When Philadelphia almost had a Playboy Club

With the death of Hugh Hefner at age 91 on Wednesday, the cultural icon’s Playboy magazine is once again the centerfold of the day.

But back in the 1960s and ‘70s, Philly was abuzz with word that one of Hef’s legendary Playboy Club locations would be coming to town, courtesy of our most visible local bon vivant, the late Harry Jay Katz. Ultimately, it never happened, but Atlantic City got one in the 1980s, so folks were able to ogle some Bunnies locally by 1981.

Failing to open the club hurt for Katz. At the time, he was laser-focused on Philly’s Playboy Club, as he “felt this town he loves needed such a nightspot,” as the Inquirer reported back in 1970.

What was the Playboy Club?

Hefner’s Playboy Club chain was launched in 1960, seven years after Playboy magazine’s debut in 1953. A series of establishments that included bars, dining rooms, clubs, and other hangout spaces, the Playboy Club brand launched more than 40 locations throughout the world before fading away in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Essentially junior versions of Hef’s Playboy Mansion, the clubs featured cocktail waitresses dressed up as Playboy Bunnies, as well as live music and comedy. The Bunny element caused some problems for potential franchisees, like Katz, who insisted that “a Playboy Club isn’t a bordello” in a 1969 Inquirer interview.

Katz became familiar with Hefner on a business level, and sometime in the 1960s, began working with the publisher to open a Playboy Club location. According to a 1969 Inquirer article, Katz initially hoped to open a location in Cleveland, but decided to pursue another city “after spending a week” in Ohio.

He returned to Philadelphia and got permission from Hef to open up shop at the former Stanley Green Restaurant at 215 S. Broad St. Ultimately, however, Katz would never get the club opened.

Playboy problems

According to the paper, Katz had spent roughly $160,000 — that’s about $1 million adjusted for inflation — on the endeavor by July of 1969 and had not “driven a nail yet,” as Katz put it.

Philly’s own playboy, it seems, came up against opposition from high-profile Philadelphians like Mayor James H.J. Tate and then-Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo. Tate said the establishment would have ‘an unfriendly police department around the corner.’”

Adamant that Playboy Clubs were not bordellos, Katz offered to “charter a bus or even play to take the police to see how a Playboy Club operates,” but investigators declined the invitation. By Aug. 1970, Katz claimed to have spent $261,000 (or $1.6 million in today’s dollars) without opening the club.

But it wasn’t just an unfriendly police department who made opening the club an issue. Another culprit? Pennsylvania’s liquor laws.

Back when Katz was trying to open the club, several Inquirer articles cited an arcane rule prohibiting the sale of alcohol on credit — the primary method of alcohol sales at the Playboy Club. According to the paper, Katz subsequently launched a “lengthy legal battle to change the state’s 18th-century liquor laws to allow sale of the sauce on credit.”

Harrisburg approved Bill 1010 in Feb. 1970, thereby allowing credit as a way to purchase alcohol in Pennsylvania’s hotels and restaurants. Many of Philly’s bon vivants considered that a good move, given what Katz had in mind otherwise.

‘Fine, I’ll move to Jersey!’

After several years of opposition in Philly, Katz flat out threatened to move his potential Playboy Club site to South Jersey in 1970 because he didn’t “feel like laying out another 6 months’ rent for something that has been nothing but false hope,” as he told the Inquirer in Jan. 1970.

“I might as well spend my money where they sincerely want me,” Katz said. “I’ve had plenty of support here, but not enough in the right places.”

Camden Mayor Joseph Nardi was in full support of Katz, but the Philly playboy also reportedly was scouting sites in Cherry Hill. In the end, however, he committed to Camden, saying at a press conference that he was “delighted with the reception” he received in the city. As Nardi said at the time, he was “so pleased with the idea of a Playboy Club coming to the city, I already have the scissors to cut the ribbon to open the club.”

However, Katz’s liquor lobbying worked too well, and the passing of Bill 1010 sent Katz back to Philadelphia by March 1970. Revitalized by the change in law, Katz told the Inquirer that month that the club would be open — complete with 65 bunnies — by the time they “return from their vacations.”

