Skip to main content

Playboy and the Civil Rights revolution behind the Hugh Hefner legacy

Written By | Mar 20, 2019

LOS ANGELES, CA: Academy Award winning documentary film director Brigitte Berman’s latest film, Hugh Hefner After Dark: Speaking Out in America, explores in depth the degree to which Hefner’s ground breaking 1959  TV program Playboy’s Penthouse broke race barriers in civil rights and television programming through the use of jazz music, and how Playboy After Dark addressed issues from the First Amendment to the Vietnam War through the rock music revolution of 1968.

Olivia Colman strikes Oscar gold in “The Favourite” (Blu-ray review)

Hugh Hefner After Dark: Speaking Out In America

A sweeping work, Hugh Hefner After Dark is a time capsule on America, revealing just how revolutionary Hefner’s syndicated program, Playboys Penthouse,  was when it first aired in 1959. Its a party at Hefner’s TV Penthouse, and Tony Bennett is there with Count Basie on piano. Lenny Bruce is chatting up Hef. Nat King Cole drops by for a drink and a conversation. Its a who’s who of jazz and show business, without regard to color. Sammy Davis Jr tears up the crowd with an epic performance.

Sarah Vaughan, or Ella Fitgerald, or Ray Charles, or Joe Turner might be there. The startling thing is the manner by which it captures the zeitgeist of swinging Chicago in 1959. Its a relaxed atmosphere because many of the guests are Hefner’s friends and regulars at the nearby original Playboy Mansion.

The number of amazing jazz musicians, many lost to the mists of time, and some of the combinations of musicians in spontaneous performances is exhilarating. As interesting as the musical numbers are, the conversations between Hef and the legendary figures who were his friends and guests are priceless.

Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark: A time capsule of America

Fast forward to 1968. Playboy After Dark is set in LA, Hefner is with Barbie Benton, and the show is again a remarkable time capsule of 1968 America in all its hippie glory and complexity, with Hefner addressing many of the serious issues of the day.

Michael Wadleigh discusses his new film Woodstock. Tommy Smothers talks about censorship on the Smothers Brothers show. Jim Brown addresses racism. Jerry Garcia discusses the post Haight scene. The Grateful Dead perform and the Byrds with Roger McGuinn play a Bob Dylan song.

All of this and more is captured vividly in Berman’s new film, with a particular effort to highlight the egalitarian subversive power of mixed race musical groups and social gatherings on television in 1959.  Hefner was fearless in having black musicians on his show, loving their music, and shamelessly breaking new ground for America in the process.

Michelin starred Zass at the amazing Il San Pietro di Positano

Playboy: A legacy of civil rights…and sexual revolution

The legacy of Playboy on civil rights, the sexual revolution, 1st amendment rights and the empowerment of women is highly overlooked in 2019 by a society that takes for granted the steps Hefner initiated and confronted in the 50s and 60s.  We are all beneficiaries of his courage and willingness to capture and explore the cutting edge of the moment. Its the same energy that made Playboy such a dynamic cultural force in America and the world overall.

Berman makes the distinction of exploring the power of these two landmark series, and focuses on a selection of material that, rather than being the end all synopsis of either or both shows, uses them to make the point of how Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark simply confronted America with the best of its musical artists, across racial boundaries,  and offered a refreshing and challenging exploration of the music and issues of the day.

Documentary Director Brigitte Berman

In 1981 Brigitte Berman directed the quintessential documentary on 1920’s jazz trumpeter  Bix Beiderbecke, which was how she later came to Hef’s attention, who was a huge Beiderbecke fan. She  won an Academy Award in 1985 for her documentary “Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got”

Her 2009 film, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist,  and Rebel, was more a chronicle of Hefner’s life and the history of Playboy as a whole in its struggle on behalf of the first amendment, civil and human rights , and the sexual revolution.

Her latest film grew out of this previous work, and was initially to be an exploration of the variety of music in both TV series. Berman soon saw a reinforcing principle, so rather than an overview of those shows, she takes powerful footage from each to make a greater point about Hefner, Playboy, and America.

The great Nina Simone

Tramonto D’Oro in Praiano: the glory of the Amalfi Coast

Playboys Penthouse: A window on 1959

The first half of the film focuses on Playboy’s Penthouse. Lenny Bruce tells the famous tattoo story. Tony Bennett sings “The Best Years of our Lives”.   The mixed race jazz group Charlie Byrd Trio  is followed by rare footage of jazz chanteuse Nina Simone. A very young Geoffrey Holder makes a quirky appearance. The camera work is casual and relaxed. Like cinema verite at the greatest Chicago party ever.

Sammy Davis Jr. gives a storied performance. Sarah Vaughn is thrilling. A very young Ray Charles on piano sings a fabulous version of “Georgia” accompanied by a flute. Anne Ross from the multi racial jazz vocal group Lambert Hendricks and Ross gives a wonderful interview from 2017, interspersed with segments from the show in 1959.

From Joe Williams to Count Basie to Pete Seeger

In a stunning clip the immortal Joe Williams sings “Every Day I Have the Blues” with the mixed race Gateway Singers singing backup vocals and Count Basie on piano while Tony Bennett watches from the audience. This spontaneous segment really captures the energy of the broadcast. It’s a fancy upscale party of great musicians. Drinks were served. Music was played. Famous friends came to hang out. History was made. Its comes through powerfully in this film.

A very nice interview segment with Hef and legendary folk singer Pete Seeger addresses the House Un-American Activities Committee and the blacklist of the 1950s. Seeger also sings “Goodnight Irene”.  Robert Clary, who most Americans know as LeBeau from Hogan’s Heroes, makes a campy appearance from his 1950s musical theatre incarnation, while movingly discussing how he survived the Holocaust in interview footage from several years ago.

