Players aims to attract corporate crowd

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)

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)

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.

Players workers threaten to rally

Players President Johnnie Planco at the club in April (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Players President Johnnie Planco at the club in April (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

The unionized workers at The Players who’ve been battling with administrators there for years over the continuation of their contract have finally declared war on the cash-strapped club.

The reason, according to Joe Canela, a bartender there who’s also the club’s union rep, is that he heard through the grapevine that the club is looking to get rid of the unionized employees.

The Gramercy Park institution has been in danger of closing its doors due to money it owes to various parties that’s believed to be around $4 million. Additionally, according to Canela, the club hasn’t been earning much income by renting space out for events because there haven’t been too many of those lately.

“There’s no business in there,” he said. (A scroll through the club’s event calendar, which is on its website, shows numerous private events taking place in the coming week, though it isn’t clear if they’re revenue-producing ones or not.)

The club’s president, Johnnie Planco, declined to comment on union-related issues.

As for the union, Canela said negotiations were supposed to have taken place in September, but instead there hasn’t been any communication.

“We kind of feel betrayed,” he said.  “We understood that once the crooked administration was out, the right thing was going to be done,” he added, in reference to the club’s ousting of its longtime executive director, John Martello, back in April. Martello came under fire for giving away spaces for events that would normally be rented, though he defended those events as being part of the programming for members.

At this time, there are around 20 unionized workers — waiters, bartenders and kitchen staffers — around half of them full-time, the other half part-time, working only at events. Earlier in the summer, the club fired the longtime chef at The Players, a $70,000 position, but Canela indicated this was no great loss to the kitchen staff.

Additionally, for the past couple of weeks, he said the club has not paid its workers. During a recent event, some employees were going to walk out in protest, but Canela said he stopped them. Instead, if nothing changes, the union will be holding a rally in a few weeks. Canela added that the workers have the support of some well-known actors, though he wouldn’t name them.

However, in response to the union’s plans, one longtime member, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the club’s leadership isn’t, through its lack of communication, necessarily trying to get rid of the union.

“As far as I know, nobody’s trying to throw them out,” said the member, adding that some members are just hoping the workers’ fees will be renegotiated to make the club’s own fees for events more competitive. “I don’t think they’ve intentionally (disrespected) the workers,” the source added, but the club’s leaders have been busy “trying to keep things afloat. So you forget to do the right thing because you’re in survival mode.”

Another member agreed, saying as far as he knew, club leaders were actually trying to preserve employees’

Front room at The Players (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Front room at The Players (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

jobs. Still, he said, he understood why the workers wouldn’t trust that the board or the president has their best interests at heart. This would be because in 2008, the union workers were assured their jobs were safe when the club’s kitchen and bar affairs were turned over to an outside catering company, only to then get fired. They sued to get their jobs back though and won. The catering company is no longer involved at The Players. Still, said the member, at this time, “There is no concerted effort to get rid of the union. The idea that there’s some sort of conspiracy is just not true.”

It was in March when the general membership of the club, through the findings of an internal audit committee, discovered just how heavily the club was bleeding money. As T&V previously reported, this past summer, Planco made a plea to members for donations to pay a tax lien on the club that the city had sold for around $251,500.

“It seems,” Planco shared with members, “that we haven’t made a payment on the payment plan entered in October, 2011 with NYC in almost a year and that is why our lien was sold.”

Other payments the club owed included sales taxes to the state, including interest and penalties (a total of around $49,000), long deferred façade repairs (estimated to be a $325,000 job) and union fees as well as fees for various vendors, though exactly how much even Planco had no idea.

In 2012, Martello had blamed the loss of income at the club on the recession causing members to cancel memberships, which cost around $2,000 a year. However, many club members blame the longtime board members, including Planco, and at a meeting held in June, some members believed they’d have a chance to vote him out. However, the meeting was adjourned before a vote could be held. He was re-elected by the board though.

Planco has told Town & Village there are plans in place to raise cash for the club, though he declined to share what they were. This week, he didn’t respond to a request for comment on the progress of those plans.