When the Playboy Club in Baltimore opened in 1964, it quickly carved a niche for itself in the city.
Like its counterparts across the nation, the local franchise prided itself on being upscale and professional, former Playboy Bunnies who worked there said.
More than 100 former Bunnies, who worked in clubs internationally from the '60s to the '80s, converged on Baltimore to share stories of the bygone businesses this weekend at their semiannual reunion.
Several who worked in Baltimore's club said its appeal was much the same as the magazine's — they were mysterious and provocative. The franchises tended to crop up in big cities, so Baltimore's getting one "was a status symbol" for the city, especially since Washington, D.C., didn't have one at the time, former Bunny Margaret Rogers said.
"It was considered very sophisticated," Rogers said. She and other former employees rattled off a list of professional athletes and actors who visited the Light Street establishment, including Chuck Norris, Reggie Jackson, Bubba Smith, Paul Blair and Joe Namath.
The women described strict behavioral standards for employees and customers. Fraternization was frowned upon. Touching a Bunny was grounds for a swift ejection from the club. If a Bunny was discovered to be dating a customer or even giving out her phone number, she could be fired. (That didn't quell a few marriages between Bunnies and their male co-workers and managers, they said.)
The women wore makeup, fake eyelashes, high heels and corset-like costumes in various colors with ears and tails. A "Bunny Mom," usually a few years older than the others, was in charge of the costumes and inspected their appearance before they could leave the dressing room to serve tables.
Requiring Bunnies to be at arm's length kept the atmosphere professional, yet tantalizing. The club wasn't a long walk from the strip clubs on The Block — another historic Baltimore institution — but Playboy's entertainment came in the form of musicians and comedians instead of strippers, and men were encouraged to bring dates with them. It was more expensive, too: To enter the club, customers had to buy a $100 membership card.
The job was as demanding as any serving job at a restaurant, the former Bunnies said.
"It was work," said Brenda Reiter. "It was glorified because we were dressed up, but we worked."
Bunnies underwent a week of training, a bunny boot camp of sorts, in which they learned the proper way to place orders and line up liquor shots, among other serving skills.
Chief among them was the "Bunny Dip," which Reiter demonstrated Sunday afternoon. The strapless costumes could be revealing if bunnies bent directly toward customers while serving them, so bunnies stood sideways and "dipped" their shoulders to place drinks and dishes.
For some of them, it paid off. Reiter left her insurance job at 22 to work at the Baltimore Playboy Club, and "made twice the money in half the time."
"But, boy, did my father have a fit," she added with a laugh. Another said she made more money at the club than her husband did at his day job.
Rogers, who followed Reiter at the Baltimore club in 1974, said she sold memberships at the front desk. For each $100 member card, she made $25.
"You could make $100 in a day," she said.
But as quickly as the clubs rose, their popularity declined in the late 1970s, when they fell out of vogue. Baltimore's club closed in 1977.
"They came in at the time of 'Mad Men,'" said Rogers. "When the '70s came along, Bunny ears weren't cute anymore.
"In the last few years, you realized it was part of a cultural phenomenon. When you were doing it, it was just part of life."
Barbara Holstein, Rhoda King and Joyce Morris were among about 60 who worked at the company's resort club in Jamaica. The three sat together at a registration table Sunday, laughing at one another's antics and reminiscing.
"We had a lot of fun," Morris said.
"We lived through an era," said Holstein.