Hugh Hefner needed to be hip. The Playboy magnate could not let the times pass him by, he had to stay abreast of what the youth were into. The survival of his magazine, his empire, and the Playboy lifestyle depended on it. Uncool was not an option.
In 1959-1960, Hef hosted Playboy’s Penthouse, a program broadcast locally in Chicago which purported to recreate a typical night at the Playboy Mansion with celebrity buddies “just dropping in” to drink martinis and crack jokes and ogle the girls.
Hef signed a deal with CBS in late 1968 to host Playboy After Dark, a coast-to-coast version of his earlier show, but recast as a sort of bridge to the hippie culture overtaking America. The guest stars were the usual tired showbiz geezers, but the musical acts were first-rate: James Brown, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, Grand Funk Railroad, Three Dog Night, Harry Nilsson, Fleetwood Mac, The Byrds, and more. It was Hef’s ticket to hipness.
Playboy writer/cartoonist/oddball Shel Silverstein was introduced to the Grateful Dead, the hippiest of the hippie bands, in 1968. Shel asked if they were interested in performing on Playboy After Dark. The Dead, who had never done a TV appearance, were intrigued; not only at the exposure, but at the chance for a great prank. They met Hef and all was groovy. A date was set for the taping: January 18, 1969.
The Dead’s live soundman and chief prankster was Bear, aka Augustus Owsley Stanley III. Bear came from a privileged background: his grandfather (Owsley Stanley The First) was a U.S. Senator and Governor of Kentucky. After falling in with Ken Kesey’s crowd, the amateur chemist found his purpose in life: to turn on the world. Between 1965-1967, he manufactured over a million hits of exceptionally pure LSD, which were distributed free. Among the recipients were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. For years afterward, “Owsley Acid” meant quality product.
When the Dead played Kesey’s Acid Tests, the LSD was located in a punch bowl, open to all. When they started performing in concert halls, they had to figure out new ways of turning everyone on. If a communal dispenser wasn’t available, Bear and the band would sneak around and dose people’s drinks on the sly. No one was sure what the scene at Playboy After Dark would be like, but Bear was bringing two loaded eyedroppers just in case.
Hef did not learn of the Dead’s backstage antics until after they were already booked. Despite all his attempts to be hip, Hef was scared of getting dosed. He had never taken LSD and wasn’t about to start now. He brought Shel Silverstein into his confidence and Shel offered to be his beverage protector.
Coca-Cola was Hef’s drink of choice. His contract stipulated two cases always on set. They were watched over by an aide who opened each bottle and handed it only to Shel, who delivered it directly to Hef and then kept his eyes peeled for any hijinx.
The Dead arrived at the CBS Studios in Los Angeles with freak flags flying. They found the atmosphere a bit stodgy and uptight. The women were attractive, but all wore cocktail dresses. Except the two Token Negroes, every man present was wearing a tux or a suit jacket/turtleneck/slacks combo. None had hair past their shoulders. Bunnies on loan from the L.A. Playboy Club circulated with hors d’oevres. The place felt like a dentists’ convention.
The band set up in front of an impressive-looking wall of ceiling-to-floor stereo equipment. Intrigued, keyboardist Tom “TC” Constanten removed one of the panels to peek behind it. There were no wires or anything attached. The entire backdrop was a false front.
At the time, the Grateful Dead were a seven-piece: Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir on guitars, Phil Lesh on bass, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, TC on keyboards, and conga & organ player/vocalist Pigpen. With such a large group, balance issues were important, and Bear assumed he would be working closely with the studio crew.
To his dismay, Bear was told that CBS ran an all-union house. Not only was his advice unwelcome, he was not allowed to adjust one microphone or even be present in the control room while the Dead were playing. Although Bear was older than several of the techs, he looked like a weirdo and the CBS guys openly snickered at him. Bear stalked out of the booth, fuming.
This was the deciding moment. Time to change the channel, folks. Lock up your daughters, the freaks have taken control. Bear strolled over to the catering station and casually dumped the eyedroppers into the coffee urn. He then went up to Garcia and murmured in his ear:
“It’s in the coffee. Both droppers.”
“Out of sight.”
The word spread. The Dead and co. all partook, except for abstainers TC and Pigpen. No one outside their camp was clued in. Many of the extras were returning from dinner and enjoyed a cup or two. By the time the shoot began, the whole room was vibrating and Bear’s mood had lightened considerably. He and the band grinned at each other.
“Say, this is some good coffee!”
“Really gives you a lift, doesn’t it?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, KLSD is on the air!”
“Receiving signal loud and clear … and my TV’s not even plugged in!”
Jerry Garcia had agreed to a short interview before the set. He was instructed to make small talk as the camera moved through the “party” to their table. Garcia, incongruous among the tuxedoed crowd in a rainbow colored poncho with scraggly long hair and beard, was flying on acid and did as he was told.
