Stuy Town author delves into history of Gramercy Park and Union Square

 

Alfred Pommer in Gramercy Park (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Alfred Pommer in Gramercy Park (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Stuyvesant Town resident Alfred Pommer, who’s been leading historical walking tours of various Manhattan neighborhoods for over 25 years, has released a new book about two neighborhoods with particularly rich but different histories — Gramercy Park and Union Square. Pommer’s wife Joyce is the co-author of the book, Exploring Gramercy Park and Union Square ($22, paperpack, The History Press), which was released on October 26.

Together, the couple has also written another book, Exploring Manhattan’s Murray Hill, and Pommer has previously written two other neighborhood history books, Exploring New York’s SoHo and Exploring the Original West Village.

On his latest venture, Pommer said he had initially pitched the idea to his publisher of writing only about Gramercy Park, but was then asked to throw the adjacent neighborhood into the mix.

“I said sure,” said Pommer, who was intrigued by the idea of side-by-side profiles of a neighborhood known for its exclusivity as well as one known for being the pulpit of the masses.

“You have two different neighborhoods in Manhattan that have distinctively different heritages,” he said. “Union Square represents the working class, the common people, while Gramercy Park is much more elite and wealthy, and like many neighborhoods in Manhattan, they’re a block apart.”

The book delves into the past of each community, with Gramercy Park always having been known for its wealthy residents but also those who were creatively gifted.

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Amidst some reductions, Players reopens

By Sabina Mollot

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)

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.”

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Players event will celebrate subway performers

By Sabina Mollot

Natalia Paruz a.k.a. the Saw Lady at work (Photo courtesy of Natlia Paruz)

Natalia Paruz a.k.a. the Saw Lady at work (Photo courtesy of Natalia Paruz)

Meet New York City’s subway superstars.

From Natalia the saw playing lady at Union Square to Alice Tan Ridley, the rhythm and blues singer who recently landed a spot on “America’s Got Talent,” performers who make their living “busking” or working for tips on the streets and subway stations will be celebrated at an upcoming show at The Players.

Suzanne Stout, a board member of The Players, said she’s producing the event, along with two other organizers, because she enjoys watching buskers perform. In addition, she was particularly impressed with them as a lot after seeing them hustle their way through this year’s particularly brutal winter.

“Busking has been around since the beginning of time,” said Stout, “and most people don’t even know what it is.”

Though the job can be tough when straphangers are stingy or just uninterested, it also has its upsides for performers. “The audience continuously passes by you. You don’t have to please anybody but yourself,” said Stout. “There’s a real ethic to it.”

Additionally, what became clear to her, especially after meeting Tan Ridley, was that busking is as much of a lifestyle as it is a gig for those who do it.

Despite having been a contender on “America’s Got Talent,” and having a daughter who shot to fame as the star of the 2009 film “Precious,” Gabourey Sidibe, Stout noted that even now, Tan Ridley “doesn’t mind being called a busker.”

It was after all how she supported her family for two decades, before AGT led to other opportunities.

And on Tuesday, May 13 at 7 p.m., Tan Ridley will be the mistress of ceremonies at The Players’ first-ever Buskers Carnival. The event is free to the public, though naturally, hats will be passed around for tips.

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Letters to the Editor, Cartoon, March 27

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

Thanks to those who helped save The Players

The Gramercy Park community is excited that The Players has finally decided to do the right thing to “Help Save The Players” by electing a highly qualified and dynamic new president, Arthur Makar, and putting a Strategic Turnaround Plan in place.

This is an important first step in the process of addressing the club’s debt, reforming its governance, and rebuilding its membership. For the first time in a very long time, we can be hopeful about the future of The Players.

In light of this, we’d like to acknowledge the efforts of those who “Helped Save The Players” by documenting and reporting the gross mismanagement and dire circumstances at the club, as it accrued $4 million in debt and was in “imminent danger of closing.”

Since a major focus of the GPBA’s mission is historic preservation, we could think of no more important challenge to undertake than to help save The Players. The club not only stands as a monument to theatre life in New York City, but is a cultural treasure of the American people. Its 1844 Greek Revival townhouse at 16 Gramercy Park South is a National Historic Landmark, and sits on one of the original lots laid out in the 1831 Samuel B. Ruggles Gramercy Park Trust. A statue of The Players’ founder Edwin Booth, sits in the center of Gramercy Park.

Because of our community’s passionate interest and concern for The Players’ survival here, we refused to be bystanders as the club’s facade and financial circumstances continued to deteriorate. We felt it was our obligation to work closely with the media to bring to light the alarming findings of The Players Financial Audit Committee’s (FAC) 18-page report, documenting its shocking mismanagement.

Our deepest gratitude goes to the FAC, spearheaded by Lee Pfeiffer and Lynne Lerner, for their relentless pursuit of the truth, despite many obstacles put in their path. The FAC’s dogged determination and countless hours of work led to their extensive report detailing the desperate circumstances at the club. It was their report, which was the catalyst for the turnaround of the club.

We also want to thank Town & Village Editor Sabina Mollot for her outstanding reporting of the mismanagement and dysfunction at The Players. Mollot, who is widely known for her excellent in-depth investigative journalism, was someone we counted on at every turn to bring to the public’s attention the sad state of affairs at The Players.

Without the determined efforts of the FAC, the media and The Gramercy Park Block Association in exposing the truth, we believe The Players had little chance of survival on Gramercy Park.

