Tune in Tonight: "Playboy's Roller Disco and Pajama Party"
October of 2017 marked the end of an era with the not terribly untimely death of Hugh Hefner, pioneer of the sexual revolution, civil rights activist, advocate for gay marriage, and alleged supporter of the women’s movement. I say “alleged,” because it’s hard to parse that when you consider that Hefner built his fortune on the backs of nude women, mistreated his romantic partners, and palled around with some of Hollywood’s most notable rapists, including Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski.
To be fair, Hefner didn’t just make millions from publishing pictures of naked ladies, he managed to sell the appreciation of said naked ladies as an elegant pursuit, like polo or fine scotch. His gimmick was that these weren’t any old skags in the buff, but the finest young, innocent, young, fresh faced, young, girl next door types who were also very young. Playboy Playmates were wholesome, all American, sexy without being sexual. A man could almost whack off to them with pride, because they all looked just so delighted to be there.
Nevertheless, by the end of the 70s, Playboy‘s brand of winking faux innocence was starting to flag, both in competition with Penthouse and Hustler, which did away with any pretense of “elegance,” and facing the rise of second wave feminism. Hef and his brand needed to reach a new audience, and that audience was primetime television viewers, who, by 1979, were already well stocked in all the gratuitous T&A they needed, thanks to Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company. Despite that, ABC aired Playboy’s Roller Disco and Pajama Party, which comes off as as sharp rebuke to Hefner’s claims that he respected women and wanted them to be on equal footing with men. This is strictly a celebration of the barely clothed female form, and Hefner’s ability to throw a great party, slightly smutty wish fulfillment for schlubby male viewers.
Richard Dawson is the dirty old man of ceremonies for the event, and he starts in with the leering innuendo immediately, when he describes the Playboy Mansion as “an incredibly well-built house…it seems everything around here is well-built…uh, I mean well-constructed.” The party’s already started, with dozens of the most gorgeous scantily clad babes swimming, dancing, roller skating, or standing around smiling at nothing. There doesn’t appear to be a single man in attendance under the age of 40 (Hefner was 53 at the time, Dawson 46), and not a single woman over the age of 25. Moreover, all of the men are fully dressed (Dawson is wearing a sportcoat and turtleneck), and none of them set foot anywhere near the pool.
At one point, Dawson attempts to speak to a blonde woman he calls “Dorothy,” who ignores him and walks away with an annoyed look on her face. This is, obviously, a gag (you know perfectly well women weren’t allowed to say no to Hef’s guests), and some of you can probably guess who Dorothy is, but I’ll save that particular bummer spoiler for later. Wayland Flowers and Madame appear for maybe ten seconds, before we finally see Hef, dressed perfectly for a poolside party in jeans and a long sleeved shirt, pointing out to guest Robert Culp (chinos and a dress shirt) that one of the girls wandering around is “my girl Friday…that’s my girl Saturday over there…that girl over there is my girl Sunday…”
Hef doesn’t seem terribly comfortable speaking on camera, but that’s okay, because Richard Dawson wants you to know how humble he is, and how there’s a quiet, warm side to him that not everybody gets to see. It then smash cuts to a pair of breasts barely restrained by a t-shirt with Hef’s face on it. Enough with what a great guy Hef is, it’s time to par-tay! First, we see footage of a birthday party “the girls” threw for Hef, in which a college marching band and the Easter Bunny are in attendance. Then we’re treated to a very long sequence of the party guests endlessly skating around a tennis court, which Dawson claims has been “converted” into a skating rink, but no, it’s clearly still a tennis court. Even frequent Playboy Mansion guest James Caan is seen roller discoing, wearing overalls with no shirt underneath and presumably on day three of a massive coke binge.
