Memories of the Playboy Hotel Casino, Atlantic City

dennis63

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Playboy 1.jpg

The Playboy Hotel Casino as it appeared on a 1981 postcard.
Authors note: On Friday, April 17, 1981, I was a high school senior on Easter break and joined a group of friends on the drive from the Philadelphia area to Atlantic City, hoping to fake our way into a casino. Our group unknowingly arrived on the opening weekend of the Playboy Hotel Casino. This weekend marks an anniversary of that trip. From memory, and a little research, I offer the following. -- dennis63

A visit to the Playboy Hotel Casino, Atlantic City

As the sun set on Good Friday, 1981, the East Coast’s gambling faithful gathered below a new beacon on the Atlantic City skyline – a white rabbit symbolic of the Playboy empire, shining 22 stories above the street against the black glass background of the Playboy Hotel Casino.

In a time far removed from the political correctness of later decades, and not so far removed from the Silly 70s, the rabbit represented wealth and sophistication. Hugh Hefner, the public face of Playboy, built an empire around his magazine, carefully mixing high fashion, first-class fiction and cutting-edge interviews with glamorous models and artsy nude photo layouts. On this April night, Playboy Magazine boasted a monthly circulation of 7 million, with 35 Playboy clubs catering to nearly a million members from Chicago to Osaka. Once decried as pornography by the prim-and-proper society of the 1950s, the magazine had matured with the country. Playboy was now main-stream, fashionable and serious, but always with a wink.

As Hefner and his largely silent Las Vegas partners prepared to open Atlantic City’s seventh casino, there was no question what it would be called. Playboy’s game in Atlantic City would not be blackjack or craps, roulette or even the very-French Chemin de Fer, though it played them all. The game was to sell the exclusive club that was Playboy to a clientele eager for the thrill of the city’s finest casino. The world of Playboy Magazine, created in Hefner’s fantasies and brought to life through the lenses and airbrushes of his photographers, became a real place – a place average people could visit. And they did.

The building itself was a long, thin rectangle stretching along the boardwalk at Florida Avenue. Las Vegas architect Martin Stern, Jr., who built the MGM Grand, crafted Playboy into a black, futuristic tower, with a wide base and a thinner ascent, its top floors jutting outward on the ocean side. The dark glass coating the entire complex glistened with reflected sunlight during the day, and turned an elegant black with nightfall. On the north and south sides, the giant Playboy emblem, black with a white, bow-tied rabbit head, covered the top floors.

South of the main hotel was the Playboy’s massive, five-story theater and 1,000-seat Playboy cabaret, with twin footbridges spanning the courtyard two stories below.

The hotel featured four restaurants. The finest was the Chat Noir. Named for its 19th Century Parisian predecessor, it showcased world-class French cuisine served in a room fit for European royalty. There were three bars, a shopping arcade, and a members-only Playboy Key Club. Above, the 500 guest rooms and six VIP suites were the best in town.

Playboy spent months securing its casino license, and filled the gaming halls with 120 tables, 10 roulette wheels and 1,262 slot machines. It hired hundreds of trained dealers, pit bosses and supervisors, and developed systems to handle the flood of cash that would wash in like the tide. After four days of gambling with play money under the scrutiny by New Jersey’s Casino Control Commission, Playboy was qualified to trade its chips for the real thing. The casino was ready to open to the public.

The setting sun signaled this first weekend evening of play, and the rabbit cast its first wink on the city. Throngs of people streamed through the courtyard below the footbridges, now lit in gold. Eager for their first glimpse of Hefner’s creation, they would find an oasis of opulence and beauty in the center of a still-rough, still-urban Atlantic City. Playboy Enterprises and its partner, Elsinore Corporation, poured and astounding $159 million into its palace on the Jersey shore, the equivalent of more than a half billion dollars today, and it showed.

Playboy Prominade.jpg
IMG_0001 (2).jpg

Two images from Playboy's 1981 article featuring their newest property in Atlantic City. The courtyard at
the main entrance, and David Wynne's sculpture, "The two swimmers." (Credit: Richard Fegley, Playboy.)

