From bunny ears to stovepipe hat

Fred Antil’s fascinating history

Created date

October 8th, 2019
Fred Antil delights a young student with his impersonation of Abraham Lincoln.

Fred Antil is a Renaissance man. The former Marine, hospitality executive, industry consultant, and Cornell University professor has two master’s degrees and a doctorate. He wrote a book about Abraham Lincoln and reenacts Lincoln’s life for schools and civic organizations. He founded and runs the very popular history club at Ann’s Choice.

Yet, one brief episode in his career garners the most attention: A two-year stint with the Playboy Club. Says Fred with a smile, “For those who remember the ‘swinging 60s,’ images of glamorous bunnies in satin costumes and Hugh Hefner in silk pajamas still fascinate.” 

Management, Marines, and Marriott

Fred earned his bachelor’s from Cornell University’s prestigious hotel management program. After graduation, he joined the Marines as a communications officer and led a school that taught senior noncommissioned officers and junior officers how to be better instructors. When his service was completed, he joined Marriott Corporation’s personnel division. 

“At the time, Marriott was a small outfit, running Hot Shoppes restaurants around Washington, D.C.,” recalls Fred. “They were expanding into hotels, so it was an excellent learning opportunity for me. They liked that I had trained Marines and wanted me to apply similar principles to developing their workforce. I quickly moved from opening hotels to the home office.”

Bunny ears beckoned

At the same time, Hugh Hefner, Playboy magazine’s founder, was undertaking a major brand expansion: He planned to open exclusive Playboy clubs in major American cities, featuring gourmet dining, A-list entertainers, and uniquely costumed waitresses called “bunnies.” He envisioned the clubs as the embodiment of Playboy’s unapologetic commitment to self-expression and lavish living. 

Hefner had assembled an all-star food and beverage team. All he needed was someone to direct personnel operations. Intrigued by the opportunity, Fred took the position and moved to Chicago.

“Hefner’s idea became a juggernaut,” he says. “People stood in line to get in and to experience the Playboy lifestyle, if only for an evening. Girls lined up to become bunnies, perhaps seeing it as an entrée into show business. The brand was iconic, probably one of the most successful of all time, and the operation was incredible.”

Fred focused on creating exceptional managers using principles he had applied at Marriott. “Culturally, the two organizations could not have been more different,” he notes, “but hospitality is a constant. If you provide an extraordinary experience to your guests, they keep coming back.”

People often ask Fred what “really” went on inside the clubs. He suspects his answer disappoints. “Despite their sexy image, the clubs were squeaky clean,” he says. “Otherwise, they risked losing their liquor licenses. We kept a tight rein—no drugs, and bunnies could not date customers.”

After two years, shifts in the culture convinced Fred that the Playboy model would soon be out of step with younger customers. “Without them, you lose the hospitality game,” he says. “They were flocking to singles bars. American mores were undergoing a sea change. It was time to move on.”

Fred spent the next six years as vice president of the American Management Association, a consulting firm that provides executive and management seminars to companies seeking excellence in organizational behavior. 

In 1983, he returned to Cornell’s School of Hotel Management as a professor and special assistant to the dean. While helming the career planning office, he created a 12-credit externship that placed students in the world’s most prestigious hotels, including Raffles in Singapore and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. He retired in 1993.

In Lincoln’s footsteps

One of Fred’s abiding passions is Abraham Lincoln. Over the years, he retraced Lincoln’s steps and collected little-known factoids about the sixteenth president. After he retired, he compiled his research in a book titled A Lincoln Treasure Trove. “It was great fun to do, and I hope people find it fun to read,” says Fred. “This was a bucket list item; seeing it come to fruition was fantastic.”  

Fred has taken his love of Lincoln even further: He now reenacts key parts of the president’s life in schools, at Craven Hall, and at the John Fitch Steamboat Museum. He also was the subject of an Ann’s Choice TV series called One Man’s Search for Lincoln.  

“My trajectory might seem unusual,” says Fred, “but if you stay curious and open to new things, you never know what adventures await.” From Playboy to professor to Lincoln…stay tuned for what’s next!