Arlene S. Harrison
President, The Gramercy Park Block Association
Trustee of
Gramercy Park

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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.

Roaring into the New Year at The Players

The Minsky Sisters perform a tap dancing routine at The Salon, a 1920s-themed New Year’s party that took place at The Players. The Salon events are organized by Stuyvesant Town native Patrick Soluri. (Photo by Jane Kratochvil)

The Minsky Sisters perform a tap dancing routine at The Salon, a 1920s-themed New Year’s party that took place at The Players. The Salon events are organized by Stuyvesant Town native Patrick Soluri. (Photo by Jane Kratochvil)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

New Year’s Eve is one of the biggest party nights of the year, but The Players club on Gramercy Park made the one before that a night to remember as well. The New Year’s Eve Eve event at the club was hosted by The Salon, which organizes parties inspired by European salons that brought people together to perform jazz music, dance, share their art and enjoy each other’s company.

Advance tickets for the event were sold out and while a limited number of door tickets were made

Bassist Brandi Disterhelft plays with Svetlana and the Delancey Five at the Players' Kinstler Room. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Bassist Brandi Disterhelft plays with Svetlana and the Delancey Five at the Players’ Kinstler Room. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

available, founder of The Salon, Patrick Soluri, said that within 15 minutes of the club opening its doors at 7 p.m., those were sold out as well.

The New Year’s Eve Eve party was the first time The Salon hosted an event at the Players since 2009. Joe Canela, a bartender and union rep for employees at the social club, said it was just one of several events the club used to host that have returned since the departure of the club’s former executive director, John Martello, last spring. Martello had come under fire for turning down events from groups that paid rental fees for the space, instead giving space away free for events held by his associates.

Soluri, a classical musician who grew up in Stuyvesant Town, said he originally started organizing the events in his apartment in 2001 and did them for a few years wherever he happened to be living. In 2006, The Salon had to be moved to a public venue because it got too crowded for Soluri’s home. The 2013 party was the sixth time it took place and although the venue has changed over the years, he wants The Salon to be based at the Players.

“I’m planning on hosting all my main events, about six a year, at the Players,” he said. “I’m hoping that it will be a kind of home and that’s what I’ve been working on.”

Saxophone player Patience Higgins plays with Queen Esther and the Hot Five in the Library Lounge. (Photo by Jane Kratochvil)

Saxophone player Patience Higgins plays with Queen Esther and the Hot Five in the Library Lounge. (Photo by Jane Kratochvil)

The Salon’s most recent  party featured performances from 40 musicians and dancers, with classic burlesque, tap dancing and even a free swing dancing lesson and attendees were dressed to the nines in 1920s attire. Performances took place in rooms throughout the club, with big band music, jazz and blues performed in the library and on the stage at the main dance floor. The Card Room and the Booth Room, which is normally closed to the public, were open to a select few with VIP tickets and those visitors were treated to music from accordionist Benjamin Ickies and card tricks from a magician.

There were also a number of men at the party wearing radishes on their lapel and Soluri explained the unusual tradition.

“(It was) instigated by longtime dancer Michael Ingbar many years ago,” he said. “Those gents that dressed like gents get a radish as their boutonniere.”

The next big event he has in the works is a Mardi Gras party. The date is already set for Fat Tuesday, on March 4 this year, although Soluri said that tickets aren’t on sale just yet. But he hosted a Mardi Gras party last year at a venue in the Lower East Side and he said that the event this year will be true to the music and style of the era. Tickets for the event are open to the public and Soluri said that he tries to keep the prices low. General admission advance tickets for the New Year’s Eve Eve event were $30.

Attendees enjoy the party on the main dance floor. (Photo by Jane Kratochvil)

Attendees enjoy the party on the main dance floor. (Photo by Jane Kratochvil)

Players director John Martello resigns

John Martello at the club's Edwin Booth Room last year Photo by Sabina Mollot

John Martello at the club’s Edwin Booth Room last year
Photo by Sabina Mollot

By Sabina Mollot

John Martello, the executive director of The Players, who’s been blamed for the current financial disaster at the Gramercy Park club, has resigned, the club announced today.

In an official statement, Johnnie Planco, club president, said, “After nearly 20 years of serving as executive director of The Players Club, John Martello has resigned from his position. On behalf of the Board of Directors we wish to thank him for his years of service and wish him well on his future endeavors.”

The statement, which came from the club’s vice president, James Fenniman, via email, added that there would be a press briefing on Monday afternoon, but until then, “no further information will be provided.”

The club held a meeting on Wednesday evening that was closed to the press and according to an employee, this is when the decision was made. On March 14, at another meeting, the club’s membership learned through an audit committee that the club was in danger of closing due to allegations of money mismanagement.

As Town & Village has previously reported, Martello is being criticized by members and former members as well as employees for giving away memberships and spaces for events that could have earned the club $3,500. The club’s seven-member executive committee has also come under fire for having relationships with the institution that could be considered a conflict of interest. Two sell insurance to the club and another has employed Martello as a New York Film Academy teacher. As has also been reported by T&V, club members kept propping up the club for years whenever there was some sort of financial emergency through large loans and gifts. One loan from a member was for $2 million. One gift, from a former member, for fixing up an office was $60,000. Another member repaired the water-damaged Grill Room after an oversized ceiling panel came crashing down during a dinner.

Martello has said the club was doing poorly because membership took a nosedive during the recession.