The courtyard became a promenade. Fashionably dressed new arrivals walked past a central fountain, where David Wynne’s sculpture The Two Swimmers depicted a man and woman in a swirling underwater pursuit of each other. In the lobby, the low, black ceiling glowed with hundreds of gold lights and opened into the giant atrium, revealing the three-story steel, brass and glass sculpture, Northern Lights, between two long escalators. A bank of elevators, with interior walls of mirrored gold, carried new players on a short ride to the first of three levels of casinos.

There, guests entered warmly lit salons draped in elegant dark colors with every detail meant to convey sophistication and wealth. There were high, paneled ceilings, ornate Persian rugs, and dark walls. The muted bells of the slot machines and the whir of the single-zero roulette wheel filled the air. A four-piece jazz band played riffs from inside “Hef’s” nightclub nearby. In a first for an American casino, massive picture windows provided panoramic views of the ocean.

Though it boasted over 50,000 square feet of gaming space, the building’s thin footprint meshed with Hefner’s plan to feature smaller, richly appointed gaming halls inspired by Europe’s most exclusive clubs. In a break from its Las Vegas cousins, the Playboy was not brimming with movie props to remind guests of a theme. They were brought into the world of the high-roller, and treated like one.

Hostesses clad in pink Playboy bunny costumes, complete with ears and tail, carried drinks to players. “Cigarette Bunnies” strolled through the crowd, while bunnies in black dealt at the tables. It wouldn’t be Playboy without the bunnies, and there were bunnies.

Drawn from the thousands of East Coast women who competed for the costumes, the winners entered the whirlwind finishing school that was “bunny training.” There, they would learn to live the “Bunny Manual,” the corporate rulebook on how to look, act and even stand, like a bunny. Each new bunny was between 18 and 23 years old -- the only qualification officially listed in Playboy’s recruiting ads. The ads always featured the photo of a glamorous bunny in the costume, showing off the other qualifications. Despite the public’s presumptions about the work, bunnies were forbidden to date, or even to mingle, with guests. Casual conversation was taboo, too, unless the bunny was promoting a Playboy product.

IMG_0002 (2).jpg

A roulette croupier in 1981. (Credit: Richard Fegley, Playboy.)

The bunnies were paid a pittance by the casino, and some didn’t bother to pick up their paychecks. They worked for tips, and often earned over $10,000 a year -- considerably more than other women at the time. Bunnies were forbidden to solicit tips, of course. The bunny costume -- a one-piece skin-tight swimsuit with a cotton tail, collar, cuff links and bunny ears -- did its part to ensure there would be tips. Nature did the rest.

As the bunnies moved through the crowd, tuxedo-clad dealers swept away countless $20-, $50- and $100-bills, doling out stacks of the club’s unique casino chips across the purple felt of the gaming tables. With each exchange, new players were offered a confident, “Good luck,” as play began.

No expense was spared, and even the chips were part of the finery. They were designer affairs -- the most expensive of their time -- crafted by casino industry legend Bernard “Bud” Jones. Large metal coins of mirror-polished steel were minted with the company name in its signature typeface, then set inside a composite ring of the chip‘s color -- dictated by New Jersey law. White, red and green chips represented one, five and twenty five dollars. The black $100s and purple $500s were rarer, used more often in the third-floor high-roller rooms. The rabbit was cast into each coin, and the rings, too, had tiny rabbit-shaped “edge spots.” At a hefty 12 grams each, the Playboy’s chips, like everything else at the casino, looked and felt expensive.

Nickel.jpg
Playboy Set 3.jpg

Photos of some Playboy Atlantic City Bud Jones chips, from the
author's own collection.

On this night, many of the casinos famous chips, or "cheques," as they're called in the industry, were in counting rooms, the secure distribution centers where chips were counted and locked into acrylic cases for their guarded trip to the tables. At the tables, players traded in paper money of every variety for stacks of the uniform giant coins. Winning players would carry their chips off to the cashier’s cage, while losing players saw their chips swept quickly off the tables.

When they returned to the counting rooms, at the end of play, black metal lockboxes of cash, collected at the tables, would travel with them. There, chips and cash were meticulously counted and the surplus was added to the casino’s daily “win.” The chips and money would then part ways, never to meet again. Sealed bank bags brimming with cash would travelled secure hallways and elevators under heavy guard to the casino’s massive vault, behind casino offices on the main floor. Their day's journey would end in metal cabinets along one wall of the vault -- cabinets that held the untold fortune that gave the chips their value.

