Playboy After Dark

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner shares his love for classic films with dozens of friends (and his three girlfriends) in his private screening room at the Playboy Mansion.

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SEVERAL EVENINGS A week, Hugh Hefner sets aside a couple of hours to spend with his three girlfriends in a darkened room in a back corner of the Playboy Mansion. But it's not for what you think.

Hefner, 78, is a lifelong cinephile whose love for movies rivals his love for women, and he indulges this celluloid passion by hosting numerous screening parties at the manse, gathering two to three dozen friends and associates (and his girlfriends, natch) to watch everything from the earliest silents to the latest Harry Potter. The lineup: classic features on Fridays, silents and shorts on Saturdays, current releases on Sundays and, on guys-only Monday nights, old B-movies and serials.

Far from the swarming, paparazzi-plastered, wild-and-crazy blowout parties of the mansion's repute (although the grounds still play host to plenty of those), these are surprisingly intimate gatherings of Hefner's comrades in movie love--a genial mix of old-time Hollywood stars, film experts and Playmates, both former and current.

On this particular Friday eve, the Casablanca Club--as it's been dubbed after Hefner's favorite film--is palpably excited about the night's selection, 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, as they enjoy a delectable pre-movie salmon dinner in the dining room with Hefner until, around 7:30-ish, he calls "movie time.' The guests (among tonight's crowd: Karina Lombard of the Showtime series The L Word) excitedly retire to the screening room across the foyer, stopping by the regularly staffed bar for any needed refreshments to go with the plentiful bowls of popcorn and candy at hand.

Hefner's attired in his trademark silk pajamas and, before settling in with his honeys on the lush brown leather couches in the front, gives his customary introductory remarks about the film (prepared with the aid of film historian and frequent screening party guest Richard Bann). Hefner talks of Bonnie and Clyde's initially negative reviews, Warren Beatty's struggles in getting the film made and how director Arthur Penn's previous film, Mickey One (1965), which also starred Beatty, was shot in Hefner's old stomping grounds of Chicago. "That's where I first met Warren," says Hefner. "We discovered that we had a lot in common." This, of course, draws hearty laughter from the crowd.

Mid-afternoon on a different day, Hefner (outfitted again in PJs) speaks enthusiastically about the beginnings of his love affair with the cinema. "I think the two major influences in my life when I was very young were films and family, mom and the movies," he says, reclining on a couch in his study, bookcases brimming with film-related tomes. "Being raised in a very typically Midwestern Methodist home with a lot of repression, not a lot of affection, I think that I escaped into the dreams and fantasies that I saw up there on the silver screen. In that darkened theater, all things were possible."

The young Hefner counted himself a fan of many genres, from Boris Karloff horror flicks to Charlie Chaplin comedies to James Cagney gangster pictures. But, says the man whose iconic magazine promulgated the ladies'-man lifestyle, "the films that probably had the most influence on me were the romantic movies, and the most romantic movies were the musicals. You could say things in the literature of song that could not be expressed in any other way."

He names 1930s 20th Century Fox star Alice Faye as one of his favorites, along with Fred and Ginger and the musicals of Busby Berkeley, with their endless lines of decked-out chorus girls. "And part of it had to do with all those pretty ladies in the scanty costumes," he says with a sly grin, but this is as randy a remark as he'll make when talking about such a cherished and formative part of his adolescence. "Being in a home in which love was not openly expressed through affection, I think that love then became defined for me by romantic love of the sort that you got 'in the movies, as synthetic as that may have been." Here he avowedly paraphrases a line from a later film, Dennis Potter's 1981 Depression-era musical Pennies From Heaven: "My life has been a quest for a world where the words to the songs are true."

The Casablanca Club began in 1992, although Hefner had regularly screened new films at the original Playboy Mansion in Chicago since the early 1960s (starting with The Hustler, which was based on a story that ran in the magazine). The tradition carried over to Los Angeles when Hefner moved to what was originally called Playboy Mansion West, and on the 50th anniversary of Casablanca, Hefner screened for friends a restored print of the classic. It was so enjoyable, the following week he showed The Maltese Falcon, then To Have and Have Not (Bogart's his fave actor), and the Casablanca Club was born. Its longtime members include I Spy's Robert Culp, Get Smarts Don Adams, veteran actor Chuck McCann, band singer Dick Stuart and crooner and former child star Johnny Crawford, all close pals of Hefner's.

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