The Grand Geneva Resort now stands on the land that was once the original Playboy Mansion. The memories of this time have remained etched in many minds, especially the former Playboy Bunnies who still live in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Pam Ellis, who now owns and operates Global Hands, a fair trades store in downtown Lake Geneva, is one of those who worked for the mansion and now makes the town her home. She had a lot to say about her days as a “Bunny,” her store, and her favorite Wisconsin city.
Marcia Frost: Do you want to start at the beginning and tell me how you became a Playboy Bunny?Pamela Ellis: I grew up in Iowa City, Iowa. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to be a forest ranger. I went to the University of Wyoming and was there for years. When I finished, I thought, I’m really chatty, I’m very social, and I’m watching for forest fires alone in a tower? This is probably not the right vocation for me so. I was also homesick, so I went back to where my father had just been transferred, Wauwatosa (Wisconsin).
I met a girl in Wauwatosa, who said, ‘I used to be a Bunny in Chicago, how about we go down to Lake Geneva and apply.’ So, we did. I thought I wasn’t doing anything else, so let’s do this. I got hired and she didn’t.
MF: What was it like then?
PE: Back then, that was 1976, you would have to live there. Right after the golf course, there was a Bunny dorm. It was surrounded by a chain link fence and on the top was barbed wire. It was like you felt like a prisoner. It was pretty secure.
I lived in the Bunny dorm for a couple of years. My roommate was Bunny Rachel. I think she was from Champaign. She works in town (Lake Geneva) now too, at Strawberry Fields, a small clothing boutique. I still see her all the time, which is kind of fun.
MF: Did you stay there all the time?
PE: For a couple of years, you didn’t even need a car. You could just pick up the phone and call and a car would come for you to go to work. There was a cafeteria – you didn’t even need money for food, you would eat for free. It was kind of a crazy situation that I don’t think you would ever find again.
MF: Did you enjoy being a Playboy Bunny?
PE: I think being a Bunny was good for me because you did something different just about every day, and it was seasonal. I would work at the swimming pool, or at the Bunny Hutch, where you would spin records as a DJ. There was a bubble machine and a disco ball. That’s where I met my husband!
I worked in the Cabaret with the entertainers, or at the regular Playmate Bar, which was for dinner. I also taught backgammon on Sunday mornings in the game room to Chicago kids.
MF: Did you meet any celebrities?
PE: I was a 25th Anniversary Bunny so I worked at the golf course and took pictures with Lee Trevino, Bob Hope, OJ Simpson… so many stars were there. That was what was so great, you did something different every day.
After a couple of years, I was able to move off the grounds. I was able to buy a car. We still roomed together. Bunnies always room together.
MF: Did you know Hugh Hefner?
PE: He would come a couple of times. Back then you could go to the Playboy Mansion in LA for free. A lot of girls would do that to take a vacation and not pay for a hotel. It (Los Angeles) was kind of wild back
then. It was always happening here, but it was a lot more crazy in LA than in Lake Geneva.
MF: What were Playboy Bunnies like then?
PE: There were quite a few seasonal and summer girls would do it in between college. Actually, we were pretty wholesome (laughter). I don’t know what other word to use. We were pretty good. I know the Chicago girls were a little tougher, and obviously, probably those in New York. My friends were from small towns and it was a job.
MF: At what point did you decide to leave?
PE: I got married and had a baby. I was there for four years, and I did meet the husband in the Bunny Hutch.
MF: Where did you go from there?
PE: I moved away and then the club closed and Americana took over. I raised my girls on Center Lake (Wisconsin). I then did the horticulture thing – florist, landscape designer, I worked on a private golf course as the grower, maintenance person, designer. Then it was time to get out of the sun. I was outside from sunup to sundown. I was getting older and thinking that I need to do something easier.
In that period I got divorced and remarried and lived 10 miles from Lake Geneva. I was always fascinated with fair trade.
MF: How did you get into fair trade?
PE: It started with a journalist from the Racine Journal Times. A woman named Mary Beth Danielson did an informational seminar for a church. She would go back and forth to Guatemala. She would fill suitcases. She had set up four or five different women and they would weave, make jewelry, scarves, and headbands. She would bring this stuff back in suitcases and sell it.
We were able to buy it and I thought, wow, she gives this money back and their kids are going to school, they are going to doctors, they are putting food on the table. They’re making a fair wage.
Then I discovered the fair trade federation. There’s organizers -- Ten Thousand Villages, Servv, and Greater Gift -- it was easy to get started.
MF: Why did you decide to do it in Lake Geneva?
PE: Lake Geneva is a tourist town. I knew it and I still knew a lot of people here. I was right downtown. It’s been a go the last eight years. I have a niche. People are interested and I think it’s kind of a trending thing right now. We’re making some changes about what we buy. It’s not just gifts from China.
MF: Lake Geneva has a lot of great restaurants. The food scene has picked up with the tourism. What are some of your favorite places?
MF: Yes, I had breakfast there and it was really good.
PE: And, I’ve always liked Geneva Inn. Anthony’s has been here since the 70s and they have the best fish.
MF: Any other places in Lake Geneva you love?
PE: My favorite retail store is Clear Water Outdoor. You can rent Stand up Paddle Boards and Kayak's. They also offer Adventure Club, year round activities, fairly structured but fun… Snow Shoes, Cross Country skiing, Climbing Walls in the winter.
Mia Faccia is my favorite spa. It's a salon and day spa that offers lots of services like facials, peels, massages, laser treatments, nails, makeup, and more.
Also, I've been a Rotarian for the past 8 years which is where my heart lies. Presently, I am chairing an event called Lake Geneva Women's Weekend. There’s lots of activities and events and fun!