photos/ Jason Chiang
I may as well just say it: I’m infatuated with the Playboy Mansion. Have been since before THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR, definitely before THE HOUSE BUNNY, and long before I even was a proper adult.
I’d like to blame my parents. I wish I could tell you that my freewheeling, late 1970s Laurel Canyon upbringing afforded me Drew Barrymore-esque nights with Hef, my tiny blonde head bobbing to whatever long-haired jam band blasted from the speakers while Bunnies in their signature ears and cuffs passed around silver platters overflowing with freshly-rolled joints.
But no. My parents fled Los Angeles for the comfortable sterility of Orange County when I was two, so I learned about Playboy and the mansion that begat it the old-fashioned way: by sneaking the magazines in gas stations. There was something forbidden and scandalously anti-feminist about the glossy breasts and breathily parted mouths that told me Playboy, and everything associated with it, was something I shouldn’t want to know. Certainly only perverts looked at magazines like this. Not nice people like me and my current obsession, Mr. Bill Cosby. There was no way the lovable patriarch of the Huxtable family filthied his hands with smut like this.
But I couldn’t stop. Around the age of seven, untitillated (ha) by the busty women, I discovered in the back corner of the racks a much more interesting periodical called Playgirl. And stealing peeks of it became my new obsession. My main thoughts were: why did these men walk around wearing rain coats with no clothing on underneath – what were they going to do once they got to their offices? Surely they weren’t planning on wearing those big coats all day? – and then, of course, the more pressing question of what exactly those hose-looking appendages between their legs were. I had to keep vigil over these mysterious magazines, if only to find out.
I was searching for answers one day as my dad turned to pay the gas station attendant. But the transaction went quicker than usual so I, in a fit of older sister genius, forced the black market magazine into my little sister’s hands just in time for my dad to turn around and react. Unfavorably of course. I gave him a knowing, conspiratorial look about the reality that my cherubic sibling was destined for a life of seedy deeds and inevitable back-alley transactions, but he saw right through it and treated us both to an hour-long lecture about “appropriate behavior” and “respecting the human body.” But that was just it. These Playboy kids seemed to not only respect their bodies, but celebrate them.
Why was that bad?
Flash forward a dozen years and I found myself living on the glorious UCLA campus that backs up against Hugh Hefner’s famed Playboy Mansion. Bragging about going to a pool party at the Mansion became the gold standard for beer-soaked frat boys, but my fellow Women’s Literature students and myself scoffed at such obviously misogyny. Who could condone the now-antiquated ritual of bosomy women stuffed into constricting lingerie and wearing the ears of an animal most frequently associated with fuzzy Easter goodness?
But secretly, of course, I was dying to see the fancy, Tudor-style mansion. The carefully manicured lawns teaming with exotic animals and the shimmery blue pool, complete with waterfall and notorious Grotto. Oh the Grotto. Legend of the party spot’s eye-roll-inducing “What Happens in the Grotto” tagline and inevitably disease-filled water had sullied it over the years, but it was still a place of intrigue and infamy.
So when I was offered the chance – along with a gaggle of other journalists- to enter the Mansion’s hallowed gates to cover the announcement of the annual Playboy Jazz Festival lineup, I jumped. “It’s just another assignment,” “I love jazz,” and “I hear there’ll be an open bar,” were all nonchalant excuses I used when questioned about my impending trip to Porno Mecca. Sure, we had to supply numerous forms of ID for the Mansion’s military-style security clearances but really this was just going to be another day at the office. The slutty, clothing-optional office.
On the shuttle to the mansion, the muted chatter from the other journalists rose to a fever pitch as we turned onto the long, winding driveway and drove through the hallowed, ivy-covered gates. All talk stopped as we got our first view of the imposing two-story structure that seemed to stretch back into the vast grounds farther than the eye could see.