In the secretive world of casino security, even the dealers and croupiers, who adeptly handled a fortune in chips each day, had no inkling of the total number in the building. Together, the tiny, colorful discs are thought to have numbered a quarter million -- a stack 10 times taller than the building itself. Like all casino chips, the Playboy’s chips were an artful illusion, made for easy counting and more secure than paper money, speeding the pace of play. They also helped conceal another secret of the casino industry: players risk, and lose, more with a replacement currency than with real money. And at any given time, the three bustling casino floors at the Playboy held millions of dollars in chips to be won or lost -- but mostly lost -- as they moved from casino to player and back again.

On the casino floors, the first-night gamblers traded the chips for the thrill of the wager. Wealthy businessmen brushed elbows with distracted, bunny-watching college kids. Men with New York accents sat riffling their chips at a blackjack table, while young couples as perfect as the magazine’s images gathered around, helping to create the scene, the illusion, that was this world. Word spread through the casino that Hugh Hefner, the personality behind the empire, was in the building, and would be making an appearance later that night.

In the course of the evening, stacks of chips would rise and vanish as the dealers and croupiers churned out the evening’s profits. In all casinos, the games give a slight edge to the house as players come and go, creating the industry’s only sure bet -- with each passing hour, the casino will be, ever so slightly, ahead.

But the odds were better at the Playboy than at any of the city’s other casinos, and there were winners. In the tradition of all casinos, the skilled and the lucky would push a chip or two forward and announce, “For the dealer,” before they “colored up,” trading their chips for higher values to carry off to the cashier’s cage. The unlucky shrugged away their losses as the cost of an evening out, ever certain that their luck would turn on their next visit.

To the players, the chips were the price of admission to this world, their stake in the surroundings, and their chance at fortune. For them, the evening was a brief, happy diversion. And like all good hosts, the Playboy crew of 3,000 pampered its guests like no other. They shared in the joy of the winners, for paying the winners brought new players to the tables, and another chance to win.

In the end, it was Playboy who took the biggest gamble. In January, 1982, an overzealous Casino Control Commission barred Hefner from the casino offices on thin charges. Elsinore would keep the name, but without Hefner to validate it, the casino would falter. Under Hefner, the casino saw a $9-million profit in 9 months. In 1982, without him and playing against a growing number of casino competitors, it lost more than $10 million.

By 1984, Playboy executives had disentangled their company from the venture. The bunnies were jetting off to clubs in other cities. The giant rabbit would be stripped from the building and Hefner’s former partners would scour every floor, expunge every Playboy symbol and obliterate every trace of the brand. To protect thousands of former Playboy workers who received the club’s signature chips as tips, the Casino Control Commission set aside a special fund from casino gaming tax revenues -- said to be a million dollars -- to pay the face value of any legally owned chip carried out of the casino -- a fund that still exists, largely untouched, today. To protect that fund -- and the value of chips outside the building -- the chips inside were unceremoniously pulled from the casino floors. Without the backing of a casino vault brimming with cash, the chips were deemed worthless and ordered destroyed. Casino executive who once spent fortunes to guard the chips inside their casino home now contracted with a faraway metal shop to destroy them.

In the spring of 1984, the chips were carted to the elevators and muscled through the first-floor supply rooms to a loading dock. There, while two casino accountants watched, they were pushed into the back of an unmarked tractor trailer. The cargo door slammed, casting the chips into darkness, and the truck crept north toward Artic Avenue. Barely four years removed from the glory of that first night, the last remaining tokens of the Playboy empire left Atlantic City on a thousand-mile ride to destruction. No one who was part of that day could know that the chips were to be played once more, in a game far into the future.

Even the building would vanish in a frenzy of wins and losses, of corporate buying and selling that moved faster than a round of Monopoly, the game fashioned after the city’s own streets. Twice sold and three times renamed, the black tower would fall to the wrecking ball in the year 2000. Today, the 14 acre plot at Florida and the Boardwalk is an empty lot.

In the end, Hefner’s oasis proved, like all great fantasies cast on the sand, to be a mirage.
 
