By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In the current climate of fading media giants, Hef's offer might seem like a way out of further losses for long-suffering investors, but the suit calls the plan "the product of a flawed process designed to sell ... on terms detrimental" to stockholders. And when a much-rumored sale to clothing corporation Iconix was derailed last year over unresolved questions about Hef's continued role, stockholder David Brown filed another suit in Los Angeles, accusing the founder of maneuvering to preserve his lifestyle at all costs.
"He controls 70 percent of the vote of the company, so the fate of the company is really in Hef's hands and nobody else's," says David Bank, global media and research analyst at RBC Capital Markets.
The most brutal assessment came from analyst David Miller of the investment bank Caris & Company, whose most recent report on Playboy Enterprises Inc. predicted good times for stockholders once the old man is gone. "We believe Mr. Hefner's death could result in a material stock-price uptick on the notion the mansion could eventually be sold, which would leave the company net-debt-free," Miller wrote.
There goes Graceland.
Hef is of the old school, more Mad Men than Mad Money, comparable to George Steinbrenner and other outsize corporate owners whose cults of personality are not incidental to the high profile of their companies. So says Todd Harrison, CEO of Minyanville Media and a former investment banker. "There comes a point where you have to hand the baton to the next generation, but there's a bit of a dichotomy. He's built this franchise and it's his life's work and he should be able to live out the rest of his years in his home."
Hef may also be on to something, ignoring the media gloom and hand-wringing, maybe sensing untapped value in Playboy, the brand. The bunny remains one of the most recognizable logos on the planet. It is on women's underwear and energy drinks, on pillowcases and shot glasses, on T-shirts, handbags, cigars and lingerie. There is a Playboy maid's costume for your little terrier ($22), a bobble head of young Hef circa 1953 ($18) and bunny-logo hardware for your tongue and navel piercings (at Sears for $18). You can run to a local 7-Eleven for a bottled shot of Playboy Passion Enhancer to get your lady friend back in the mood — for a mere $2.99. All exist for good reason, earning Playboy Enterprises $37 million in licensing revenue alone last year.
Even if all print media, including the centerfolds of Playboy, were to disappear, there is reason to believe the bunny brand would survive, with or without Hefner's iconic presence. "He's important to the brand," says Bank, "but I think it outlives him."
Since announcing his intentions to the board, Hefner has stepped back from his usual heavy interview schedule. On the phone just days ahead of his offer this month, Hefner revealed nothing of his plans but sounded upbeat about the company that began at his kitchen table in 1953: "Things are looking up significantly."
A young woman steps discreetly from a backroom, leaving behind the throw pillows and mirrored walls, the convenient box of tissues and the vintage dimmer switch on the wall. She walks unsteadily in a yellow dress, rust-colored dreadlocks bunched on her head. She makes it past the pool table and across the games room to a man in plaid shorts trying his luck at a Playboy pinball machine. "How are you doing?" he asks her.
"Great," she replies, with a flushed, crooked grin. "I just got laid!"
They arrive by the busload and stretch limo, rolling up the driveway past the "Playmates at Play" traffic sign, the men in black suits or resort casual, the women in bras or pasties, stepping out onto the hilltop Shangri-la right beneath Hefner's bedroom window. Girls pose for quick snapshots by the front door and the fountain they've seen on TV before they're sent around to the party in the mansion backyard, with the tents and buffet, the go-go dancers and DJs. It's like a nightclub back there.
Hef is in a cabana with Crystal and some girls, as a huge crowd of guests gathers in front of him, raising cameras and cell phones and just staring at the great man, the center of attention. But this isn't one of his parties. He throws fewer events than he used to but allows outsiders to take over the property for a night, bringing their own guest list and female eye candy, tonight charging $1,000 a ticket or $10,000 a cabana, with a portion going to charity.
This night is the annual Kandyland event, another party hosted by the Karma Foundation, an upscale networking and nightlife business. Close to $50,000 will be raised here for Star Education, an environmental program for children, according to Karma President Marvin Epstein. Parties at the mansion are a hot ticket, fueled by stories of painted ladies and wet, naked encounters in the grotto. Young women are invited to submit photos and apply for free admission, described on the Karma casting site as an "opportunity for beautiful and classy people to attend the most sensational and breathtaking" of events. And the event, not hero worship, is the point for many.