A Day's Work at the Playboy Mansion

On a trip to Hef's place, I met birds, rabbits, monkeys -- and Bunnies. All in the pursuit of a story about a new charitable foundation

By Chris Palmeri

One of the perks of being a reporter is getting invited to swanky events. I try to use discretion. I don't solicit invitations. If I'm asked, but the event doesn't seem like anything that will be useful for work, I respectfully decline. But when an invite to the Playboy Mansion from a networking group of entrepreneurs comes along, well, a red-blooded American guy can say only one thing: Should I wear pajamas?

My invitation came from a startup called the Karma Foundation, an odd-sounding name for an organization sponsoring a party at the House of Hefner. It turns out that the foundation links up businesspeople as a group to raise money for charities while providing schmoozing opportunities for its members. The foundation's Web site, www.thekarmafoundation.com, quotes from Sartre, Socrates, and Marcus Aurelius. Its inaugural event, held at the Beverly Hills Mansion on Oct. 15, was a benefit for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Everything seemed quite legit.

The crowd waiting with me in a parking lot at the University of California, Los Angeles, for the shuttle bus to Hef's pad didn't disappoint. There were mostly eager, fresh-out-of-business-school-type guys in slacks and dress shirts, plus a number of young women in cocktails dresses, the latter shivering in the autumn chill.


  Playboy (PLA ), now a 52-year-old organization, may seem anachronistic to some. But it's enjoying a bit of a rebound, with a handful of retail stores opening in the U.S. and a TV show on E Network called The Girls Next Door that chronicles life inside the mansion for Hef's three girlfriends. From what I could tell, they weren't at this party. Hef didn't show either, but plenty of bunnies did, at least 20 by my count. At one point the band leader asked them all to get on stage and dance to generic party music (they didn't do the bunny hop).

Serria Tawan, a Chicago native who served as Miss November, 2002, took a small group of us on a tour of the grounds. The main house wasn't open to partygoers. So, we started off in the aviary. The birds were very excited to see us. Actually, it sounded like the lock-up ward in Bedlam. Smelled like it, too.

After that we marched across the main lawn, past the wishing well where Hef, now 79, married his most recent ex, Kimberly Conrad, in 1989. Then it was over to the tennis courts, where Serria told us Hef holds an annual Halloween party with actors who pretend to be statues until they can jump to life and scare the guests.


  Then we came to the game room. Here's where the mansion started to look a little dated. There were a lot of Playboy pinball machines and other memorabilia. It reminded me of the wood-paneled basements I used to hang out in during the 1970s. A replica of a five-dollar bill had Hef's picture on it. Serria told us that as a young Esquire staffer, Hef had asked for a $5 raise. Denied, he left the magazine and started his own. The rest is history.

The tour continued past a small outdoor zoo with rabbits and monkeys. Thoughts of Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch passed through my head. I've never been to Neverland, but a limo driver told me recently that Bubbles, Michael's famous chimp, had to be put in some sort of simian retirement home because monkeys get hostile when they get old. Poor Bubbles.

Our last stop was the Grotto, a cave underneath a faux mountain that sports a handful of hot tubs of varying depth. Again, the '70s came to mind. Sorry, Hef, but it smelled like a YMCA in there. A phone with a rotary dial hung on a wall nearby.


  Right from the start, we were greeted by three statuesque women who served jello shots and posed for pictures wearing nothing but some strategic body paint. Like everyone I met, they seemed absolutely delighted to be there.

Karma was created by two friends, Eric Stotz, president of Omni Identity, a company that makes fingerprint-identification systems, and James E. Pratt, who's finishing a master's degree in taxation at Loyola University Law School. Actually, the business-group networking idea goes way back to Benjamin Franklin, who fostered the very American notion of forming clubs for businesspeople to network, discuss ideas, and do good social works.

Such Karma today will set you back a few Franklins. Memberships begin at $1,200 per year. Sixty people have signed up so far. Stotz and Pratt hope to have two or three events per year. This one certainly seemed like a success with a number of A-list silent auction items generating good prices. A guitar signed by the Rolling Stones, for example, went for $3,000.


  I was a little disappointed that Hef didn't make an appearance. The proxy for Playboy Enterprises says the company bought the 29-room estate for $1.1 million in 1971. It has made $13.8 million in improvements since. Hef paid $1.3 million in rent to Playboy last year, but the overall upkeep cost shareholders $3 million more.

Thank you, Playboy shareholders. Thank you, Karma founders. That was an invite I'm very glad came my way.

Palmeri is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau

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