It’s nearly twelve full minutes into the show before we actually hear a woman speak, and that’s limited to “I’m fine, thank you.” She’s ignored by Hef and Richard Dawson as they have a riveting conversation about tennis, which then cuts to Bill Cosby goofing off on the tennis court. Thankfully, it doesn’t last very long, and the scene returns to Dawson, who again attempts to call over Dorothy, who again ignores him. Dawson, addressing the camera as if it’s a person, claims that her ignoring him is a “little thing” they have together.
The sun sets, and the roller disco party switches over to the pajama party, during which the female guests dance with some of the dorkiest looking dudes imaginable. Perhaps appropriately, the entertainment for the party is the Village People, at that time the dorkiest band imaginable. The “secret” was already out about the Village People at that point (if it had ever really been “in”), so it’s unclear who the show was trying to fool with shots of Playmates grinding against them and making come hither faces. Wayland Flowers returns to introduce a black version of Madame named “Jiffy,” which is about as horrifying as you can imagine.
It’s another twenty minutes before we hear a woman’s voice again, when Dawson interviews some of the upcoming new Playmates. One of them, Kim, claims that her whole family is happy that she’s a Playmate, telling Dawson “My father especially. He gets every issue of Playboy.” They’re all very pretty, and yet none of them possesses the charisma to fill a souvenir Playboy shot glass. This might be because they all seem like they’re a little stoned, and you can’t help but recall that Hef reportedly had a habit of pushing Quaaludes onto his “girlfriends,” referring to them as “thigh openers.”
We then get to see some of the Playmates’ modeling shoots, set to Kenny Rogers’ “You Decorated My Life.” The whole sequence is a hilarious cocktease, offering the audience the tantalizing promise of an exposed breast, and then reneging on it with a carefully placed prop, or a fur coat held just closed enough to not reveal anything. After that, it’s back to more interminable disco dancing.
The evening concludes with a late night performance by Chuck Mangione. There are considerably less guests at this point, and one must assume that most of them are fucking like rabbits in various rooms of the Mansion, or snorting up the last few crumbs of cocaine from the living room carpet. Dorothy finally approaches Dawson and asks “Richard, do you really like me?” Ha ha ha, it was a game after all, and this beautiful girl is utterly besotted with this cheesy middle aged game show host. They chastely kiss a couple times and then walk away with their arms around each other, as Dawson looks back at the camera and asks “You wanted a happy ending, didn’t you?”
It’s here that I will point out that Dorothy is Dorothy Stratten, Playboy‘s Playmate of the Year for 1980, but better known for being the victim in a horrific murder-suicide committed by her estranged husband, as recounted in Bob Fosse’s gruesome Star 80. Though the movie recounts every lurid detail of Stratten’s abusive marriage to the man who “discovered” her, it presents Hefner in a relatively positive light, portraying him as a concerned father figure who only wants the best for this naive young woman whose tits and ass stand to make him a lot of money. In truth, as recounted in a heartbreaking episode of Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This, virtually every man in Stratten’s life, from her husband to Hefner to her lover, Peter Bogdanovich (who later married Stratten’s younger sister, because why the hell not?), took advantage of her, projecting a gross, untouchable golden girl fantasy onto her that she neither asked for, or wanted.
Knowing all that, and knowing that Hefner talked out of both sides of his mouth when it came to how he felt about women, should make watching Playboy’s Roller Disco and Pajama Party an unpleasant experience. And it does, kind of, but really it’s just boring. I am, to be fair, not the target audience for it, but endless footage of women swimming, women dancing, women standing around, women sunbathing, women applying tanning oil, women flashing Joker sized grins at men clumsily trying to hit on them, women sucking on popsicles, and so…much…roller skating gets dull very quickly. It doesn’t help that many of the women have a similar corn-fed/California girl look to them (Hef liked them blonde, thin, and very, very white), and thus are only distinguishable by the color of their bikinis. I suppose by 1979 standards this was all pretty scandalous, and I’m sure a few young boys entered puberty while peeking at this from behind the couch, but from a modern perspective, even without all the grotesque shadows surrounding it, it all comes off as hopelessly corny, and deeply unsexy.
Original airdate: November 26, 1979