Leaving the Hutch | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Leaving the Hutch 

Playboy Moves to New Quarters

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These rosewood elevator doors, hand-carved with sylphlike figures, used to slide open on the 11th floor to reveal a sultry blond curled behind an expansive marble-topped reception desk, the walls behind her lined with poster-size photos of nude women, graciously welcoming you to Playboy magazine's photo department. But last week, on one of Playboy Enterprises' final days in its hutch at Michigan and Walton, the desk and the blond and the nudes and the world they represent were disappearing fast as the room filled with a ceiling-high heap of trash--brown plastic garbage bags, nicked plywood backdrops, fake French windows, bent bamboo bed frames, and boxes bulging with old shoes, towels, ribbons, confetti, and lacy, racy underwear. Playboy was turning itself inside out in preparation for the move over the weekend to its new location at 680 N. Lake Shore Drive.

"The time has come to make a fresh statement," company president and CEO Christie Hefner announced in a press release last year. "We're pointed toward the future, leaving a space designed in the 60s for a space that's being designed for the year 2000."

In other words, good-bye to 14 once-packed but now sparsely occupied floors. Good-bye to pockmarked, marshmallowy curving white plaster walls that looked great 20 years ago decked out with Peter Max posters and photos of Playmates sporting love beads and embroidered headbands. Good-bye to threadbare carpets stitched with fading rabbit heads. Good-bye to the nine-foot-high illuminated sign towering over Lake Shore Drive from a rooftop where bunnies were once rumored to sunbathe in the nude. Good-bye to all that and hello to smaller quarters in the two top floors of Lake Shore Place, the former Furniture Mart, extensively and expensively renovated--all ultramodern steel, slate, and shimmering glass.

It's a bold new beginning, or the end of an era, or one of the stupidest ideas yet to come down from on corporate high. It all depends on who you talk to.

"Nobody gets a window," says one editor, sunlight streaming across her desk through her wide window. "The new building doesn't have any windows. I've worked really hard to get an office with a window, which isn't easy in this company. Now it's 'Did you get an office or a cubicle?'"

"There are seven basic types of workstations identified by letters A through G," a corporate newsletter explains to employees. A and B offices will be occupied by senior executives and group heads. C offices are for corporate vice presidents, D offices go to senior editors, and managers get E offices. F work stations go to administrators. Secretaries and clerks get their own little G work stations."

"The new building looks like the United Airlines terminal," says the editor. "It's not a guess that I'm going to hate it. I know I'm going to hate it."

"I'm too old to make that long walk from Michigan Avenue. I'll have to drive to work," says Pat Papangelis, vice president and editor in chief of Playboy's special editions. Using an electric shredder borrowed from the security department, she is ceremoniously chopping up all the paperwork she's decided to heave, from financial reports to phone messages. "I haven't been to the new building yet. I refuse to go until I have to."

"A lot of women here have waited a lifetime to be able to run across the street to a Bloomie's, and now we're moving," says another editor. "The only thing we'll be near are 'excellent physical and mental health care.'"

"Convenience is a big factor for a lot of people," says a member of the company-wide task force formed to help calm nerves and disseminate information about the move. One project included a 40-page pocket guide to the new area, including restaurants, stores, and CTA routes, "to show that there's some civilization in that neighborhood."

"Big deal that transportation is going to be inconvenient," says publicist Bill Paige."Sure, I love being able to get off at a bus stop right across the street. But 95 percent of the people who work downtown have to deal with some inconvenience in getting to their offices, and so can we. Playboy is moving forward. We're leaving the tomb."

"I'll be glad to get out of here," says Kim Imig, assistant art director for the past year and a half in the promotion art department, which in the past several years has shrunk due to corporate cost cutting from a dozen staffers to just two, Imig and his boss.

Instructed to save artwork and photos from 1986 on and to make judicious selections from materials previous to that, Imig has spent three weeks going through several empty offices' worth of dusty files. Now and then, he heads into the boss's office to inquire about saving particular items. "An old rock group?" his boss says of one photo of an unidentified foursome. "Don't bother. If you don't recognize them, they're either no longer popular or dead."

Most discards Imig simply tosses into a tall trash can, but he carefully slides transparencies of nude and seminude women into large envelopes and seals them with black tape before placing them in the can. "It seems sacrilegious to just throw them away. I want to give them a proper burial."

The creepiest part, Imig says, is going through the personal effects of employees who made hasty departures after summary layoffs. He has found old coffee cups and toys and postcards. "One woman left a half-written letter in her desk, and another left without taking her coat," he says. "It's almost as if they were raptured away. I can't wait to go someplace new with no ghosts."

"I think of it as corporate anorexia: stripping down to a leanness that ultimately may not be healthy," says an editor, barefoot and comfortably stretched across the carpet in a colleague's office. "There's no elbow room in the new place, no area to mingle, talk, brainstorm. The plans were made without consulting us and were based on two models--an accounting firm and Quaker Oats. We are like neither. Half of a magazine happens in the hallways."

