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.”
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.