about the money or anything other than the fact I was gonna be a mother. I call her my "million dollar baby"

Paul: So it might have worked out for the best.

Tracy: Oh yes. I might have gone out to Hollywood and gotten into all the craziness out there

Paul: About how long did you stay at Playboy?

Tracy: It was probably about a year. I had a family, a jealous husband and to top it off one of the Managers asked me to come in when I was sick, which I did, then told me I had to stay for a double shift. That was it for me.

It was quite an experience for sure. I was only 19, so I really wish I had been more observant and paid attention to the small things. It really didn't mean a lot to me back then, and I really regret that

Bunny Memorabilia

 

Charley "Chuck" Robert

was one of the first two DJs at Playboy;

Paul: Tell me a bit about your time at Playboy

Charley "Chuck" Roberts

Charley: Going to work for “a Playboy Club” at 21 years old was mind blowing to say the least. As it turned out more so for friends, family and acquaintances than myself. Jeff Stone and I were the first DJs when the club opened. I had been a musician and DJ in nightclubs since I was 16 and I left a DJ job at a hot club that paid more than double what I was offered at Playboy to take the position. OK I’m not fooling anyone - there were the ladies. Past that though, even at 21 I knew that the organization was going to give me training and resume depth that I couldn’t receive anywhere else - and it did.

The 1st year was all very glamorous. Michael Seldon and Mike Roberts (KLIF Radio) made a introduction tape for me that I played each night as the Dance Room opened. Of all the memories that I have from that incredible experience (including a girl that I dated coming in and, upon seeing all the lovely Bunnies, saying “well I guess you’ll be happy here” and I never saw her again) was the Boston influences. This was the Salsoul Disco era (Magic Bird of Fire etc.) and these guys brought in many new musical influences that we had not been exposed to in Dallas. The Rice and Beans Orchestra comes to mind - Tommy LaBella’s favorite. Tommy and Joe dressed to the Nines and had Swagger. For a 21 year old that was something to admire and attempt to mimic. Oh yeah .... and there was the ladies

Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader Debbie Kepley and Playboy DJ Jeff Stone on the Playboy dance floor

Paul Heckmann -  Maitre'D

I came from a small town outside of Waco, went to college in a small town down in deep South Texas and had moved to Dallas the day after our final football game in December of 1976. Moved in with my college roommate Bill Bronstad who was working in Accounting for Sanger Harris.

I had a job selling cars for Ken Grantham at KenRay Ford on Forest Lane. Had to take that job as I didn't have a car, only my Kawaski 750. It as there that I met Gene Cook,  a fellow salesman who is still my best friend to today. More to that story later

The stars started to align for my change of direction. Ken Grantham sold the dealership to Rick Middlekauf who changed the system and commission structure.

Paul Heckmann with one of the Playboy Bunnies

I started looking around to see what was available. I had gone out with a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader about that time who introduced me to her agent, Sarah Norton. So I started doing some modeling and acting gigs but knew that wouldn't pay the bills. There wasn't enough work, I wasn't skinny enough - and my memory was... what was I saying?

My buddy Gene introduced me to Pat Applewhite who simply knew everybody in Dallas. She knew I had been a bouncer in a couple of clubs and took me up to Playboy to meet Joe Cimino.

Mr. Ciminio pretty much hired me on the spot. I went out and rented a tux as that was about all I could afford and started work that evening.

So here's this small town kid, small town college, all of a sudden surrounded by some of the most beautiful women in Texas. Describing it as a kid in a candy store would be an understatement.

There were four areas of the club that the Bunnies worked, the front door/gift shot, the disco/buffet front room,the game room and of course the showroom. I had plenty of energy and muscle so they put me in the front room where the most action was. We also backed up the Bunnies at the front door/gift shop which was more or less in our line of sight.

My first night there I met Joe, the Maitre'D. He had been there since Day One and showed me the ropes. This guy was smooth. I had no clue how to work a crowd to get tips, open a bottle of 1959 Dom Perignon, pour wine correctly or simply be suave and sophisticated. He taught me all of that and more.

Thank goodness I learned fast. Just weeks after I started, Joe quit and all of a sudden this small town kid is running the main room for the Playboy Club. The Playboy Club. I couldn't believe it myself.

Anyway, I ran the room by myself for a bit with other managers coming to help as they could get it to me, I finally talked Gene Cook to come work with me. There are just some folk who you know who are simply on the same wave length as you. That was us, sometimes I feel like we shared the same brain - and we worked the floor the same say. I will let Gene tell you his story in Part 2 of this article.

We had some of the best Management I've worked with. Joe Pergola, Joe Cimino, my boss - Tommy Labella and of course Tony Signori. If you've ever met someone that you quickly know could rip your arm off your body and use it to stir a drink, that was Tony. I still have my arms so I guess we were paisan.

I stayed at Playboy for just over a year. Changes were coming. We all knew it. I knew a few folk from other clubs, reached out to them and took a job at Papagayo's working with a friend, Rod Keishnick.

Playboy Bunnies on the dance floor

Daniel Truden - Service Attendant and Bartender

I was a bartender at Playboy Dallas for over two years. I was friends with Skeeter, the original bar manager. We were from the same town in Pennsylvania before he moved to Boston and went to work for Joe Cimino. He offered me and a couple friends an opportunity to work in Dallas at the club when he was home for Christmas and we were in Dallas within a month.

Daniel Truden and Bunny Debby behind the bar at Playboy

Mostly I remember the Bunnies, bartenders and service attendants that I worked with every day. So many Bunnies. I think there were 80 when I started. A new class had just trained. So many!

Paul: Who were some of the folks you worked with?

Daniel: I remember Danny McGauley, really likable guy who could disco. He worked Living room mainly. Eric Seeb was Showroom manager when I started as a Service attendant, Caesar Vindigni was his assistant. Tommy Labella and Joe Pergola were management also. Joe Cimino was in charge and was real cool with us because we were Skeeters friends.

I also remember Chef Green who was pretty cool once you got to know him and really professional. And then there was Mark in Accounting and also Candice who worked there for a time. Then of course you had Bernice and Lenore, Bunny mother and seamstress.

George was the name of the night watchman for the building who we saw every night. Jim Fritzel worked daytime, he was the food and beverage guy I think, and quite the character. Oh, and OD - Mr. O'Donnell had the showroom job for a while but what he primarily did was book entertainment.

Paul: How long were you Service Attendant before becoming a Bartender?

Daniel: We first worked as Service attendants while we learned drinks. The plan was to become bartenders and then open a new club with the Cimino management in Houston and eventually Hawaii. Of course that didn't work out as the Boston group changed to the Chicago group a few months later but Pete Couvel took Frank (my friend and cousin from Pa) and I into his company as bartenders for the next two years. And what a great two years it was.

A whole bunch of Bunnies! Heading out on one of the many promotional events they worked

 

End of Playboy of Dallas, Part 1

CLICK HERE for Part 2 - More Bunnies! Dallas Cowboy Pro Bowl LB Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, Gene, Rick and Kathy from the"Boogie Machine", the way it ended, the Reunion - and more Bunnies! (you can never have enough Bunnies). 

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6 thoughts on “Playboy – Part 1”

  1. Thank you, Paul, for the delightful walk down memory lane.

    I remember many of the ladies and gentlemen you interviewed.
    It was a unique time for us, for sure. Such great people, too much fun!

    My time with Playboy began as an original bunny. I also worked in the office with Mark Smith in accounting.
    Life was easy, fun was plentiful.

    Thanks again for the memories.
    Bunny Candace

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