The Players at 16 Gramercy Park South (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
While the historic Players Club on Gramercy Park has been struggling for the last few years with controversy over financial mismanagement, changes in administration and over $4 million in debt, the new administration has quietly been working on adjusting course to increase revenue and get programming back on track.
The club did not pay off the debt outright, but President Arthur Makar said that they were able to obtain an $8.5 million loan through a single lender and will be using the money to revitalize the club and increase revenue. The loan came from the Terrapin Lending Company, which issues loans to small businesses.
“We were in debt up to our ears,” Makar said. “Through (club treasurer Michael McCurdy’s) good work, we did something that everyone said was impossible to do: find financing to move us forward.”
Town & Village reported in 2014 that the club was considering selling off artwork to deal with some of the debt, including a valuable John Singer Sargent painting of actor Joseph Jefferson, but Makar said the club luckily did not have to resort to this tactic.
“We’re proud we ended up not having to consider selling the Sargent,” said Michael Barra, chair of the the managing committee and executive committee of the Board of Directors. “If the financing hadn’t come through, we would have been in dire straits but we were even able to lend the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They recently returned it so he’s back in the clubhouse where he’ll be for all time. The club has not and will not be selling any of our artwork. It’s not fiscally prudent.”
Players President Arthur Makar with Michael Barra, the club’s managing committee chair on the night of the club’s post-summer reopening party (Photo by Nicole Donje)
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.”
Arthur Makar, president of The Players, hopes to attract young, corporate members, but first focus on improving the cash-strapped club. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
Arthur Makar, the man who’s been the president of The Players for a total of two weeks, knows that turning the financially strapped club around isn’t going to be simple. Still, he said, while seated for an interview with Town & Village in one of the club’s spacious rooms, “It isn’t rocket science. It’s more like ditch digging.”
His vision for the club, which was founded in 1888 as a place for men of the theater to rub elbows with those in other lines of work, goes back to its roots. The idea, he said, is to reach out to the some of the community’s corporate neighbors — Credit Suisse, New York Life and other financial institutions — and rebrand the club as the place to go to make deals over lunch.
Makar, who’s also the executive director of the nonprofit organization Fight for Sight, noted in a recent PowerPoint presentation to the club’s members the importance of attracting young professionals “who can afford annual dues.” For some time the average age of members has been 50, although Makar said he’s started seeing more in their 20s and 30s.
Currently, there are 375 members who pay around $2,000 in annual membership fees as well as an additional 75 or so who are honorary or lifetime members. It’s not nearly enough, considering some members are non-local and many of those who are local work in other neighborhoods, and don’t use the club during the day.
Still, Makar said marketing the place to potential members isn’t going to happen any time soon. First, the club has to improve its dining service — and image. An inspection earlier in the month by the health department left the club’s front door with the dreaded scarlet letter — a C. The grade was issued for six sanitary violations, including evidence of live mice and improper storage of food.
“We have to get it from a C to an A,” said Makar. “We have to make sure we address all those issues.”
Once that happens, Makar said he wants to make the club’s dining experience feel more special, by improving the ambiance in the dining room. “Just basic things. You light votive candles and make sure the lighting isn’t up to a roar.”
Another plan is to offer additional dining with a more upscale menu in the club’s Kinstler room, which offers a direct view of the park across the street. This has had a soft launch already “to test the waters.”
In his PowerPoint presentation, Makar stressed that he didn’t want members to only be dining at the club out of a sense of duty.
“A good restaurant always has patrons,” he said. “We do not want you to feel that dining at the club is an obligation to keep the club solvent. We want you and your guests to enjoy the experience.”
Workers repair the club building’s facade. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
Meanwhile, the club’s new general manager, Michael Smith, is in the midst of working out a contract with its unionized kitchen and wait staff. Late last year, the club’s chef was let go and currently the sous chef is running the kitchen. Also last year, the club had trouble making payroll on several occasions and the club owed so much money to various vendors and to the government in taxes that even its then-president Johnnie Planco didn’t know the exact amount of debt. And even now, Makar, who’s worked in the nonprofit world for years, isn’t sure, either.
“I don’t have my mind wrapped around the numbers,” he admitted. “We haven’t had an outside examination of the books in three years.”
To get those numbers figured out by June, which is when the club’s membership holds its annual meeting, The Players has hired an auditing firm.
In the meantime, to bring in revenue, along with the dining room, there’s been a renewed focus on renting rooms out for events. There may also be a “reassessment” of member fees, which could mean a one-time spike in dues. There’s been talk about selling a prized painting by John Singer Sargent, but, said Makar, members would have to be informed about that and other options to bring in money first.
One thing he’s hesitant to do though is approach the club’s more deep-pocketed members for donations.
