By Curt Wagner
6:57 AM CDT, September 15, 2011
Smoke wafts over the stage as a sexy chanteuse bursts through a curtain of gold streamers and reaches for the microphone to sing "The Lady Is a Tramp."
"Wait. Can I try that again?" asks the singer, Laura Benanti, who plays Bunny mother Carol-Lynne in NBC's new drama, "The Playboy Club," which films in Chicago and makes its debut at 9 p.m. Monday.
The series tells the tales of Playboy Bunnies, those satin-clad and Bunny-eared women who served drinks and cigarettes to high-rolling guests during the clubs' heydays in the 1960s and 70s. Among its stars are Eddie Cibrian, Amber Heard, Naturi Naughton, Jenna Dewan-Tatum (Channing’s wife), Wes Ramsey and David Krumholtz.
The main attraction at this moment, however, is Tony winner Benanti, and things aren’t going smoothly. Her arm keeps getting caught in the tangle of streamers. After a few practice runs and being primped by the ever-present stylists, she’s tries again. Over the course of several hours, Benanti will lip sync to a recording of herself more than a half-dozen times while cameras film her from the front, the back, with and without the dozens of extras dressed as the club’s Bunnies and patrons.
If it weren’t for the cameras, a visitor could almost believe he’s standing in the first Playboy Club, which Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner opened at 116 E. Walton St. in the 1960. But it’s actually the gorgeous set at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios on the Southwest Side, where the production makes its home.
In just a few months, production designer Scott Murphy oversaw the building of three soundstages in the massive space. The two-story set for the club includes a wood-paneled coat check area and gift shop, a game area with Barcelona chairs, a bumper pool table, a giant case full of LP records and an old stereo hi-fi. Two floating spiral staircases lead to a smaller lounge that overlooks the dining room and stage where Benanti is performing. The magnificent space advertises the lavish sophistication of the clubs, from the Mondrian-style red, blue and yellow color-block room dividers (they match the entrance to the original, real-life club) to the giant chandelier to the back lit bar.
Murphy’s second set is smaller, but no less sumptuous. The Bunny dorm may be littered with nighties and unmade beds, but it’s decorated just the way you’d expect the Playboy mansion to be. Red velvety paper covers the dorm walls, while bathrooms on either end sport wall paper in blue and yellow; one was actually vintage and the other is a knockoff created by Murphy and his team.
Still under construction was the soundstage for what will be the high rise apartment of Nick Dalton, the sexy bachelor with slicked back hair and a dark past played by Cibrian. Every appointment is a stunning relic of the time period. A sectional sofa spreads out over the sunken living room that is surrounded by walls of windows on two sides. Viewers will never know that those windows look out at a curtain backdrop and not the city’s skyline.
“I want the audience to want to live here,” Murphy says. OK, when can I move in?
It’s hard to believe that in May, there weren’t even walls built between the three sets in the vast, open-spaced building that was once part of the Ryerson steel plant. The Starz series “Boss” filmed in the building over the summer. “The Playboy Club,” which uses a crew that’s about 90 percent local, began filming July 26 and is expected to be here through December.
The show’s creator, Chad Hodge, says he couldn’t imagine not shooting the series in Chicago, home of the original club. That makes sense, considering he’s from Highland Park and graduated from Northwestern University. Before beginning his writing career, the 34-year-old worked at Harpo Studios for Oprah Winfrey. He now lives on Walton Street, just a short stroll away from the original Playboy Club.
Approached by Imagine Entertainment with the series concept, Hodge wanted it to be a peek into the lives of Bunnies and patrons at the nightspot. It is not a historical piece, he emphasizes, although we will see historical figures like Mayor Richard J. Daley and musicians such as Lesley Gore and Ike and Tina Turner. And although he has picked Hef’s brain and has done exhaustive research in the Playboy archives, it’s not about Playboy magazine, centerfolds or Hef’s life.
“It’s a big, fun, sexy, sophisticated soap,” he says. “It’s got tons of music and performances. It’s a bunch of sexy characters and love stories and thriller stories—and crime and the mob.”
And Bunnies? “They’re fabulous,” he says. “They’re all strong, real women … deep, rich characters with great stories.”
That’s important to note, considering the controversy that has swirled around the series since it was announced. The NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City has refused to broadcast it. Women’s rights advocate Gloria Steinem has urged a boycott of the show because it is demeaning to women. The Parents Television Council is waging an all-out war to stop the show, claiming it will expose viewers to porn.
Hodge and cast members are taking the hits in stride, saying that the negative reactions are coming from people who haven’t actually seen the show.
“I think people are reacting to Playboy in general … and their preconceived ideas about what Playboy is rather than the show itself,” Hodge says. “It seems like a lot of the controversy is about sort of everything but the show itself.”
Benanti, Naughton and Dewar-Tatum all spent time with former bunnies and researched their experiences by reading such books as “The Bunny Years: The Surprising Inside Story of the Playboy Clubs and the Women Who Worked as Bunnies and Where They Are Now.” Written by author/actress/publisher and former Bunny Kathryn Leigh Scott, the book has testimonials from more than 250 former Bunnies about their time in the clubs. Many dispute the recollections of Steinem, who famously worked at New York’s Playboy Club for a 1963 magazine piece that claimed life as a Bunny wasn’t wonderful.
The actresses say that many of the women they spoke with used their club jobs as springboards to high-powered careers in real estate, business and broadcasting, to name just a few. At time when women didn’t have many options in the workforce, being a Bunny offered them a safe working environment and a chance to make some good coin.
“Everyone’s like, ‘I had a blast,’” says Naughton, who plays Bunny Brenda on the show. “It wasn’t easy all the time, but when you take it all in perspective, they came out so much stronger because they were saying to the world, ‘I’m taking control of my life.’”
Back on set, Benanti has taken control of “The Lady Is a Tramp,” nailing the performance for the final time. (“Guess what I’m never going to sing again?” she jokes later.)
“That was great, Laura!” yells director Lesli Linka Glatter, who serves as co-executive producer on “The Playboy Club” and has been a director of another 1960s era show, “Mad Men,” since it began.
During a break, Linka Glatter addresses the controversy swirling around the show by admitting that she wouldn’t have been part of Bunny culture, but she is always interesting in examining unfamiliar worlds.
“I feel like this is a part of our history,” she says. “The fact that we’re in this very glamorous world and women wear Bunny suits; I wouldn’t go dressed in that outfit, but I love the fact that it exists and we get to explore it.”
She explains “The Playboy Club” and another new series set in the 1960s, ABC’s “Pan Am,” are more about the fictional characters and less focused on social issues of the time and how they affect us now, which is what “Mad Men” does.
“I think it’s a rich opportunity in the same way ‘Pan Am’ is dealing with stewardesses. You know, they’re not called stewardesses any more,” she says. “That was a hugely glamorous job at the time and it’s not quite as glamorous any more; it’s changed. Our perception has changed with what’s possible now. But in 1961, working in the Playboy Club or being a stewardess, those were great jobs to have.”
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