Playboy bunnies get together to talk old times

From left, Diana Brooks of Voorhees, Sheree Harden of Hamilton Township, Mercer County, and Sandy Collison of Southampton look over memorabilia. They worked at Atlantic City's Playboy casino.
From left, Diana Brooks of Voorhees, Sheree Harden of Hamilton Township, Mercer County, and Sandy Collison of Southampton look over memorabilia. They worked at Atlantic City's Playboy casino. (JEFF STROUD)
Posted: August 27, 2014

BALTIMORE - Now in their 50s and 60s, 123 former Playboy bunnies - including veterans of the company's long-ago Atlantic City casino - still know how to make an entrance, work a room, and paint the town.

"Being a bunny was like going to a party every day," explains Sandy Collison, 63, of Southampton, Burlington County. No one around the table disagrees.

"When you put that costume on, you felt like a million dollars," says Ellie Dellorco-Lyman, 57, of Williamstown, who served cocktails in Hef's Lounge at the Atlantic City Playboy in 1981.

That's "Hef" as in Hugh Hefner, the swinger's swinger, the man whose silken robe of a nickname the former bunnies frequently invoke - free of irony and with something like reverence.

I caught up with them as they gathered in Baltimore for a two-day convention, beginning Sunday. Some drove down I-95 from South Jersey, others flew in from Florida and California, all of them converging on a hotel nowhere near the famed Inner Harbor in its name.

While we're talking about accuracy, let's note that "bunnies" are rather different from those "playmates" made famous by Playboy magazine's signature centerfolds.

Some bunnies did have exotic tasks - one tells me about a cigars-and-brandy-lighting protocol that sounds fabulous, if explosive - but they were essentially waitresses, working for tips.

And they insist they never felt like over-sexualized objects of exploitation.

"We had so much fun, we should have been arrested," recalls Cheryl Hill-Gallucci, 54, a Columbus, Ohio, club bunny in the early 1980s.

"It was the epitome of glamour and femininity," says Deborah Impellitier, 57, who grew up in Medford Lakes, worked at the Atlantic City Playboy, and has been a Florida law firm receptionist for many years.

As the reunion got rolling, Impellitier donned a bright-blue pair of ears to welcome attendees, cheerfully asking the ladies in line for their "bunny names" (hers was Loni).

Playboy operated a 21-story mirrored-glass casino-hotel complex at Florida Avenue and the Boardwalk for just three years, beginning in 1981. Licensing issues led to a change of ownership, and after two or three reincarnations, the place was torn down more than a dozen years ago.

But the decades seemed to vanish at the reunion, as members of an old-school sorority - one that required striking looks, a lively personality, and, yes, a quick mind - talked about their glory days.

"We've got a little sisterhood here," says Pam Jacobs, 53, a Los Angeles musician (or "Drummer Chick," according to her business card). She grew up in Harrisburg - where her bunny photo graces the family mantel - and worked at Playboy Atlantic City.

About 750 former bunnies are on the master mailing list, reunion organizer Marsha Callender says. She has found 500 of them in recent years, mostly through social media or online searches.

"We're a dying breed, literally," adds the St. Louis resident, 65, who worked at the club in her home city in the early 1970s. Like most clubs nationally, the St. Louis facility has been closed for decades.

By the '80s, a hardworking bunny could make more than $1,000 a week without a college degree.

"It was the best job I ever had," says Callender, who now works as a nurse-practitioner. "It was the hardest job I ever had."

Walking in three-inch heels while carrying a tray loaded with 21 drinks? Not for the faint of heart (or flat of foot). And special training was needed to serve a cocktail while attired in a Spanx-tight costume with a low-cut top and high-cut bottom.

"You were every man's fantasy," recalls Dellorco-Lyman, now the mother of two grown daughters. "But don't touch!"

Former Atlantic City bunny Diana Brooks, who grew up in Stratford, was working at a Dunkin' Donuts on Blackwood-Clementon Road when she answered a Cherry Hill "bunny hunt" ad in 1980.

She was thrilled to get the Atlantic City job, had a blast, and later completed college. A career as a state and national park ranger took her all over the United States.

"Being a bunny," says Brooks, 52, of Voorhees, "gave me confidence."

Collison received a rather different gift. In 1980 she was 30, living in Lindenwold and mourning the death of a daughter who had been born prematurely.

Collison already had suffered two miscarriages. She was drinking too much and thinking about ending it all.

But that all changed the morning she put on her high heels and showed up for the Cherry Hill bunny hunt.

She got a hiring letter three days after that and later had a successful career in real estate.

"Playboy," Collison says, "saved my life. It totally did."


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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