Katz also let some details loose about the club at the time, claiming that it would be the Playboy Club chain’s fifth largest location. According to the Inquirer, by that time, Katz predicted that renovations would take four months, after which the club would open.

Health problems and a suicide attempt add to the delay

By July 1970, Philly’s Playboy Club had still not opened, leading some to wonder what had happened to Katz. According to Inquirer columnist Tom Fox, Katz “went into an eclipse” due to health issues — he had come down with bronchial pneumonia.

According to Philadelphia magazine, Katz also attempted suicide in 1970 due to pressure over the Playboy Club and a divorce from his wife. Katz reportedly took 83 sleeping pills with a glass while in the back of his limo on the way home from New York. He survived, but only after chauffeur John Wallace got him to an emergency room, where Katz laid in a coma for five days.

“The Playboy thing was a debilitating failure,” he told the magazine in 1997. “I was drinking too much, and I was unhappy about the breakup with my wife.”

Following his hospitalization, Katz boasted that his Playboy Club would be “open before the stadium,” meaning Veteran’s Stadium, which opened in April 1971. Katz’s club didn’t even beat the Vet’s demolition, which came about in March 2004.

The mounting pressure over the Playboy Club’s opening was really tough for Katz, but it seemingly equally hard on publisher Marc Vinson, who counted Katz as client of his public relations business. After repeated setbacks with the Playboy Club, for which Vinson handled press, the publisher ended up in the hospital over alcohol poisoning, according to the Inquirer.

While Vinson was in the hospital, Katz began writing and releasing his own press releases, leading to a feud between the two. Vinson attempted to steal scrapbooks from Katz’s Playboy Club for revenge, but found the locks had been changed, so he settled on another plan for some redemption.

“I am going to stage a demonstration in front of the Playboy Club mausoleum,” Vinson told the Inquirer in 1971. “I am going to turn loose 300 dogs with signs reading, ‘Feed Us, Harry.’”

From the Playboy Club to the Erlanger

With the club still unopened by Aug. 1972, Katz remained steadfast about his intentions, writing in a letter to the Inquirer that “there SHALL be a Playboy Club in Philadelphia. I swear it.”

However, after 1972, mentions of Katz’s Playboy Club in the press dropped off significantly. Instead, Katz focused on other projects including the Cafe Erlanger/Erlanger Theater.

Opened as the Erlanger Theater in 1927, the space housing Katz’s Playboy Club replacement project was once considered one the United States’ most impressive theaters. Katz ultimately would settle on revitalizing it as a nightclub, cafe, and theater venue, which, unlike the Playboy Club, actually came to fruition in 1973.

While Katz couldn’t get the Playboy Club off the ground, he did include elements of the defunct idea in the Erlanger, according to a May 1974 Inquirer article, which called the project a “pretty good imitation” of a Playboy Club, but without the bunnies.

Instead, visitors found “absolutely magnificent creatures” at the venue, dressed in “lovely, sophisticated, sexy costumes designed by students at Moore College of Art,” as Katz told the paper.

By 1975, Katz appeared to have abandoned the Playboy Club idea altogether, telling Mayor Tate that “I pledge there will be no Bunny Club in Philadelphia.” Instead, he pointed Tate toward the Erlanger as evidence that he had “cleaned up the act.”

“Instead of a Bunny Club, next Tuesday (that’s tonight) I’m bringing Jesus Christ (Superstar) to the Erlanger,” Katz wrote in a note to Tate. “I’ve seen the light, Mayor Tate.”

The Erlanger had an initially successful run following Katz’s reopening of the theater and featured acts such as Bette Midler and productions like “Guys and Dolls.” However, Katz was unable to keep the Erlanger afloat, and it was finally demolished in 1978.

The former site of the Erlanger then remained vacant until 2008, when the Murano condominium tower, which currently holds the spot, was constructed.

RIP, Harry Jay

Katz continued his bon vivant lifestyle in Philadelphia throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s and frequently made his way into the press during that time. Katz died at Einstein Medical Center Elkins Park in February of 2016.

“He was dashing, durable, and diplomatic, and for a half-century, he lived in the limelight and spun stories like a spider,” pal Stu Bykofsky wrote of Katz following the playboy’s death. “In the old days, they would have called him a raconteur.”