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Auctioneer Hef

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner — “Hef” to OffBeat — invited us to the manse this week to show off his private collection of what the Playboy corporate machine likes to refer to as “high-end art” by legendary pinup-girl illustrator Alberto Vargas.

Well, actually, there was a whole mob of paparazzi and other bottom-feeding media types there, including the hosts of The Morning Stiffy Show. And what Hef was really up to was hawking the Vargas watercolors, which are available on www.auctions.playboy.com through the end of December. Minimum bid for each of the four paintings: $40,000. If all goes well with the initial offering, Hef plans to unload all 150 Vargas illustrations in his collection.

“Vargas’ paintings were partly my inspiration for Playboy,” said a sleepy-eyed yet sprightly Hefner, 73, standing in his trademark pajama-and-smoking-jacket set in the stairwell of the Playboy Mansion. “It was an early act of rebellion and not entirely acceptable, but my mom didn’t make me take them down.”

Vargas created the famous images of the Ziegfeld Follies girls in the ’20s, and later formed an alliance with Hef, providing pinup illustrations for Playboy in the ’60s. It’s the 30-inch-by-20-inch watercolors that were reproduced in Playboy’s pages that Hef has on the auction block.

But despite the historic significance — not to mention Hef’s promise that a Playmate will personally present each winning bidder with a painting at a luncheon at the manse — not a single bid had been recorded by press time.

So why the pathetic effort to capitalize on a now-deceased friend’s art? “We are doing it as an e-commerce venture,” said Cindy Rakowitz, vice president of promotions at Playboy. “There are big revenues in dot-com, and we have a lot of high-end art.”

But Frederick S. Lane, an Internet legal specialist, said the auction is an effort to salvage Playboy’s anemic online subsidiary, which has been hemorrhaging $3 million to $7 million a quarter, despite registering millions of hits a month.

“The concept of an online revenue flow is important to Playboy, since there has been talk about it going public,” Lane said. “The problem with Playboy online in terms of revenue flow is that it is burdened by its brand identity. The sites that are making money are completely unconcerned with the fluff Playboy puts on its Web site. They are much more focused on the delivery of sexual images, and they are willing to publish materials Playboy won’t publish. If these folks [Playboy] want to go public, starting an online auction site would be an attempt to diversify their online offerings and prove their revenue strength.”

Playboy also gave online auction lovers shots at a Marilyn Monroe jigsaw puzzle (final bid: $126) and at Nichole Van Croft’s outfit from the movie 10 (final bid: $701). Trading is brisk on an invite to the Playboy Mansion’s New Year’s Eve party (current bid: $7,100), and a black Playboy Bunny costume sold last month for $8,000. These penny-ante sales don’t sound like the kind of e-commerce that would make an IPO financier sit up and bark, however. Maybe if Hef threw in a nude swim with Playmates in the Grotto . . .

—Christine Pelisek

MALCOLM FOR PRESIDENT

Malcolm in the Middle may be this year’s funniest television comedy, but a few local school officials weren’t laughing when a game inspired by the series swept through their campuses.

The inspired series about a boy genius trapped in a hilariously dysfunctional family apparently introduced L.A. school children to the circle game, which involves trying to get another child to notice a circle you form by touching your thumb to your index finger. The penalty for getting caught looking is a punch in the arm. Malcolm’s bully brother, Reese, brutalized Stevie, the asthmatic kid in the wheelchair, with the game during a Malcolm episode aired several times over the past few weeks.

The game, and variations thereof, dates back at least as far as the ’60s. No matter, at Ivanhoe Elementary Malcolm was blamed for a wave of punching that “started in the fifth grade and quickly spread to the second. Children are showing up in the principal’s office, saying they’ve been punched,” an Ivanhoe teacher said in banning the pastime at the Silver Lake school.

Portola Middle School in Tarzana also had an outbreak of the circle game, students reported. An L.A. Unified spokeswoman failed to respond to inquiries about how widely the game had spread. But Malcolm executive producer Linwood Boomer acknowledged that the episode had started a sensation.

“When Freddie Muniz [who plays Malcolm] did the Hollywood Christmas Parade [as grand marshal], every kid under the age of 15 flashed him the circle as he went down the street,” said Boomer during a telephone interview Friday.

The idea for the episode came from the writers, who “actually play the circle game during meetings, which I find utterly annoying,” Boomer explained. “Of course, our writers are like a bunch of annoying 12-year-olds, but we finally found a way to work it into an episode.”

The show has fielded very few if any complaints about the game, however, Boomer said. The reaction was much worse to an episode about bats that deliberately, to comic effect, exploited popular myths about the nocturnal flying rodents, he added. “We kept getting phone calls from the bat activists, accusing us of spreading myths about bats, and demanding retractions.”

But the circle-game craze is nothing compared to the wave of copycat-itis that struck after Malcolm’s father, Eric, did the boopy bi boo dance in another Malcolm episode. “The boopy bi boo dance is where Eric shambles from foot to foot like an awkward monkey. That apparently has really become a thing with kids, and I’m totally baffled . . . It seems at worst we are creating a giant annoyance. Remember when Steve Martin was first saying, ‘Well, excuuuuse me,’ and then everybody was saying it? That kind of annoyance.”