Chronicles: Bunny Ears and Cool Jazz
Fifty years ago the Playboy Club opened in the French Quarter.
Bunny of the Year 1963 Janis Rozelle fondly recalls her time at the New Orleans Playboy Club. Duties included dancing the twist with customers.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY JANIS ROZELLE
I used to keep my ‘Bunny of the A former Bunny at the New Orleans Playboy Club, Rozelle is planning the club’s 50th reunion at the Marriott Hotel on Convention Center Boulevard for March 18 and 19. The New Orleans Playboy Club, 727 Iberville St., opened October 13, 1961, and closed permanently in the mid-’70s. Playboy Clubs in Chicago and Miami had opened earlier than the New Orleans location, and the last club closed in Michigan in ’88.
Rozelle was a single mother of two during her time at the Playboy Club, where she earned up to $14,000 a year (“and that was good money at the time,” she says).
Others at the Playboy Club had day jobs.
Bruce Raeburn, now director of special collections at Tulane University’s Howard Tilton Memorial Library, worked as a musician through graduate school, and he was working as a drummer in the downstairs lounge at the Playboy Club in the 1970s.
“When we got the gig the band was put together by a guitar player, John Hidalgo. Reggie Scanlon (later of the Radiators) played bass, Billy McCarthy played piano and the singer was Joan Harmon – she and Lillian Bouttee were the back-up singers that Allen Toussaint was using at Sea-Saint Studios.”
According to Raeburn, the band played six nights a week and was paid union scale. “The high point was Carnival,” he says. “We would mask and go in costume and play.” Sally Cornelsen, also from New Orleans, was a Bunny, and she would help the band with Mardi Gras make-up. “We had feathers and painted faces – it was a Dr. John kind of trip,” he says. “We just played straight through Carnival – did extra shifts, got overtime.”
The downstairs band played some rock (and there was a small dance floor), but the preferred music at Playboy Clubs was modern jazz. In New Orleans, the club was one of the few locations where this type of music could be heard.
New Orleans saxophonist Al Belletto was entertainment director for the local club and music director for the entire chain. In a typical New Orleans way, he got the job through a friend. “I stopped by to see Jimmy Moran and have dinner at his restaurant and he told me the Playboy Club was opening next door. I decided I would talk to them.” Belletto had recorded an album at the Chicago Playboy Club, backing up the Kirby Stone 4 singing group. “Next thing I knew, the entertainment director came down and talked to me and I was hired.”
“My deal with them was that my quartet would play in the club, and when I had national engagements I could take them. I hired the musicians and I trained the directors at eight clubs.” Belletto became an important part of club management. “Many times I would be in Chicago at the headquarters and I would stay at the mansion – Hugh Hefner’s official gathering was at the mansion on Friday nights.”
The New Orleans Playboy Club had begun as a franchise but was purchased back by Playboy. One difficulty was segregation in the South at the time the club opened. The Playboy organization bought back the Miami franchise and was able to integrate the Florida club, but had trouble achieving integration in New Orleans. Belletto, even under those limitations, was able to hire black musicians (including Ellis Marsalis), and ultimately Belletto’s own band at the club was integrated.
Drummer John Vidacovich (who now plays at the Maple Leaf Bar on Thursday nights) was a college student while in Belletto’s band at the Playboy Club. The club had several different music rooms, the downstairs lounge, the Library and, upstairs, the Playhouse – the VIP room.
“The gig was really good.” Vidacovich says. “When I first came to work we’d play a set downstairs, jazz. Then you’d go upstairs for a show.” The show included a jazz singer, a featured act, a comedian and some numbers by the band. “Then you’d have another show.”
While clientele might include local politicians and sports stars, the club employees were interesting on their own.
Bunny Laura Misch started in New Orleans, became a Playboy centerfold, did some acting (a bit part in Mandingo, filmed here) and is now a writer in Denver. Her essay on her time in New Orleans can be found online at salon.com.
Local Bunny Dolores Owens is still in town. Bunny China (CHEE-na) Lee, a member of the family of the late Sheriff Harry Lee, was at the New Orleans Playboy Club and was later married to comedian Mort Sahl. One Bunny rumor turned out to be false: Actress Lauren Hutton did take courses at Tulane University while working here, but – according to Rozelle – Hutton (although later a Bunny in New York) worked at Al Hirt’s Club.
As for Rozelle – will she wear a Bunny outfit to the reunion? Well, she admits, “I’m doing pretty good for my age, but I don’t think I could get in that costume!”
The Gig is Up
Ellis Marsalis still plays every Friday (8 p.m. and 10 p.m.) at Snug Harbor, but he remembers the Playboy Club well. “I did like it. The instrument was good, it was good money at the time, and I had a chance to work out quite a few things in a trio format.” His first gig (six nights a week for several months) was in the early 1960s: “The law didn’t allow us to play with white performers. We played downstairs, and then we backed up black performers that came in.” By his second stint, the law had happily changed.