The Playboy Club Hotel opened in Lake Geneva in 1968. Not only did it bring celebrities to southeast Wisconsin, but it became a hub for Midwestern travelers and businessmen and, of course, Playboy Bunnies. Author Christina Clancy of Madison has released a novel called, “Shoulder Season,” that takes place at the historic resort, in the nearby town of East Troy, and in Palm Springs.
She tells the story of fictional 19-year-old Sherri Taylor who enters a period of self-discovery while working as a Bunny, and explores how, forty years later, she looks back on the experience, and the tragedy she blames herself for. In this excerpt from the book, Sherri has just begun her job as a Bunny, and she learns that the job — and the resort — are a lot different than she’d imagined.
A few days into training, Sherri understood why Gloria, the Bunny Mother, didn’t want to use the word “waitress” to describe the work the Bunnies had to do. What waitress trained for an entire week, or stayed up late trying to memorize the contents of two huge binders that were bigger than the Old Testament? Memorization was easier for Sherri than for most of the other girls. She was able to take a mental picture of just about anything she saw and store it in her brain, but still she was overwhelmed by all the rules Bunny Starr ticked through. “Don’t let guests see you wear jewelry, chew gum, eat, or sit. You’ll get demerits for having dirt under your nails, if your ears are bent incorrectly, if you don’t keep your locker organized, or if you don’t keep the changing room clean. You need to look at the bulletin board every day for updates and attend Bunny Council meetings. And don’t ever forget to check the ashtrays.”
Bunny Council sounded important. They had their own employee newsletter, called “The Hare’s Head.” Wouldn’t her friend Jeanne be impressed to learn that there was more to Sherri’s job than strutting around in a Bunny suit? Sherri had underlined a line she’d found in the Bunny Manual twice, once for herself, and once for Jeanne: “The Bunny has become what the Ziegfeld girl was to another generation, synonymous with the most glamorous young women in the world.” She was part of a tradition. She was finally part of something.
Sherri even got benefits. She felt like a real adult filling out her forms for accident, life, and health insurance. She had a week’s paid vacation and a free subscription to “Playboy” magazine that she could read two weeks before the subscribers. Guests could practically eat for free with Sherri’s family discount, but this perk only made Sherri sad that she didn’t know anyone who would visit her. Sherri was told she would be welcome at the Playboy Clubs in Chicago and Los Angeles and all over the world. When she heard this, she smiled at Rhonda. “We should go to Chicago.”
“That’s OK,” Rhonda said. “I went there on a school field trip to see the King Tut exhibit. I couldn’t stand all the shadows.”
“From the skyscrapers. The middle of the day in the city feels like the middle of the night. And the El is so loud. I’d be fine if I never went back there again. The loudest thing I hear in Barneveld is a screech owl. That’s enough for me.”
The most important rule, and the one that bothered Sherri the most, was that Bunnies were forbidden from dating not just coworkers, but also keyholders and guests. The women broke out in a collective groan of disappointment when they heard this.
“We’re disappointingly moral here,” Bunny Starr said in a voice that could break up a party. Disappointing was right: Sherri had had a million crushes on the boys at school, and she’d daydreamed about encounters with celebrities like Leif Garrett and Shaun Cassidy. Her notebook was filled with her signature with the last name of whichever boy she liked at the time: Sherri Parker, Sherri Hackbarth, Sherri McBride, all with a heart as the dot for the i in “Sherri.” But, aside from Tommy, she’d had little experience. She didn’t know how to flirt, much less act sexy. She’d hoped to change all that—wasn’t the resort supposed to be the sexiest place on earth? But with all the rules, she felt like the mystique around Playboy was a total lie. Rhonda seemed relieved, while Sherri felt she’d been betrayed. “We may as well have joined a nunnery,” she whispered to Ginger.
“Don’t worry,” Ginger said. “We’ll find a way to have fun.”
SONG: “Megeve” by Henry Mancini