The telephone rang until I was forced to get out of bed.
“Hey Don, its Tim Struby, do I have an assignment for you. One word: Playboy Mansion.”
I guess that was two words but it didn’t matter. A one-time Milan model gone freelance writer, Tim possessed an almost Hemingway-esque way with women and partying, which I witnessed while doing assignments with him for ESPN the Magazine. He also had a knack for finding interesting stories and this was all of that and then some. The opportunity was knocking to be a fly on the wall at an almost mythical place guys hoped would be the light at the end of their tunnel.
Masking my excitement as much as possible I said, “Yeah man, count me in.”
“Great, let’s talk in a week to touch base, but in a nutshell the story is Fight Night at the Playboy Mansion, boxing, playmates, actors, pretty much a big party.” A big party, indeed.
One week later and 24 hours before the big night, I made sure all the preparations were in place. With the batteries charged, sensors cleaned, and permission for the hall pass from my fiancée Lauren, I was ready to go.
Once I had called all my friends and family and informed them I had been personally requested to photograph Hugh and his Bunnies at the mansion, I rang Tim.
“Hey Don, I’ve actually got some really bad news. There was a miscommunication at the Magazine and they hired another photographer. It’s total B.S. but I’ll get down to the bottom of it ASAP!”
The only thing Tim was getting to the bottom of was the grotto pool the next night.
Knowing that time was of essence, I quickly buzzed the Getty Images LA office in search of our company’s entertainment guru, Liz Gould. Moments later, out of her magical Rolodex, Liz gave me the direct line to the Playboy Mansion (310-487-xxxx) and I was officially on The List.
“Can I see your ID please?” the cordial lady with The List asked me as she checked my license and all the other members of media waiting for the enchanted shuttle to the mansion. The event seemed to awaken all press from their slumber to have them waiting at UCLA Lot 4 like a bunch of underage kids waiting outside a bar with their fake IDs. After a quick background check, we were all whisked away in the shuttle down Sunset Blvd and minutes later we entered the gates of the estate.
With its gray stone walls, the mansion stared down at us as we made our way up the curving driveway with manicured hedges. After the shuttle floated into the atrium, we were ushered through a stone arch gateway and into the inner sanctum of the Playboy Empire.
The backyard of the mansion had been converted into what seemed to be a medieval theme park. Strewn with beautiful gardens, the grounds had a stream running through its length complete with flocks of ducks and peacocks (one of which was an albino). On the far-left end of the lot I could see what was Hef’s personal zoo with a collection of hundreds of different species of birds and a large exhibit of South American monkeys.
On the top of the hill to the right was a trampoline that I recognized from “The Man Show” on which the Playmate beauties would bounce on in their pajamas. In front of me, the stream led into the infamous grotto, an icon of 70s and 80s promiscuity and decadence, hidden behind a cascading waterfall with three stunning playmates in pink, yellow and green bunny garb standing at it’s cave-like entrance.
In a space between the Mansion and the yard, stations were set up that serviced hamburgers, hot dogs, popcorn, pretzels and 3 open bars ñ all paid by the master of ceremonies. And in the center of it all was a boxing ring basked in the sunlight with Hugh Hefner and about six of his blonde and busty personal pets swarmed by TV crews and interviewers.
“I’ve always been a big fan of boxing, and what better place to hold a title fight than the Playboy Mansion?” Hef chuckled. The group of personal bunnies that escorted him everywhere all began to giggle in unison and their similarities in appearance and breast size ironically gave them an appearance of being sextuplets.
“Hey, Hugh!” a voice called from across the yard. It was actor James Caan wielding a pair of boxing gloves, mimicking the dodging and weaving of a prizefighter.
When Hef walked up to him, Caan said, “Hey, I got something for you!” and then gave him a slow motion right-left combination to his chin. Caan exploded with an adolescent laugh and gave Hef a hug and said, “That’s how we do it in Hollywood!”
“Yeah, in West Hollywood,” Hef returned and the two continued to laugh in each other’s arms.
With the ESPY awards in LA that same week, the professional athletes and every model/actress that could prove her legitimacy started to pour into the mansion.
NBA great Julius Irving, a.k.a. Dr. J, was talking shop with someone while enjoying a salted pretzel, while other budding hoop players were offering Arizona Wildcat Luke Walton drinks. His buddy and ex-teammate Nets Richard Jefferson said something to the effect that he was milking his drink like baby on a mother’s tit.
NFL star wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson was chillin’ with an entourage of buddies, all dressed in bright and baggy clothing. He spotted someone from a distance and yelled, “Oh shit it’s Kato!” He was referring to pseudo-star Kato Kaelin, of O.J. Simpson trial fame and before I knew it, the two of them were hugging like old high school buddies.
