Playboy Turns 50

Fifty years ago it was a shocking, controversial and culture changing movement.

Today, Playboy magazine, (search) which celebrates its fiftieth year in publication next month, may be an anachronism. Which is not to say that it is no longer relevant, however for any number of reasons (a booming porn industry, Hollywood movies, the pill, other mags), its cultural impact is much softer these days.

But then again, that happens with age.

Playboy was the brainchild of former Esquire magazine staffer Hugh Hefner, who decided to stay in Chicago when Hearst Publications moved Esquire's headquarters to New York City.  With just $600 of his own money and $8,000 from investors, including his mother, "Hef" started a cultural revolution.

"My mother didn't believe in the magazine but she believed in her son," Hefner told FOX News at the Playboy fiftieth annivesary party in New York City last night.

"We publish a very good magazine, and we were the first people to ever do it," he said. "A magazine for single guys started with Playboy, and the miracle for me is that it's still alive and hot for young men and women too."

Thumbing through the fiftieth anniversary edition -- which Hefner calls "a reflection of the past and a sense of where we're going" -- pages are filled with highlights spanning the last half-century, from the first issue featuring nude pictorials of Marilyn Monroe, to classic jokes and comics, to contributions from the likes of best-selling author Scott Turrow, playwright David Mamet and the late George Plimpton -- a one-time editorial director at the magazine.

"I was single at the time, which was a plus, obviously," Plimpton wrote of his job with Playboy, shortly before his death in September. "But on the other hand there was the problem of informing my mother -- not to mention my father, a rather stern Wall Street lawyer -- that I had finally found a decent job in Chicago: 'And what is that, son?" he wrote.

In the "Golden Memories" section of the issue, celebrities from the aforementioned Monroe, to Madonna, Brooke Burke, Elle MacPherson, Sophia Loren, Jane Mansfield and Bo Derek, among others, bare their all, along with any number of centerfolds who became famous only after the fact, like Pamela Anderson.

"You could say I owe my career to Hef," said Anderson, who made a toast to Hef while singer Ashanti sang "Happy Birthday" atop a stage made in the shape of a cake.

Also in the fifieth anniversary edition:

The iconic Jack Nicholson is the subject of the Playboy Interview, (search) where he speaks [rather too] honestly about sex and viagra.  The editors of this issue also challenge some film directors to direct a photo shoot to tell their sexual fantasy in just one page -- with no dialogue.  Among those contributing: Spike Lee, Brett Ratner, Michael Bay and Kevin Smith, whose  fantasy pictorial stars his wife being seduced by Superman.

Hunter S. Thompson, Al Franken and Norman Mailer also make contributions, but the most interesting thing about it is the feeling that one is looking at America come of age through the eyes of Playboy.

The 1950's established the mag as more than just another "girly" publication, with fictional contributions like Walter Tevis's "The Hustler" and Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."  Artist Leroy Neiman's (search) "Femlin," a cartoon vixen, "enlivened the Party Jokes page."

In the '60s, the Playboy Interview came to prominence with in-depth conversations with the likes of Fidel Castro, Frank Sinatra and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the "Playboy Bunny," became the sex symbol for the ages.

In the '70s Hef moved west, establishing the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles as the setting for male and female fantasies alike, and Jimmy Carter nearly impeached himself out of the running for the White House with a candid interview revealing the lust in his heart for women.

The pages devoted to the most recent years continue to feature nude pictorials of models and celebs, interviews with powerfuld men and contributions from the literary elite.

The irony here is that in the last half-century, the magazine's format hasn't changed much.  Rather, it is the audience that has become desensitized to the once-taboo themes, especially considering the way newer magazines have exploited them.

"Some of what Maxim and other mags have done does indicate there is a different way graphically to present articles and to engage the young reader," said Playboy CEO Christy Hefner, Hugh's daughter. "But frankly, we think the sophistication of Playboy will always be in a class by itself. Young guys will read Maxim for a year or two and then graduate to Playboy," she says.

In the '70s Playboy's monthly circulation reached over 7 million readers.  Nowadays it's around 3 million.  But the numbers don't tell the whole story.  With Television, Internet, DVD's and Pay-Per-View revenue, the company is reaching more consumers today than it ever has.

"You're absolutely right," said Christy Hefner.  "And the largest growing audience is 18-24 year olds, so that means we'll be around for the next 50 years as well," she said.

Longtime Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Helen Gurly Brown was on hand last night with her movie producer husband David Brown ("Driving Miss Daisy").

"Hef was a great friend to me when I first started at Cosmo," Gurly Brown said. "I was an amateur and he told me which writers to hire and how much to pay them," she said.

Hef, donning his signature smoking jacket and surrounded by Ashanti, Anderson and a bevy of Playboy Bunnies, urged his guests to "party on," but not before telling FOX News:

"The three great inventions in the history of time are fire, the wheel and Playboy."