Disembarking the bus with my trusty photographer at my side, we made our way through the body cavity search (kidding, but I probably wouldn’t be the first person to be penetrated on the driveway) and down a long tunnel that let us out into the backyard. To the left, a huge white tent had been erected for the press conference. The strains of a saxophone filled the air. Directly in front of us was the sizeable pool and rocky hill that provided the waterfall’s graceful dissent. But the shimmery water of my daydreams was unreflective in the hazy afternoon. The waterfall was a bit more Splash Mountain loud than soothing.
But none of this mattered because straight ahead, through a narrow, darkened doorway, almost hidden in the slate-grey cave that flanked the pool was The Grotto. Glancing furtively at my cohort, we casually separated from the flock of journalists who had spotted the cookie towers on the buffet tables outside the Jazz Fest tent. Trying to appear casual, snapping pictures of the pool and surrounding lawns, we backed our way past a few large security guards in black shirts (sans weapons, I noted) and nimbly ducked into the doorway to my dreams.
It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to their dim surroundings, but my sense of sight may have been delayed since my sense of smell was on overload. The stench of stale chlorine and wet, antiquated fabric assaulted my nose. It smelled like a pirate ship marooned in the belly of a beached whale. I eventually saw we were in a sort of rocky anteroom, a short hallway that had shelves built into the walls. They were stuffed full of threadbare robes and neon-colored towels. On the top shelf sat a wide assortment of crusty sun block and tanning oils, all seemingly purchased in 1987.
Slightly mystified, we made our way into the Grotto itself, which turned out to be two small pools of murky- no other way to describe it- water surrounded with rocky wall outcroppings and green, mattress-type cushions on the ground. What – or whom- had been done on these very mats was not too hard to imagine, given the general darkness and semi-privacy the Grotto offered. It was all in all…disappointing.
The only sounds were my photographer’s and my breathing, and an echoing drip from ceiling water trickling onto the damp tiles at our feet. A lone beach ball slowly floated past. The whole place was so much smaller, dirtier and more tired than I had imagined for all these years. I tried to picture laughing 1960’s babes flirting with gold chain wearing Kings of Industry, but could only hear the empty silence of a past long gone.
Until Bill Cosby spoke.
“Alright, alright everybody! We’re gonna get this thing started so everybody just sit down – that’s right, you people at the bar! Get that booze and get up here!”
What was happening? Why could I hear my childhood hero’s voice bouncing off the questionable water, seemingly from a speaker in the Jazz Festival tent? We rushed out of the Grotto and were almost blinded by the hot, bright sun and flock of reporters heeding the instructions to take their seats.
I burst into the tent and was greeted with the amazing, if not totally confusing sight of him. Bill Cosby. Wearing maroon sweatpants and a faded grey sweater with the words “Hello Friends!” on it, standing under a Playboy Jazz Fest banner hanging above a small stage. Mouth agape, I took a seat as Mr. Huxtable approached the Playboy bunny adorned podium (did Hefner personalize everything? Even the chilled water bottles at the bar had the Playboy logo on them) and started waxing poetic about the wily wonders of jazz. What?
My brain had exploded moments before so it took me a while to hear the two reporters behind me whispering about The Cosby hosting this event every year since he was such a jazz buff. For the next hour and a half I sat, dazzled, as Bill introduced and riffed with almost every performer, flirted with drum wizardess Sheila E. (another 1980s hero of mine), and micromanaged the high school jazz band set up next to the stage. I mean, it was surreal. Bill Cosby. Live. In the flesh. Telling us stories about his wife and mother-in-law accidentally getting high during the Playboy Jazz Fest of ’88. I mean, it was just…it was awesome.
The event ultimately wrapped up, but not before I managed a handshake with Mr. Cosby. I almost died. Then I boarded the bus taking us back to the “real world,” still in awe at the day’s events. As we drove out the gates and away from the intrigue, the faded dreams, and the glory days long past I realized something: only at the Playboy Mansion could you lose one childhood dream and achieve another in the same afternoon.
Maybe the old place still has a little of that magic after all.