In 1959, Hugh Hefner was looking for a way to expand his burgeoning Playboy empire. The magazine was wildly successful, but it was still tagged as a socially unacceptable, scatological pariah. In Hefner's mind, this was a mistake. Instead, he wanted his 'girlie rag' to be viewed as a sophisticated compendium of urban thoughts and philosophies. Hoping to clean up his pornographer's profile, and illustrate the ideology behind all those naked gals, Hefner paired up with a local Chicago TV station (the Windy City was rapidly becoming Playboy's business hub) and produced the first classy variety show, Playboy's Penthouse. Instead of the typical vaudeville style review, Hefner hid his entertainment agenda inside a suave, swanky metropolitan party setting. Inviting the famous and the newsworthy to eat, drink and make merry, the occasional "acts" tried to construct their appearances as a mere facet of the festivities. Sadly, sponsors were hard to find, and after a short run, Playboy's Penthouse was off the air.
Fast forward eight years, and suddenly it's the pinnacle of the '60s free love sexual revolution. Playboy seems a tad tame compared to the other erotic material available, and Hefner sensed a chance to retake the airwaves. Now centered in LA (where he would soon move his entire operations), the Editor in Chief of the world's most popular men's magazine helmed Playboy After Dark. Though it only lasted one season (even in syndication, ratings and revenue were hard to come by) it became a kind of cultural icon, a glamorized look at debauchery as a debonair lifestyle. For decades, fans have wondered if and when Hefner and his still solid sexploitation kingdom would ever release these retro rarities to DVD. Well, for Bunny lovers everywhere, the wait is over. Thanks to newcomer Morada Vision, a three disc set of six episodes is finally hitting store shelves, allowing a new generation to see just how corny – and creative – these antiestablishment shows really were.
Consisting of three discs in a fold-up cardboard sleeve, accompanied by a small pamphlet outlining the show's history, we are treated to the following six episodes – two from Playboy's Penthouse and four from Playboy After Dark. Appearing on each installment are the following guests:
October, 1959: Lenny Bruce, Cy Coleman, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat "King" Cole, Rona Jaffe
November 1960: Sammy Davis Jr., The Kirby Stone Four, Teddi King
October 1969: Linda Ronstadt, Joe Cooker, Billy Eckstine, Mort Sahl, Sid Caesar
November 1969: Sonny and Cher, Larry Storch, Vic Damone, Dick Shawn, Canned Heat
December 1969: Ike and Tina Turner Review, Doug Kershaw, Rex Reed, Patty Duke
December 1968: Sammy Davis Jr., The Checkmates, Jerry Lewis, Anthony Newley
Just as there are two "different" versions of the Playboy variety show represented by the episodes on this DVD collection, there are two stylistic philosophies at work in the overall presentation. The first, and the far more interesting, dates back to the Playboy's Penthouse days. The second, and least compelling, arrived shortly thereafter, and is carried over into the After Dark phase. In essence, it's a difference between experimentation and standard entertainment, an attempt to do something new and fresh and a chance to reclaim the spotlight that shows like Laugh-In and performers like Dean Martin blatantly copied. You see, Playboy's Penthouse was all about the ruse. It wanted you to believe that you were attending an actual magazine party, complete with free flowing alcohol, celebrity guests, and a couple of centerfolds, just for good measure. Indeed, the very first installment of Penthouse, offered here on Disc 1, indicates what Hefner envisioned for the series. During the near 90 minute offering, a swinging uptown bachelor pad (actually a set in a Chicago studio) played backdrop to an eclectic mix of musicians (Cy Coleman) singers (Nat "King" Cole, Ella Fitzgerald), authors (Rona Jaffe) and comedians (in this case, the king of controversy, Lenny Bruce). Refusing to play MC, Hefner was host, tricked out in a tuxedo, trademark pipe in hand. Instead of introducing each act and letting them have their say, Hefner would schmooze, circling the set and trying to find "natural" ways of slipping in an interview or getting an artist to perform.
For the most part, it worked, and makes for a fascinating introduction to the show. Perhaps the most compelling presence is Bruce, a national scandal at the time of Penthouse's premiere. Though he had many defenders, including ex-Tonight Show host Steve Allen, Bruce was considered broadcast poison. Hefner brought him on to make a specific point, and instead of preaching to the audience, he let Bruce speak for himself. Indeed the highlight of this entire collection is a chance to see the calm, only occasionally hyped up, comedian, riff his reputation and people's false view of his persona. He is not "sick", by his definition, and doesn't use profanity or sexuality for shock value. It is clear that Bruce envisioned himself as a social commentator, a man who viewed the many hypocrisies in the Eisenhower era of America and wasn't afraid to expose them. While the first episode also features a stellar turn by Ella Fitzgerald and an odd moment by Nat "King" Cole (who arrives, but then quickly disappears), it is Bruce who steals the show. Of equal significance, it is important to note that Hefner was busting some pretty substantial racial taboos at the time. While the country was still seething from enforced segregation, with certain areas still practicing a horrendous "coloreds only" policy, Playboy's Penthouse offered the shocking sight of blacks and whites commingling and interacting together, freely and equally. It may not seem like much now, but back then, this was near cultural blasphemy.