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dennis63

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Some of the specific menories of the place were:

  • How quiet it was inside. There was a lot of activity, just not at the high volume you find in a casino thrse days. The slot machine sounds were only the whir of the gears and very muted bells. No other sound effects.
  • How well-dressed everyone was. It was an event! Men in suits, women in evening gowns. My guys were all wearing suits, as we were coming from another event and figured being dressed right would help us get in. (That and the fact that one of my buddies was 6 feet 4 inched tall with a full beard in high school.)
  • The atmosphere. When you sat at the blackjack table, you really felt like you were the center of attention. The dealers were fantastic. The service was top notch. People were gathered around the tables to watch the game, which lots of gamblers consider unlucky these days
  • That bunny! I was standing in a crowded aisle between the tables and someone bumped into me from behind. I turned around and was face to face with one of the most beaitiful women I've ever seen. (Think Reese Witherspoon at about 22 in a tiny bunny costume.) At that time in America, it was, of course, the dream of every healthy American high school boy to meet a Playboy bunny. I think I was extra healthy.

I'm still sad that the place stayed only four years, and not 40.
 
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ekricket

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View attachment 443134
The Playboy Hotel Casino as it appeared on a 1981 postcard.
Authors note: On Friday, April 17, 1981, I was a high school senior on Easter break and joined a group of friends on the drive from the Philadelphia area to Atlantic City, hoping to fake our way into a casino. Our group unknowingly arrived on the opening weekend of the Playboy Hotel Casino. This weekend marks an anniversary of that trip. From memory, and a little research, I offer the following. -- dennis63


...... To protect thousands of former Playboy workers who received the club’s signature chips as tips, the Casino Control Commission set aside a special fund from casino gaming tax revenues -- said to be a million dollars -- to pay the face value of any legally owned chip carried out of the casino -- a fund that still exists, largely untouched, today. To protect that fund -- and the value of chips outside the building -- the chips inside were unceremoniously pulled from the casino floors. Without the backing of a casino vault brimming with cash, the chips were deemed worthless and ordered destroyed. Casino executive who once spent fortunes to guard the chips inside their casino home now contracted with a faraway metal shop to destroy them.
Does this mean these can be redeemed at face value somewhere? Asking for a friend that worked there and collected tips.....

https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-Pl...199114?hash=item3b45a03a8a:g:-ucAAOSwpc1emLzW
 

dennis63

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Does this mean these can be redeemed at face value somewhere? Asking for a friend that worked there and collected tips.....

https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-Pl...199114?hash=item3b45a03a8a:g:-ucAAOSwpc1emLzW
A few months after the dig was discovered, I read that you could still cash a Playboy Atlantic City chip at the office of New Jersey's Casino Control Commission, but you had to sign an affidavit that the chip did not come from the dig and that you received it legally before the casino closed. So they were, in effect, saying "no chips from the dig."

I'm guessing whatever money was earmarked to pay for legit chips received as tips has gone untouched.
 

TeddyBToronto

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Great read! But I have a question. The text of the story indicates that roulette at the Playboy Casino in Atlantic City offered the more bettor-favorable single zero wheel, BUT the photo of a roulette table, credited to Richard Fegley, appears to show a betting field with both single zero and double zero as bet options. Can you clarify this?
 

dennis63

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Great read! But I have a question. The text of the story indicates that roulette at the Playboy Casino in Atlantic City offered the more bettor-favorable single zero wheel, BUT the photo of a roulette table, credited to Richard Fegley, appears to show a betting field with both single zero and double zero as bet options. Can you clarify this?
Great catch. I hadn't noticed this in the past. I really wish I could explain exactly where the photo was taken, but the original article does not say. The photo of the courtyard is certainly the Playboy, Atlantic City, as I recognize it from my visit.

I did not personally play roulette the night I was there, and stayed at the blackjack tables. In the magazine's article about the casino after it opened, it's noted that they had only single-zero wheels. It was said that the "single-zero" wheels were another feature of the European style Hefner was trying to express.

Looking closely at the photo, it may have simply been staged for illustration, as there appear to be quite a few live value chips on the roulette layout, or perhaps taken elsewhere. The timeframe would have been 1981, the year the casino opened, as the photo appeared in a 1981 issue.
 
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redeagle

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what a great post and story. I wish there were more like this about the early days of the classic vegas casinos. it’s always my favorite part of most poker books.
 

TeddyBToronto

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Thanks very much for responding to my question regarding the roulette gaming offered by Playboy in Atlantic City. Your observations and analysis were very interesting and definitely helped me better understand the background behind the photo. Thanks again for taking the time and sharing your knowledge!
 
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