Playboy's new digs: Not a smoking jacket in sight

It's the difference between a Kia and a Mercedes, between veal Milanese and a double cheeseburger, between a posh apartment building and a rivet and hardware supplier. This summer, Playboy Enterprises abandoned its longtime Beverly Hills offices for space in the new Media Center in Glassell Park.

Now, instead of the leafy avenues of Maple and Alden drives and Beverly Boulevard, staffers are facing down a stretch of San Fernando Road that runs along railroad tracks in the shadow of three freeways and bristles with razor wire and those monster balloon creatures that mark auto auctions. There is a very nice Ralphs just beside the Media Center and the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation is a fellow lessee, so no doubt the holiday party scene will be a blast, but taken together, it's not exactly a silk-smoking-jacket type of place.

"I don't imagine we'll be seeing much of Hef," says Steven Randall, the West Coast editor for Playboy magazine. For a few months it seemed the magazine and a few other small departments would be allowed to remain 90210 -- when the company moved out of its longtime digs on Beverly, a small office remained on Wilshire Boulevard -- but now, come January, Randall says, they're all schlepping it over to San Fernando Road.

"I'm trying to keep an open mind," Randall says, "although I haven't figured out how I'm going to do the lunch thing."

The Beverly Boulevard address, a sleek rose-colored building with a Mercedes dealership on the ground floor, was steps away from the heart of Beverly Hills and had the perennially acclaimed restaurant Maple Drive in its backyard. Close by the pale, squat complex on Media Drive, there are a Kia dealership, several great burger stands and a Mickey Ds. None of which is reassuring to Randall, who is still trying to figure out how you even get there from the Westside.

"I've only been there once," Randall says. "I'm choosing to stay in denial."

Of course, the move was not about the magazine, at least not directly. The publication's main offices, along with parent company Playboy Enterprises, are in Chicago. Although the Playboy mansion in Holmby Hills has made the brand seem like a local enterprise, Randall is the only full-time magazine staff member in Los Angeles. It's been many years since the "gentlemen's magazine" that Hugh Hefner founded almost 50 years ago was the biggest entry on the corporate spreadsheet.

In the last decade, as attempts to mark territory on cable and the Internet met with limited success or outright failure, Playboy Enterprises has been steadily losing money. Likewise, the magazine's circulation is almost half of what it was during its heyday in the mid-'70s. Although with a readership of 3.1 million, it remains the biggest "gentlemen's" magazine on the market; upstart Maxim, at 2.5 million, is not far behind.

Last year, Chief Executive Christie Hefner decided it was time to shake off the "gentleman" yoke and go hard-core. Since then the company has acquired six cable stations, which run sexually explicit features and pay-per-view porn.

Making pornographic movies requires a bit of space, hence the move to Glassell Park, where rents are low and a new production and soundstage facility is nearby. While it isn't technically the San Fernando Valley, ground zero for the pornographic film industry, it's certainly Valley-adjacent.

There is something symbolic in Playboy employees having to trade lunch at the napkin-snapping Maple Drive for counter condiments at Patras hamburger stand.

Since its inception, Playboy magazine has billed itself as something other than pornography; important writers appeared in its pages and everyone who subscribed famously did so "for the articles."

For a few years, Hefner was a social revolutionary, although with hindsight it's difficult to argue that the idea of a male living almost solely for pleasure was an evolutionary advancement; if he didn't invent soft porn, he did give it new respectability. Playboy moved those pictures of naked ladies from beneath the mattresses and the toolbox and onto the living room coffee table. Far from embodying the syphilitic image of a pornographer, Hefner became an icon of the sexual revolution, his mansion a soundstage for celebrity bacchanals and quasi-political gatherings.

Attacks on the pornography industry, by feminists and religious leaders alike, rarely were aimed at Playboy, which mainstream America seemed content to keep in a niche of its own. A gentleman's magazine. Even as his business floundered in recent years, Hefner has remained a touchstone of cultural analysis; the media cannot get enough of the pajamaed septuagenarian surrounded by young women in various stages of cosmetic surgery.

So what will happen to the Playboy image now that it's less about sexual sophistication and more about coldblooded fornication?

The bunny profile has meant less and less over the years as the clubs across the country closed, as the magazine lost much of its literary pedigree and the sexual revolution moved into new territory.

For all his photo-ops, Hefner is something of a quaint figure, a piece of cultural kitsch with his arm candy and silk pajamas. And he's kept his distance from the new image, figuratively and literally. No, the staffers stopping in at Ralphs to get a decent cup of coffee probably won't see a lot of Hef. Because if it's hard to get to San Fernando Road from Beverly Hills, it's virtually impossible to get there from Holmby Hills.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday December 19, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 388 words Type of Material: Correction Playboy -- The L.A. Centric column in Tuesday's Calendar misspelled Stephen Randall's first name as Steven. The column also misidentified him as the West Coast editor of Playboy magazine; Randall's title is executive editor. Additionally, the story mistakenly stated that he is the only full-time staff member in Los Angeles; there also is a full-time assistant editor and a photography staff.
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