PLAIN TWP. At 76, Sandi Vitangeli still possesses the kind of good looks that led to her becoming part of a social phenomenon that changed America.
In the 1960s, Vitangeli worked for a time in a Playboy Club in Detroit as a “bunny.”
Following the recent death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, Vitangeli decided to share her experiences.
A Canton native, she graduated from Timken High School in 1959, where she studied cosmetology. After graduation, she became a receptionist for an optometrist.
“In the early 1960s, there weren’t a lot of choices for a young girl,” she said. “The only thing that was interesting to me was airline stewardess.”
But Vitangeli wore glasses — a disqualification in those days.
“I was so disappointed,” she said.
After getting married, Vitangeli and her husband moved to Detroit. One of their new neighbors, a woman who worked as a bunny in the club in Miami, convinced Vitangeli to apply for a job at the new the club opening in Detroit.
“I was vaguely familiar with the magazine. My husband didn’t think they’d hire me; he went along with it ,” she recalled. “To me, it sounded very glamorous.”
But it was also rigorous.
The Bunny Dip
“We had to train for weeks,” Vitangeli recalled, showing her training report and a thick employee handbook known as the “Bunny Bible.”
“You had to learn how to do the ‘Bunny Dip’ and identify the different kinds of liquors. It was very fast-paced,” Vitangeli said. “There was a lot of turnover. It was hard on the body, especially the feet.”
What’s the Bunny Dip? It’s the art of backing up to a customer’s table, dipping your knees, leaning sideways and serving the drinks so you wouldn’t have to bend over from the front.
Vitangeli said every Bunny suit — the iconic one-piece outfit that resembled a strapless swimsuit — was custom-fitted.
“They had a full-time seamstress,” she said. “We ran around so much, it would have been hard to gain weight. She kept them locked up when we weren’t working. The only thing we had to pay for was our shoes and our net stockings.”
Vitganeli still has photographs and her Bunny accessories: Her cotton “tail,” a headband shaped like rabbit ears and a sleeveless sweater she wore during charity appearances.
The Playboy Club wasn’t for cheapskates. At a time when the average drink was 35 cents, the club charged $1.50 for drinks, Vitangeli said. Club policy prohibited Bunnies from dating customers unless they were “key” members — that is, men who paid a $50 membership fee. Key-club visitors paid $25.
Because Vitangeli did so well in her training, she said she was assigned to wait on customers in the “Penthouse,” a section of the club reserved for entertainers and other special guests. She said she met Hefner and his brother, Keith, several times, adding that Hefner was nothing like his image.
“He was quiet and reserved,” she recalled. “I never saw him loud or boisterous or drunk. He was good to people.”
Most customers, she said, were polite and generous tippers.
“We were well-protected,” she said. “It was very luxurious. I never felt uneasy. If a customer had too much to drink, we’d call the manager and they were escorted out. We didn’t have to put up with anything.”
In 1963, feminist Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Bunny and wrote a disparaging report about her experience.
“Work is work,” Vitangeli said. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I never felt belittled or cheap. I think we’ve lost a lot a respect. Men treated us kinder then.”
Women who wanted to patronize the club had to have an escort.
Vitangeli said the Detroit club saw its share of celebrities and entertainers.
“There were comedians. Frank Sinatra came through,” she recalled. “He had a huge group of people with him. There were a lot of gangsters, too. They’d give $100 tips. We liked them. They were polite.”
The first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in February 1960. At its height, 30 Playboy Clubs and casinos operated in the U.S and major cities around the world. The chain folded in 1991, but there are plans to reopen new clubs in New York and Cancun, Mexico.
Ironically, Bunnies themselves couldn’t patronize the club, Vitangeli said.
“We were only allowed in when we were working,” she said.
They were, however, permitted to work at other Playboy Clubs when they visited other cities.
“They encouraged it,” Vitangeli said.
Bunnies, she said, were paid in tips. Only the kitchen workers and managers received salaries.
Eventually, Vitangeli became a Bunny trainer at $15 an hour.
“I earned enough money to buy a used Corvette, and I paid cash for it,” she said proudly.
Vitangeli recalled when her parents came to visit.
“My mom was a little worried about me, but my dad had always been in the bar business. When I told them how much I was making, they were OK,” she recalled with a laugh. “I did not feel exploited whatsoever. It was a glamorous job. Hard work, but glamorous.”
Vitangeli said the beginning of the end came for Playboy Clubs when competitors started featuring topless waitresses.
“We became kind of prim,” she laughed.
Playboy Clubs, she said, had a mandatory retirement age for Bunnies: 28.
“I didn’t think it was big deal,” she said. “When you’re 20, 28 seems far away.”
Vitangeli worked for three years until her husband was offered a new job in Northeast Ohio. Now divorced, they had two children, and one is deceased.
“I’m a private person,” she said. “I don’t brag about (the experience). Some people who read this will be shocked. To tell you the truth, that kind of tickles me.”
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