“In the past there were a lot of wealthy people to bail out the club,” said Makar, “but that kind of culture has changed. To move forward we really need to do more fundraising instead of discretely approaching someone.”
Asking the club’s more famous members, who include Jimmy Fallon and Uma Thurman, for any kind of help is also not part of his plan. Again, he said, improving services comes first as does keeping members in the loop of the financials, something that hadn’t been done in the past.
“We have to get that transparency in place before anyone give us a dime,” said Makar.
Transparency has been a part of a “strategic turnaround” plan the club’s board recently came up with, and has included the voting in of Makar, two new vice presidents and the club’s first ever chairman, James Larocca.
Makar’s presidency has since been cheered by Arlene Harrison, president of the Gramercy Park Block Association, who’s been a critic of Planco and the board for not revealing the club’s debt to members sooner.
Harrison, after meeting with Makar, said she was “very impressed” with him due to his experience working in nonprofits.
“I believe he has the understanding and expertise in many areas of nonprofit management, including strategic planning, budgeting and fundraising, that are crucial for the turnaround of the club,” she said this week.
Makar, meanwhile, said he suspects he was elected because he’s relatively new. He joined the board last year after the club’s financial woes, much of which have been blamed on the former executive director, John Martello, were out in the open.
“I didn’t have time to get into all the politics,” he said.
Planco, meanwhile, also said Makar had his full support. Commenting on the regime change, Planco, a talent agent who rents an office at the club, said, “I think we all thought it was time for fresh horses. So I’m delighted. And I’m still here and will keep doing what I do.”
In other club news, the outside of the building on Gramercy Park South has seen some improvement. After having to come to a halt due to financial reasons, work recently resumed on its landmarked facade and a scaffolding that had shrouded the building finally came down last week.
Arthur Makar, a veteran of the nonprofit sector, has replaced Johnnie Planco as president of The Players.
By Sabina Mollot
The Players club, which for the past year has been struggling to stay afloat after having fallen up to $4 million in debt, has appointed a new president, replacing its longtime leader Johnnie Planco.
The new president and CEO is Arthur Makar, the executive director of nonprofit organization Fight for Sight, the club announced to members this week. He was elected to the position by the club’s all-volunteer board. They also elected attorney James L. Larocca, who’s also a playwright and actor, to a newly created position of chairman of the board. Planco has remained on as a board member.
The elections came a year after the club admitted to members just how deeply in debt the historic institution was. Many blamed then-Executive Director John Martello, who was soon ousted, though he’d blamed the economy for the club’s dwindling membership.
The financial problems led to stoppage of work on the club building’s landmarked facade, failure to make payroll on several occasions and owing so much to the government in taxes and fines and in payments to vendors that even Planco admitted he didn’t know the full amount.
But some club members came to the rescue, giving cash gifts and loans, and the club formed a “strategic turnaround committee” with the goal of reforming the administration and enriching the programming. The plan, said the club in its emailed announcement, was unanimously adopted by the board “on an urgent basis” and presented to members at a meeting last Thursday.
In an official statement, Makar said, “I am committing the new leadership team to the highest standards of integrity and accountability, transparency, collegiality, and creativity in updating programs and services and building a strong future for the club we love. Even with our incredibly rich history to date, our best days lie ahead.”
Makar, a veteran of the nonprofit sector, also sits on the board of the Cherry Lane Theater.
Part of the turnaround plan also includes improving the club’s restaurant service, which Makar called “a priority.” In its most recent city inspection, on March 12, the club received a C grade for six sanitary violations, including evidence of live mice and improper storage of food.
“It’s kind of a hard sell to say, ‘Come dine in our fabulous C-rated club,” he told Town & Village. “We have to get it up to an A.”
Other priorities, he said, are to bring more industry types in as members and to improve and expand the programming. In recent months, there’s been more of a focus on events and a few parties recently packed the place, including one celebrating the roaring 20s.
Additionally, work has resumed on the Gramercy Park South building’s facade, and Makar said the scaffolding may come down later this week.
Cheering Makar’s election was Arlene Harrison, president of the Gramercy Park Block Association, who’d been a vocal critic of Planco for not stepping down amidst the cub’s financial woes.
“The election of Makar and his new leadership team is an important first step in the club’s turnaround, and we are optimistic for the first time in a long time about the club’s future,” she said.
In related news, the club’s board also appointed three new officers last week and also voted to recognize Planco as “prince of the Players,” according to one source. However, the club source added, that vote has since been withdrawn with regards to the departing president, after some members complained that the title should be reserved for the club’s founder, actor Edwin Booth.
Makar didn’t want to comment on this, but said Planco was okay with Makar’s taking over, and was one of the board members who’d voted him into the role.