JG: Well, so there we were. Six or seven of us, armed to the teeth with buck knives …
HH: (interrupting) Jerry, the Grateful Dead has been part of the San Francisco scene about four or five years. Is the hippie scene changing now? I understand that um …
JG: Yeah, we’re all big people now.
HH: I understand the Haight-Ashbury scene has changed a good deal.
JG: Well, Haight-Ashbury is just a place, you know? It’s just a street, it’s not really the thing, it never was the thing that was going on.
HH: It was just the thing that got the publicity.
JG: Right, right, that’s the thing that people could talk about because it’s easy to remember.
HH: Well … about a summer ago, they held a funeral for hippiedom.
JG: Right, right, and that was all of us saying, “We’re not going to tell anybody anymore what we’re doing.”
HH: Start enjoying it again, huh?
JG: Right! Right.
HH: Well, I noticed that with your own group, you’ve got kind of a stereo effect going on here with drums, two complete sets of drums and two drummers … um, obviously for a purpose …
JG: Right. Mutual annihilation.
HH: I see. In other words, the guys kind of compete with one another?
JG: Well, they more chase each other around. It’s like the serpent that eats its own tail and it goes round and round like that and if you can stand in between ’em, they make big figure eights on their sides in your head.
HH: I don’t think I’m going to stand between ’em, I think I’ll stay back a little ways … but I notice that the guys are near their instruments here and the kids have kind of settled down, I wonder if we could get you to do a number for us?
JG: Absolutely not.
(a half-second of silence, then laughter and applause.
(Jerry walks to stage right and perches on an amp with his acoustic guitar)
JG: You bet, right you are. Uh, Mountains Of The uh … Moon. That’s the one, the big one up there at night.
TC is at the harpsichord, while Bob Weir sits on the lip of the stage with his 12-string, chatting up a pretty blonde. The trio perform a delicate “Mountains Of The Moon” from the Dead’s upcoming LP Aoxomoxoa. The elegant couples sway in time as the cameras slowly pan across them.
Garcia and Weir then strap on their electric guitars and the full band launches into “St. Stephen”. Hef and girlfriend Barbi Benton watch, arms around each other tight with that “we just had sex in the grotto” vibe. The Dead’s two-drummer lineup is louder than hell and the weirdness starts as the acid really kicks in.
Several of Hef’s guests, eyes wide, depart the premises, claiming illness. One of the dancing bunnies disrobes as the group plays. Hef begins to suspect something is up, but Shel (who knows exactly what is up) assures his boss that this is the effect the Dead’s music has on their audience. Hef buys it and puffs his pipe. Bear lurks around, itching to dose Hef’s drink, but Silverstein is watching it closely.
Meanwhile, there is pandemonium in the booth. The house sound engineer is useless, babbling about knobs and dials and electricity to his coworkers. He is sent home and a smirking Bear is found, apologized to, and made an honorary union man for a day. Bear is used to mixing the Dead’s live shows with state of the art equipment while on massive amounts of LSD, and the CBS board, 20 years out of date, is a cinch.
On the monitor, Camera Three has the naked girl’s breasts in perfect focus and will not let them go.
“Camera Three, can you pan to a wide shot of the group?”
“OK, Camera Three, very funny. Now will you move off of her tits, please?”
“Camera Three, hello? Anybody home? George, what the hell is going on down there?”
On the floor, the voices in George’s earphones appear to be coming from another planet in some alien language. George drank a nice big cup of coffee about an hour ago and is enjoying the best day he has ever had at work. He’s never filmed a naked woman before and wants to be 100% professional and capture every moment. This band, the Dreadful Grape or whatever, was pretty darn good too. On one level, George knows that he is operating a camera on a crane, but another part of his brain is convinced he is actually riding a long-necked dinosaur. Just wait until the kids hear about this!
George’s supervisor stands on the floor yelling up at him. George has removed his shirt and headset and refuses to come down. Dammit, he has a job to do! He keeps the camera steady on the bunny’s chest.
The Grateful Dead are only scheduled to do two songs, but they jam for an hour. No one wants to stop them. The studio is full of suburbanites tripping their faces off and dancing like maniacs. Even Hef and Barbi leave their lovers’ nook to boogie. After making sure they have some usable footage, the crew shut down the equipment and call it an early night while the Dead play on. Later, Shel Silverstein tells the group that this was the nearest the show ever came to having an actual party on the set. Hef successfully avoided any surprises in his drink.
A week after the taping, the Grateful Dead record one of their performances at the Avalon Ballroom which is used for part of their epochal Live/Dead LP. The band do not play on network television again until their 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live.
Playboy After Dark lasted two seasons and 52 episodes before being canceled in 1970. Two best-of DVDs were released in 2006. The show remains a fascinating artifact of its era, a strange attempted crossover where you can almost see and hear the cultures clashing. Hugh Hefner never hosted another variety program.