Track star Gail Devers, boxing champ Marco Antonio Barrera, Kentucky Derby winner Jose Santos, Mighty Ducks’ goalie Jean Sebastien Giguere and flocks of other mega-athletes had all shed their uniforms and invincibility and were normal people having a great time.
“Excuse me, Mr. Photographer?” a very tall attractive woman asked me.
“Do you know anything about digital cameras?”
“A little,” I said while two Canon 1-Ds with telephoto lenses and flashes hung off my neck.
“Well my husband Joe has a digital camera and he forgot the little film disk that the photos go on.”
“Tell you what, today is your lucky day. I just happen to have a couple extra,” I said as I pulled my little folder holding a deck of 512 cards.
“Oh my god! Let me get my husband and his camera” and she ran off as quickly as she appeared and came back with Tampa Bay Buccaneer wide-out Joe Jurevicius.
“Man, I can’t believe that we left the hotel without that disk, but Megan said you had a couple of extra,” said the large man.
“Tell you what Joe, take this disk, use it all night, and here’s my business card. Send it to the address on the card whenever you want,” I said as my cards disappeared into his enormous hand.
“Thanks so much, what do I owe you?”
“No way. Oh, you work for Getty. That’s like the oil tycoon?”
After explaining to Joe what Getty was the three of us continued to talk about the Buccaneers Super Bowl win earlier that year and how excited I was just to be on the field and experience one of the greater spectacles of sport. The Jurevicius’ were very down to earth people that could have been friends from college even though I’m still waiting for that card.
After about three scrappy undercards that looked more like barroom brawls and catfights, the sun had set and everyone in the house buzzed from their fill of food and alcohol.
Then the famous words blared from the loud speakers. “Let’s get ready to Rumble!!!” Everybody quickly migrated from the bars and took their seats surrounding the main event, the anticipated Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy vs. Richard Grant for 12-rounds in the USBA/NABA Super Middleweight Championship.
Both boxers took turns dancing into the ring to their rap song of choice, and after subtleties were exchanged with the referee, the bell rang. At first, it appeared Lacy was going to mop up the floor with Grant after knocking him to the canvas with a lighting quick combination early in the first round. Lacy’s corner was ecstatic, but the journeyman quickly hobbled to his feet and counterattacked with a combo of his own. The bell ended the 1st round and the Green Bunny did her lap around the ring with a “Round 2” card as Hef with the sextuplets sitting in the front row cheered wildly for their girl.
About thirty minutes and 11 rounds later, the two warriors stood in a ring soaked with blood. Both had inflicted large open gashes above the other’s eyes that in any other arena could have ended the fight. But this was the Fight Night at the Playboy Mansion and the crowd’s electricity kept the fight going.
Lacy smashed Grant with a left hook that sent his head flying back and his body bouncing off the ropes into another barrage of punches. A woman in the front row screamed as she was sprayed with blood. But somehow Grant found the legs to stay up, and managed to hit Lacy square on the open wound above his left eye that resembled a rare cooked beef medallion. The scene resembled LaMotta vs. Robinson from Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”, down to the blood dripping off the ropes. These guys went toe to toe for twelve rounds and when it was done, they held each other up with a respectful hug.
The party began to disperse from the ring and again congregate around the bars, everyone trying to squeeze the open bar until Hef cut everyone off. After I packed my bags, I decided to have a post-work drink with another photographer. While we were hunched over the bar, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around to see the Yellow Bunny behind me in regular street cloths. “What’s up?” she smiled.
“Nada mucho, looks like everyone’s done working for the night,” I said as I recognized her face from TV. “Hey! You were on ‘Fear Factor’ and you lost in the final when you fell off the top of the speeding oil tanker.”
“Yeah, but that was totally fixed, the girl that won actually was eliminated the day before,” she claimed. “By the way, where can I get those photos you were taking of me in the ring?”
After I gave her the 411 for Getty, I said goodbye and was immediately nudged by my fellow photographer.
“Dude, don’t look now but two of Hef’s chicks are totally checking us out,” the photographer said with a slight tinge of a German accent.
To my surprise they were looking in our direction. I checked to make sure that my fly wasn’t down or a square-jawed athlete was standing behind me.
“Let’s stay for awhile, what do you say?”
“I think that’s my cue to leave my friend,” I said knowing full well I had a beautiful girl anticipating my return at home in San Diego. I quickly exited out the stone arch gateway from the fantasy land taking with me my laptop, camera bag, and a line from a Dr. Dre rap song, “I’ve been there, I’ve done that.”