By Sabina Mollot
Prior to the reopening of The Players after its traditional summer hiatus, club brass was focused on money-saving moves, such as a couple of key employees being let go, including the general manager, and paring down the club’s dining service, which is now for events only. Otherwise only the bar will remain open for business on a regular basis.
Reached earlier this week, Club President Arthur Makar said the club is still trying to dig its way out of the serious financial hole it’s been in, and is also considering selling a valuable John Singer Sargent painting of actor Joseph Jefferson to raise money.
Makar said the current debt is around $3.5 million, but said the club was also re-evaluating its profit and loss on events, both for members and external ones in which hosts pay rent to the club for the space. Additionally, in recent months, the club’s event organizer was fired, with Makar explaining the club just couldn’t afford to keep him.
“One of the reasons The Players has been in such bad shape over the years is that we’ve never looked at, as well as we should, what it costs to run the events we were holding,” said Makar. “We have to at least break even on the member events and we have to at least make a little bit of money on the events run by people from the outside. In that case, we’re not different from any other club.”
Makar said the club hopes to start serving meals again “as soon as we possibly can,” since the club recently got its city-appointed grade raised from a C to an A. “But,” he added, “I don’t have to tell you what kind of financial shape we’re in. Until we get our house in order, it’ll just be bar service. The way the meals were structured it caused us to hemorrhage money.”
One of the people to recently lose his position was Joe Canela, a longtime bartender at The Players who also represents the club’s other unionized workers.
Canela told Town & Village he believed he was fired for retaliation over his having filed a complaint about the way employees were recently getting paid. Canela said employees had been getting paid with handwritten checks, making it difficult to keep track of how much they were getting throughout the year and other things like vacation time. He said at a meeting held last week with then-general manager Michael Smith, he’d been warned not to make any complaints or there would be consequences.
He also said the employees were also facing steep wage cuts of 60 percent as they waited for a new contract and consolidation of certain positions. Since his termination — which he was told was to cut costs — Canela said he has filed a complaint with the National Labor Board.
Canela had also locked horns with the club’s administration prior to Makar for years over union labor issues, including, last year, late payments. He’s accused the previous club director, John Martello, of trying to get rid of the union.
Makar declined to comment on any of Canela’s claims, only confirming that he was no longer working for the club, and to say the club was in the midst of negotiating with the union.
Makar said he wasn’t expecting there to be any further staff reduction.
A board member who heads the club’s management committee, Michael Barra, said that while the club had been making some painful decisions, it was the result of the board doing a “bottom to top look” at the financials.
“When you do that, things get shaken up,” he said. “Otherwise you’re not fulfilling your fiduciary duty as a nonprofit entity.”
Barra added that the possible selling of the Sargent painting isn’t considered part of the business plan, which is to offer more programming that will interest members and others into becoming members.
“No club is going to survive by selling off its assets,” he said. Programming for members will include more high-end theater events, including talkbacks, jazz events and more reciprocal services with other clubs. There will also continue to be occasional events open to nonmembers, like a Gramercy Park cabaret show scheduled for September 29 at $25 a ticket.
Additionally, new board member Jane Gollong, who’s done fundraising for Opera America, is handling fundraising now at The Players. A longtime employee, Robin Richardson, has been given the title of operations manager.
On Monday, a party was held to celebrate the club’s reopening and on Tuesday, there was a board meeting.
The next day, Makar said the annual budget still hadn’t been determined, due to some “gaps that have to be filled in.” However, he said what came out of the meeting was the goals for the club’s strategic turnaround committee, which are to finalize the union agreement and manage the longterm debt while figuring out the profit and loss for each of its offerings.