Traffic patterns in the new office, the editor says, are designed to be "more efficient." And Christie Hefner's office is right down the hall from editorial, inviting fears that she will start meddling with the magazine editorially. "Christie has set up her tent right in the middle of our playground. It's an architectural statement. We're now part of her zoo."

The new offices will have black desks with black marble tops and black chairs. "The kind of place," says another editor, "where you imagine a lot of neatly typed memos will be written. I hear there's going to be a kind of design police, putting a limit on what you can do in public areas. Clearly, editorial is going to have to put its stamp of individuality on things from the start, even if that means spray painting Christie's office with 'the Latin Kings.'"

"It feels good to be moving," says photo stylist Shelley Wells. "I think it's great to have Christie at the helm."

The photo department has been weeding through "tons" of sets, props, and wardrobes to make way for less spacious new digs. "We saved the good stuff," says Wells. "Platform shoes from 1961, old boas, satin pillows and sheets." Stuff not worth saving but too good to throw out was auctioned off to employees.

"I bought a wonderful stuffed piranha for a dollar," says one woman who attended the auction. "There was an assortment of tacky umbrellas covered with rabbit heads, mosquito netting in an assortment of colors, weird hats. There was spirited bidding on some Spuds MacKenzie Bud Light watches--you know, the kind you get for free as promotions. One woman bought a big satin fabric penis with fluffy hairlike stuff hanging over the balls. I can't imagine what it was like for her to take it home on the bus."

The photo library is packing everything. Tall stacks of brown boxes fill the library and stretch through the nearby hallways. "We have photos of everything the magazine has published since the first issue in December 1953," says associate photo librarian Tim Hawkins. "For every Playmate pictorial, you can bet we have 500 to 1,000 outtakes." Then there are all the shots of bunnies, clubs, mansion parties, and stills from the old television shows Playboy After Dark and Playboy's Penthouse. Hugh Hefner's scrapbook alone--from childhood photos to his recent wedding--fills 438 boxes. "Altogether," says Hawkins, "we have 1,900 boxes, about 11 million photos."

"We're finding all these weird things," says editorial art department staffer Ann Seidl. "I threw out a gallon of nail polish remover and some black and purple nail polish. And then there are things like this note: 'Application of Lip-Prints: Apply lipsticks (preferably deep red) in usual fashion. Lay contract on hard, flat surface. Pucker lips in kissing manner and press in center of heart.'

"We have no idea what some of these things were for."

Staff publicist Elizabeth Norris wears flowery cotton garden gloves as she packs up evidence of her 20-year career. "Why ruin a $20 manicure?" she asks. She painstakingly picks through photos showing her in sisterly embrace with playmates, pretty-pink Playmate of the Year press kits, old memos from ill-fated department heads, celebrity autographs, and a phone message from the Beverly Hills Hilton announcing that "Mr. Hefner called."

"What a wonderful time I've had here!" Norris says. "I've traveled all over the place, met interesting people, and had a lot of fun. I can't stop looking at myself in these old photos. I was so young. I was so thin."

Associate editor Kate Nolan is taking things off her wall-size cork bulletin board. "I've moved to three different offices since working here, and every time, what I have up here changes." Decisions will be made about her Spike Lee autograph, cutouts of newspaper cartoon strips, and artwork done in grammar school by her daughter, now 16. One item, a typed note placed just above eye level near her phone, will definitely come along. "I need it for when free-lancers call to ask what I want for the Playboy After Dark section: 'A chatty section that will doubly serve the reader as entertainment and as an informative guide to culture and nightlife and sex and sports and mindless events of all sorts.' I read it to them, but I try to make it sound conversational."

"This place is filled with nostalgia," says an editor. "Brooke Shields sticking her head into the conference room. Hollywood Henderson looming in the bull pen. Jim McMahon walking down the hallway.

"I've spent half my life here. Who knows that my writing skills might not be directly related to the skyline outside my window? I might not be able to write again."

"We've even established an etiquette on acoustics here. If I crank up my stereo past nine here, the guy next door kicks the wall and I turn it down. The new offices are sterile, devoid of personality. I won't be able to play 'Wild Thing' until my teeth shake."

"A virulent outbreak of nostalgia...is assured by the time the moving vans arrive," noted a journalist in a story about the move last year in the Tribune.

"The saddest thing is the Playboy sign coming down," says one staffer. "It made you feel proud when you saw it from the Drive."

"This place, it's a wonderful building," says an editor. "It's old and tacky and dirty and home."

An art department staffer shows us a wall where someone has taken a gray pencil and drawn a Playboy rabbit head four feet high on a wall. Next time we walk by, we notice that someone else has added two big, red tears sliding down the rabbit's cheek.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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