In this exclusive tell-all, MAGNET’s Mitch Myers goes to the movies with Hugh Hefner, a girl next door, comedy icons, forgotten TV stars—and enjoys one timely cameo.
OK, I think enough time has passed that I can tell you all about my night at the Playboy Mansion. Some of the people who were there that evening are no longer with us, and I doubt that anyone’s reputation will suffer much from this old tale, except for maybe my own.
It was 2004 and a family friend extended the invite, “Any time you’re in Los Angeles please come by—Hef would love to say hello!” My options were Saturday—a big party night at the Mansion—or visiting on Sunday for a more intimate gathering called Movie Night. One thing I knew for sure, I did not want to end up dancing in a conga line while hanging onto somebody else’s caboose following Hef as he boogied to KC & The Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” or any such deal. I chose Movie Night.
Hef had been hosting weekly events at the L.A. Mansion for 30 years at this point, and his Movie Nights had their own special history. A devoted and philanthropic cinephile, he had three different Movie Nights each week. Wednesdays were films picked by Hef and his buddies. Friday nights were for classic movies with Hef doing historical research and detailed introductions. Sundays were set aside for new releases—first run 35mm prints straight from the movie studios before they even hit the theaters. Another thing about Movie Night: It attracted a lot of Hef’s old friends.
Arriving at the Playboy estate in Holmby Hills, just west of Beverly Hills, I first encountered the gated entranceway. On the left was an intercom embedded in a large (fake) rock. I pushed the button, and a voice immediately asked me to identify myself. I told the rock my name and explained that I’d been invited. Then the rock wanted to know what kind of vehicle I was driving, which threw me off for a moment because it was a rental. I wouldn’t say that the rock was rude, just a bit impatient. Finally, the rock opened the automated gate, and I proceeded onward.
There was a narrow, winding drive that led up to the Mansion. The spacious grounds along the way were well-tended with plenty of foliage, marred only by a sign reading “Careful, Bunnies At Play!” or something like that. I carefully drove up the hill, not wanting to make a mistake and spoil the scenery.
It was late afternoon, but I was a little early and everything seemed to be just getting underway. I pulled onto the rounded drive out in front of the main house. “Welcome to the Playboy Mansion, go ahead inside and enjoy your evening,” said the valet as he opened the car door for me, took the vehicle and disappeared around the corner.
Just inside the manse, the impressive foyer had been set up with a bar. There were a few regulars already hanging around—longtime folks who worked with the magazine, older Playmates who’d married into the “family” and the like. Everyone was relaxed, and I was made to feel welcome. I noticed staff in the dining room prepping hot serving trays, and the table looked set to accommodate around 30 people. There was to be a buffet dinner and then, of course, a movie.
Most of the invitees had arrived by the time Hef came down from his ivory tower to greet his guests. When I had a chance, I walked up to identify myself and thanked him for his hospitality. He was quite gracious, and as always, accompanied by one of his lovely girlfriends. It was just a year before reality TV show The Girls Next Door, but I still can’t recall which one of those “girls” was with Hef. She was blonde and pretty, and I’d have to say that I’ve never had anyone look through me quite so completely as she did that night—it was really something.
Things run on schedule at the Mansion, and it was time for dinner. Of course, Hef and his lady were at the head of the table. Seated to their left was veteran television I Spy actor Robert Culp and his people. On Hef’s right was one of the two original male singers from jazz vocal group the Manhattan Transfer. I’m not sure if he was Manhattan or if he was Transfer, but I do seem to recall that he’d arrived in a vintage Rolls-Royce or a vintage Bentley. The thing is, I was told, that if you pull up in either one of those without a chauffeur in L.A., you’re just another guy driving an old car.
At the other end of the table was comedian Mort Sahl sitting with comic actor Jon Lovitz. Apparently Lovitz was bent out of shape because one of the other guests was throwing his old catch phrases at him, which were taken from Saturday Night Live episodes 15 years earlier. Like, “Yeah, that’s the ticket!” Looking back, I realize that I wasted Mort Sahl’s time talking about his rival Lenny Bruce at the Playboy Club in Chicago during the early 1960s instead of asking Mort anything about his own career in comedy.
