Sunday, April 11, 2010 | 12:12 p.m.
The Playboy Club at the Palms sits sky-high, near the top of the resort’s Fantasy Tower. It is 52 stories up, one level for every card in the deck.
At the far side of the club, a slick dude with hair to match is training his camera phone on a structure out the window. He’s focused on the colorfully arced Palms sign on the tower across the way, actually shooting down on that sign, and is clearly swayed by the experience.
“What a view! This is what you came for!” he says, then turns for verification. “Right?”
“No!” I shout back, honestly.
I am here because there will soon be an 84-year-old man in the club, and before I can explain who he is and why he is here tonight, there is a commotion from behind the roulette wheels and $100-limit blackjack tables. Shouts, roars and iPhones rise at this light-bathed phalanx. You can make out a few bunny ears, and, yes, a man moving smoothly to a roped-off area, where he will grin back at the throng and show us what 84 can look like if he owns the place.
Hugh Hefner, as much a cultural brand as a human being, is celebrating his birthday. The actual natal date was April 9, 1926. A month earlier, Robert Goddard ignited the first liquid-fueled rocket. You can read whatever you like into that coincidental launching.
Eighty-four. There are few people of that age who could walk into a nightclub in Las Vegas at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night and not seem terrifically sad or lost. Chuck Berry, maybe. Don Rickles. Fidel Castro a few months younger than Hugh Hefner. Betty White is 88; Jimmy Carter 85. Can’t imagine them hosting birthday parties at the Playboy Club.
Hefner has aged, certainly, but doesn’t appear to conceal that reality with any significant measure of surgical denial. His hair is thin and graying, yes, and his face creviced. I know he doesn’t hear nearly as well as he once did. But there is no absence of dignity in how he carries those 84 years, even when he talks of building a future in matrimony with his dazzling 23-year-old girlfriend, Crystal Harris. The two enjoy adult beverages and grown-up fun as the cameras continue to flash. Such beautiful people as Holly Madison and Jaime Pressly, representing a new generation of sexy celebrities who might never have heard of Barbi Benton or Bettie Page, slice through the crowd to pose for photos and chat up Hef.
These are significant celebs, stars of today. Pressly is a cast member of “My Name is Earl” on NBC. Madison, whom you could argue is quintuplets for all the personal appearances she makes around Las Vegas, is tailed by a camera crew recording her reality show, “Holly’s World.” Her career vaulted as one of Hef’s girlfriends on “The Girls Next Door” and she is bent on becoming the most famous Hef ex of all. (Catch the inside-the-ropes account of the fete by The Ubiquitous One, Robin Leach, at Vegas DeLuxe).
Donning a dark suit and red dress shirt, Hefner is glad to reside behind the velvet ropes and sip champagne as the living embodiment of how to behave comfortably in your own skin. Palms owner George Maloof is in the entourage, as is “Mad Men” star Brian Batt, who has helped design a love seat to help mark the 50th anniversary of the first Playboy Club in Chicago. The resort mogul and TV star are happy co-stars in this scene, though.
The night continues with a strong pulse and it is time for a lot of us to leave, wearily, having glimpsed a piece of cultural history. But Hefner, he’s not finished, and as a bunch of partiers pack into the elevator leading back down to the casino floor, I am reminded of what Chris Rock once said about the nightclub scene: “You don’t want to be the old guy in the club.”
Not quite true. We need to qualify that claim. The old guy in the club is the king of clubs, the one you’d not mind changing places with, even for a night. I toast him, his publishing empire, and all those girlfriends. Well played, sir.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.