It's too bad then that the show shifted away from the more calm and considered aura of the premiere to a more variety-lite format. By November of 1960 (the fist episode aired in October of '59) Playboy's Penthouse was a showcase for talent, and little else. Gone are the long conversations on the couch, the attention to the "Bunnies" on hand, the unlimited face time for certain performers, and in its place was a well rehearsed collection of acts, with each one putting on what amounted to a nightclub style revue. The November show features the incomparable Sammy Davis Jr., and once he takes the center "living room" stage, he barely stops. He rattles through a collection of standards, runs around the "apartment" exposing its TV tenets (no glass in the windows, for example) and constantly references an 'orchestra' (off screen and unseen) while Hefner and Davis' actual arranger pretend to be playing 'accompaniment' on the hi-fi system. If the pilot episode was a subterfuge well presented, this next installment is more or less mocking that format. Even more disconcerting, the 1968-69 series would dispense with the premise almost entirely. While it still pretended to come 'live from Hefner's swinging bachelor pad', the new version of the show was Laugh-In without the blackouts, or the chicken jokes. Gone was the air of sophistication, and in its place were uncomfortable rock acts attempting to communicate with snobbish old school singers.
The four episodes included from this era are rather hit and miss. While its great to see a foppish Rex Reed reel in his flamboyance for an attempt at considered conversation, a more or less zonked out Patty Duke is a fabulous disaster in the making. The level of comedy and outright humor typically corresponded to who was present in the Penthouse. While Jerry Lewis shifts from serious to silly, only the late great Dick Shawn delivers consistently funny bits. On the downside, Larry Storch milks some uncomfortable racial stereotypes for his big 'how to do impressions and accents' sequence, while Sid Caesar is uncomfortable and uninspired as his "Professor" character. Musically, things turn out much better. Linda Ronstadt and Canned Heat acquit themselves well, as do Billy Eckstine, Joe Cocker, Ike and Tina Turner, and Anthony Newley. Not so engaging are Sonny and Cher (reduced to shtick, even in the late '60s), Vic Damone (lost and alone) and the Checkmates (?). Davis is back again, and even in his love beads and vest ensemble, he is still an old school ham from decades before. You can see his amazing talent just behind his nightclub Rat Pack facade. Indeed, a great deal of the Playboy's Penthouse/After Dark presentation feels like performers acting hip for the sake of a certain marketing viewpoint. No matter what the truth was, Playboy was out to pitch its product, and sans scantily clad (or outright) naked ladies, they only had the articles and the editorial bent to work from. This means the shows suffered from a decided dedication to the magazine's jet setting machismo. For better, and for occasional worse, this is the entertainment angle of the episodes offered here.
Get ready for the angry letters, Morada. Though you'll be hard pressed to convince them otherwise, fans of the DVD domain will cry foul at the less than perfect prints being offered here. The 1.33:1 black and white transfers are rife with old fashioned video noise – lines, flaring, drop-out, ghosting – while the monochrome image goes from detailed to foggy frequently. The color is a little better, if still hampered by issues involving feedback, bleeding and color correction. As rarities, it is hard to complain about the less than impressive visual elements, and there will be many fans (this reviewer included) who really don't mind the defects. But with an Internet full of technical critics, the complaints should be loud and long.
Sadly, the sound side of things is not much better. The Dolby Digital Mono presentation is clean and clear, with very little hiss, but it is also over or under modulated, depending on the act. All the jazzier material from Disc 1 is captured well, while Linda Ronstandt and Sonny and Cher sound equally good. But the recording of Canned Heat is so dissonant you will find yourself adjusting the volume to remove the inherent distortion, and on several occasions, a singer like Damone or Eckstine will quiet their performance to the point where the microphones can't pick it up. With occasional ambient noise masking the conversation, and the party atmosphere overly amped up at times, the sonic situation here is uneven at best. The sad fact may be that there are just too many aural issues to address to even consider an effective remaster.
Perhaps the best technical element here, aside from the ability to access individual songs from each performer (via a menu option), is the 35 minute interview with Hugh Hefner. Insightful and alert, this exuberant 80 year old is more than happy to discuss his designs for Playboy's Penthouse/After Dark and where he thinks the show succeeded and where he feels it was left wanting. Obviously more of an overview than an episode specific discussion, Hefner does mention a few favorites, as well as the reasons behind Lenny Bruce's pilot appearance. Without any other type of editorial context, this is still a wonderful supplement to an intriguing DVD package.
As time capsules, allowing us to look back at an era when contentiousness was controversial, the suggestion of nudity a scandal, and the philosophy of Playboy drove every man's fleeting fancy, this is a priceless DVD presentation. As a look at some stellar performers at the peek of their powers, there is no finer forum. In fact, if you ever wondered why Barbi Benton was considered a sex goddess, or how Lenny Bruce got his madcap marker, or why Sammy Davis, Jr. is considered the ultimate singer and showman, the Playboy After Dark collection will calm those qualms with ease. While some will grouse that this does not feature full "seasons" of the show, and in some cases, misses important moments in the show's history to go for more entertainment oriented fare, this set easily earns a Highly Recommended rating. Though he tried to redefine the TV variety format through his haughty, sophisticated sense of cool, Hugh Hefner actually brought television entertainment out of the dark ages. While he wasn't a mainstream success, the shows that borrowed from his experiment in suave went on to celebrate his legacy. Call him a pioneer or a pornographer, but the world would be substantially different without Hef, his ideals, and his groundbreaking magazine. The Playboy After Dark set illustrates this perfectly.
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