Woodstock Director Michael Wadleigh in 2016 and 1969.

Playboy After Dark: A window on 1968

Playboys Penthouse ended in 1960, but Hefner returned with Playboy After Dark in 1968. Multiracial, multicultural, and airing at the height of the 60’s, Playboy After Dark combined old and new Hollywood, comics, rock and  soul musicians, and the burning issues of the day. This time it was set in Los Angeles and was shot in color.

Don Rickles and Shelley Berman and Milton Berle mix with Tommy Smothers and David Steinberg. Rowan and Martin and Joey Bishop are there with Joan Baez and Country Joe and the Fish. Director Michael Wadleigh discusses his film Woodstock in footage from 1969, and then reminisces about the legacy of Hefner and the 60’s in recent interview footage.

So whose Daylight Savings Time are we saving this year?

Soul brother #1, Ike and Tina, Bill Russell and Jim Brown

James Brown sings a brilliant, soulful “If I Ruled the world”. Jim Brown discusses racism and social justice in 1969, and the legacy of social justice in recent footage from 2016. Comedian Stu Gilliam tells the best clean racial joke of 1968. Ike and Tina Turner burn down the stage in a fiery performance.

Sammy Davis Jr and Bill Russell address racism in a lengthy interview segment with Hef. Tommy Smothers goes into extensive detail about the Smothers Brothers censorship problems with CBS. David Steinberg recreates for Hef’s audience the material CBS banned.

The 1st Amendment. The Bill of Rights. The Vietnam War. Civil Rights and racism. Joan Baez talks about the revolution. Its astonishing how much time is given to discussions of the various topics. Hefner is incisive and casual. The give and take is unique even in this day and age, and daring even in 1968.

Soul brother # 1, the immortal James Brown

Linda Rondstadt to Jerry Garcia

A very young Linda Rondstadt sings “Long Long Time”. Country Joe and The Fish sing the classic antiwar “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag”. John Kay and Steppenwolf perform “Monster” and “Born to be Wild”. Jerry Garcia sings “Mountains on the Moon”.

In a light segment showing the Broadway and classic music sensibilities at Hefner’s heart, songwriter Charles Strause premiers a song from his musical “Applause” in 1968, which is then intercut with priceless recent footage of Strause at an advanced age several years ago, pounding out the song on a piano, synchronous with the film footage.

Bill Maher, Gene Simmons, and Smokey Robinson add voiceover commentary at different points.  Hugh Hefner himself makes wonderful occasional appearances in interview footage from a decade ago, and there could easily have been more of that interplay and commentary from Hef between segments.

La Colombe d’Or: a legendary artistic treasure in Saint-Paul de Vence

Sammy Davis Jr. and Moms Mobley

In a closing piece underscoring the ignorance of racism Sammy Davis Jr. asks comedian Moms Mobley to sing the song “Abraham Martin and John”. This is not long after the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Mobley sings the song, made most famous by Dion,  and there is not a dry eye in the house. Its another moment that captures the essence of what Berman is trying to convey.

Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark, like Hugh Hefner himself,  may be thought of differently after this documentary. It conveys aspects of Hefner’s life and Playboy’s legacy that have been misplaced and sometimes forgotten in the ensuing decades.

Tony Bennet sings while Count Basie listens

A long road in the making of this film

The making of the film itself was a lengthy journey for Berman. Her producing partner, soulmate, and husband, Victor Solnicki became very sick shortly after production began, recovered his health for a time, and then died suddenly several years ago. Hefner himself died in September of 2017. Berman has persevered through these personal tragedies to complete the film and deliver a powerful document about Hefner and his legacy. She dedicates the film to her life and producing partner, Victor Solnicki.

As with any documentary, some segments may go on a little long, or the directors emphasis may sometimes lend itself to making differential choices about material. The vicissitudes of song clearance and music rights are always difficult. Berman deals with all this by crafting a very specific theme about the legacy of these landmark programs and their impact on the issues of the day.

Lady Gaga shines in Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” (4K Ultra HD review)

Berman captures Hefner’s legacy

More importantly, Berman links Hefner’s legacy to the urgent need to address the issues of the day in our current political climate, regardless of party. But she leads by example, citing again and again how Hefner promoted racial equality by promoting interracial normality. The degree to which he saw how music was a great influence and influencer.

How Count Basie was as important to him as Frank Sinatra. And how Ella Fitzgerald was as essential as Tony Bennett. How jazz was the connection to the interconnectivity of society, and racism was ignorant. That people could discuss the state of the world honestly, and hold that image up as a beacon for our future. Berman captures all of this and more. It is a commanding achievement.

Hugh Hefner After Dark: a compelling film worth seeing

Hugh Hefner after Dark: Speaking Out in America is an illuminating showcase for what Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark conveyed to America. Not the definitive synopsis of either show. But a very clear look at the power Hefner harnessed and the meaningful nature of what he wanted to convey.

It should change the way a lot of people might think about Hefner in retrospect. He charted a course for Amercian society that has lasted in its effect long into the future, and still resonates now after he has gone. He deserves to be remembered for the towering figure he was.  Speaking Out in America is a grand testament to his legacy.

Hugh Hefner After Dark: Speaking Out in America is currently screening at festivals around the country and can be seen at the following locations:

Santa Monica: Aero Theatre, Sunday March 24th – 7:30pm

Cleveland International Film Festival: March 30th and 31st

Minneapolis International Film Festival: April 12th, 13th and 14th

London, England: April 25 – 27 at the Curzon Soho theatre

Washington, DC International Film Festival: Apr. 25th – May 5th

Rick Johnson