"Every man would like to be a black sheep if he could. I'm giving him the chancein a harmless way, of course." With these words, burly, grey-haired Burton Browne, a fulltime adman and part-time restaurateur, broke ground this week for the latest firewatering place to serve Chicago's expense-account society.
In the suburb of Highland Park will go up a Black Sheep Club where the pretty waitresses will be long of leg and short of clothes, the drinks expensive ($1.50 a shot), and the access limited to gentlemen keyholders and their guests. The building will be the newest addition to the fast-growing number of key clubs whose keys have become a new status symbol for those who do their playing on expense accounts.
Cuties & Cold Cuts. The vogue was started by Burt Browne, 55, president of Burton Browne Advertising ($5,000,000 a year in billings, mostly in electronics accounts), who declares he is "the only saloonkeeper in the country listed in Who's Who, the Social Register and Dun & Bradstreet." In 1941, needing a place to entertain the "advertising manager from Seattle after feeding him a steak and three martinis," Browne converted a small office adjoining his agency into the Sundown Room, equipped it with a bar and attractive barmaid. Soon the Sundown Room became such a popular gathering place for Chicago hucksters that Browne could hardly get a drink in his own club.
In 1953 Browne got 15 friends to invest $1,000 apiece in an expanded version of the Sundown, opened the Gaslight Club. He decorated it to resemble a fancy turn-of-the-century saloon in red velvet, covered the walls with paintings of nudes, supplied a ragtime piano player and free platters of cold cuts. The biggest attractions were beautiful waitresses in abbreviated versions of 1905 ball gowns. Mostly aspiring models and actresses, they earn up to $15,000 a year, are strictly supervised by Browne's pretty wife, Jean.
The Chicago Gaslight was so successful that Browne opened another club in Manhattan in 1956, a year and a half later opened a third in Washington. Membership in the three clubs is now more than 48,000, and altogether they are expected to gross about $4,000,000 this year, net their stockholders more than $750,000.
Playboys. Browne has many imitators. Playboy Magazine did a story on the Chicago Gaslight about four years ago, got so interested that it opened its own club, intends to have clubs in 50 other cities within the next two years. Sensing the trend, nightclubs in many cities, e.g., the Roaring Twenties in Beverly Hills, are setting one room aside as a key club, stocking it with the shapeliest waitresses.
Since Browne feels he can oversee no more than the three Gaslight clubs, he set up Black Sheep clubs, which have Gaslight atmosphere but are owned and operated by local businessmen. He charges $8,500 for the franchise, plus $300 a month in royalty. So far, three Black Sheep clubs are in operation in San Francisco, Atlanta and Scottsdale, Ariz. Franchises for 32 clubs have been sold.
Now Browne has another project in mind. He wants to set up in Paris the kind of romantically naughty bistro that he thinks every U.S. tourist dreams about finding therebut never does.