Loan breathes life into Players

Money being invested into dining service, events

The Players at 16 Gramercy Park South (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

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.”

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Players to win award for facade restoration

The Players at 16 Gramercy Park South (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

The Players at 16 Gramercy Park South (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

The Players at 16 Gramercy Park South has seen its fair share of tumult in the last couple years as the effort to dig itself out of its longstanding, crippling debts continues. However, its members will soon have something to celebrate since the club will be receiving a preservation award for its work on the building’s façade.

The club is being honored on April 30 at the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Awards along with Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, Tavern on the Green and other historical landmarks in the city. The award, from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, honors architects, craftspeople and building owners for their contributions to preserving city landmarks.

“It’s considered the Oscars of historic preservation,” Mary Workman, president of the Players Preservation Fund, said of the honor.

Workman, a theater director and instructor at The Acting Studio and a member of the Players since 2006, founded the Players Preservation Fund at the club as a 501c3 in 2013.

“Through the fund, we were able to use members’ tax deductible donations to do the brilliant renovations,” she said.

She added that the reconstruction began before the fund was officially founded but she wanted reassurance that the work would be completed and thought that members might want to help the efforts. She was correct, as the fund raised more than $500,000 for the project.

Workman said that $400,000 of the money raised went to the work on the façade itself and $37,000 went towards the restoration of the stained glass that is part of the façade.

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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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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.

Players gets new president

Arthur Makar, a veteran of the nonprofit sector, has replaced Johnnie Planco as president of The Players.

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.

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 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.