When Hugh Hefner announced back in the early sixties that his Playboy bunnies were coming to London, there were howls of derision from some detractors who prophesied that Britain would never fall for the fluffy-tailed hostesses in the way that America had.
How wrong they were. For much of the late 1960s the Playboy Club London was one of the hottest venues in the most swinging city of the time with regular patrons such as Michael Caine, George Best, Jack Nicholson and Muhammad Ali.
Now, more than 29 years after the original club’s closure following a police raid, the bunnies are returning to London as the Playboy empire begins a newfound love affair with casinos.
Mr Hefner, who even at the age of 88 is still rarely seen without his coterie of pneumatic platinum blondes, announced today that Playboy Entertainment had teamed up with London Clubs International to open a new club in the heart of Mayfair by next spring.
The club, which already has planning permission and will be staffed by a new generation of bunny waitresses and croupiers, will replace LCI’s Rendezvous Casino, one of ten casinos owned by the group in Britain.
The Independent understands that the club’s owners want the venue to become a place that replicates the exclusivity of the original club. They are working on an entry policy which will mean that even the capital’s freebie-hungry phalanx of celebrities will have to apply for membership like everyone else.
“It will be high end, exclusive and discreet,” said a source with knowledge of the plans. “We’re not trying to replicate the 1960s – the club is opening in 2011 after all. It’ll be the best of the 1960s with a modern twist.”
The casino will also hire some of the original London bunnies to teach the new generations some of the signature moves required of Playboy’s hostesses such as the “Bunny Dip”, a way of bending over to serve drinks without spilling out of the trademark bunny corset.
The move represents something of a full circle journey for the Playboy group which began by making millions from gambling, only to abandon casinos in the 1980s in favour of its magazine and video businesses.
Twenty years later those revenue streams dried up significantly thanks to the internet and the group has moved back towards the world of entertainment with renewed vigour.
Four years ago Mr Hefner reopened his first new Playboy themed casino in Las Vegas which until now has remained the only Playboy Club in the world. But the next two years should see a flurry of new casinos in London, Macau, Cancun and Miami.
"When we first opened the Playboy Club in London it was one of my favourite times for the brand,” Mr Hefner said yesterday following the announcement. “I look forward to our return to London and again sharing the notions that are celebrated in the magazine, the concept of good food and drink, pretty girls, and exciting entertainment.”
Rumours that “the Hef’s” empire was planning a London come back have circulated in the media for much of the past decade. But other than one tentative deal which was abandoned in the early stages four years ago there had been little substance to the rumours.
If the group can recapture anything like the style of the original club it would be a remarkable comeback. Britain’s Playboy clubs – there were once offshoots in Portsmouth and Manchester – were overseen by the indomitable Victor Lownes, one of the few Playboy executives who could match Mr Hefner for living the kind of lifestyle the magazine espoused.
He regularly graced the tabloids and gossip columns and often claimed to be Britain’s highest paid executive.
Throughout the late 1970s public opinion began to turn against casinos and Playboy’s clubs began to be investigated by the police. The London club was raided by officers in 1981 but police brought no charges. Nonetheless Playboy decided to get out of the gambling business and sold all its clubs.
In an interview two years ago Lownes reminisced about his time in charge of the London club. “It was a huge success and ran like a dream,” he said. “We had a discotheque in the basement, several restaurants, a VIP room and a casino with roulette and blackjack. The average bunny lasted two years and then married a millionaire.”