I do remember I was sitting next to this 80-year-old fellow who was being looked after by a well-dressed woman. This woman wasn’t with him per se; it was more like she was paying thoughtful attention to him but also did her level best to mix with the other guests as well. She wasn’t dressed seductively and wasn’t flirtatious—just earnest, friendly and attentive. She was probably there because it was important to someone that this would not be an evening at the Playboy Mansion with all men. And there were a lot of us.
Anyway, another guy was sitting across the table from me. He kept looking over at the old fellow and then would try whispering something in my direction. “That’s donatoms,” he mouthed surreptitiously. “Huh?” was my response. “That donatoms,” he repeated quietly. I said, “What?” Finally, in a frustrated voice he said, “That’s Don Adams!” Really? Ooops. My bad. Would you believe I was sitting next to Don Adams, famous TV actor and star of ’60s sitcom Get Smart? All this time I could’ve been quizzing him about working with Mel Brooks and Buck Henry and find out who came up with the running gag using “The Cone Of Silence.”
Looking around at Hef’s old friends like Bob Culp, Mort Sahl and Don Adams, one had to appreciate how popular and successful they each had been in their day. They all had made plenty of dough and still lived in the Los Angeles area. It was just another Sunday at the Mansion, and it occurred to me that these men were certainly not schnorrers, but they were still there for the brisket—and maybe the film.
Anyway, it was time for the movie. We were gently herded into the viewing room, which was a little theater space with plenty of comfy seating. There were snacks and popcorn. Hef and his queen presided in back from the top tier, I remember Hef’s brother Keith sitting against one wall sporting this huge Cheshire cat grin. The lights dimmed, and we watched an action comedy starring Matthew Broderick and Alec Baldwin called The Last Shot about an FBI sting operation where they try to snare the mob by pretending to produce a movie, except the screenwriter/director they hire doesn’t know that their operation is a fake.
When the lights came on, I noticed Hef and his lady were gone. As a matter fact, so was everybody else. Culp and Co. had flown the coop, the Manhattan Transfer guy must have been driving himself back to the Valley, Mort Sahl was nowhere to be seen, and Don Adams was most assuredly home in bed already. All that remained was a smattering of industry folks I didn’t know huddled in the dining room, drinking.
I realized immediately that I had to go. The general rule is to never be the last person to leave a party, and it was just about that time. There wasn’t anyone around to convey thanks for the evening, let alone to bid fond farewell. Encouraged by the thought of a timely exit, I strode out the front door to get my car and there’s … nobody. Nothing going on. No attendants. No one at all. And no sign of my car.
I was pretty bewildered, but I didn’t want to go back inside. I figured I’d just walk the grounds until I found someone who could direct me. I wandered tentatively near the back of the kitchen area and saw one guy stooped on a milk crate, but he wasn’t interested in talking. Then, I spied my rental car parked alongside a large stone wall. The keys were in the ignition. I was free to make my getaway.
I drove right back down the way I came in that afternoon, only even more slowly and more carefully because it was totally dark and the road was really narrow. I was eager to leave, but when I got to the bottom of the hill I discovered that I’d gone down the entrance road instead of using their exit. The gate was closed. There was no one there. There was no intercom. The road was too narrow for me to turn around. Backing up the entire way was far too daunting. In desperation, I honked the horn. Silence.
Then, from the other side of the gate, I heard a voice. It was the rock—and the rock was pissed. The rock began scolding me and emphasized in no uncertain terms that I had driven down the wrong way, and it was not at all OK. I was contrite and kept apologizing to the rock. I tried to explain, and I implored the rock to please help me. I was not sure what was happening. The rock seemed unmoved. Suddenly, I heard a click and the gate began to swing open.
I shouted my thanks to the rock but there was no response, and I drove off into the black Hollywood night.