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Gramercy Park's Players Club Crumbling Under $2M Debt

By Amy Zimmer | April 26, 2012 6:45am
The enlarged dining room the night it opened in 1961
The enlarged dining room the night it opened in 1961
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Players Club archives

MANHATTAN — The National Arts Club isn't the only storied Gramercy Park institution embroiled in controversy.

Next door, The Players — the famed 124-year-old actors society — is roughly $2 million in the red and has a hazardously crumbling façade, tax filings and Buildings Department records show.

Many members were outraged after the club lobbed them with a $450 assessment this summer to stave the cash hemorrhage.  They were also angry about the recent, quiet sale of one of its prized paintings by famed turn-of-the-century portrait artist John Singer Sargent.

An auditing firm issued a warning in September "indicating that under the present financial situation, the future of the Club could be imperiled if losses aren't dramatically reduced,"  member Lee Pfeiffer wrote in a recent club newsletter.

The club's executive director John Martello, who has been at the helm for roughly 20 years, told DNAinfo that after the economic problems of 2008, the club lost a third of its 750 members. It then mounted a massive recruitment effort and is now at roughly 625 members.

But it needs 1,000 dues-paying members to break even, Martello said.

"Our problems have stemmed from the clear fact that for at least the last 20 years the board and membership have run this club as if we have had 1,000 dues-paying members, when we’ve only had 500 to 600 members," Martello wrote to members in August.

Internal club strife has been growing, and club members have been calling for Players to open up its finances. 

Some have accused Martello of giving away memberships or waiving room rentals. Some said they tried to schedule events such as weddings that would bring in revenue, but saw their calls go unanswered.  Many complained about the general management of the club, which was fined $100,000 last year after a dispute with union workers.

In September, members created an emergency committee to analyze expenses and find ways to cut costs. Their report is expected soon, club insiders said.

Last week, a group called "Save the Players" launched a website, saying the "years of lethargy and mismanagement must be righted, and we’re here to help."

The so-called Sargent Room at the 16 Gramercy Park South club has been slowly losing its Sargent artwork to pay off debts.  Thespian Lawrence Barrett's portrait sold "very quickly" to an anonymous donor, and a sale of Sargent's painting of comic actor Joseph Jefferson was "in process," board officials wrote to members on March 30. 

The first of the club's three Sargent paintings, of club founder and legendary Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, was sold for $2.5 million after a 2000 agreement with the attorney general forced the club to settle a matter from the 1980s, when it borrowed money from a library and a charity that operated within the building, Martello explained.

Though the club would not disclose the details of the Barrett painting sale, Martello said the transaction was necessary to help pay club debts and $500,000 worth of long-needed façade repairs on the 165-year-old building.

"You can only raise dues so much," Martello said. "The board decided to sell the assets that would best solve our problems globally.

"No one is happy about selling any of these works. There was a great resistance on the part of many board members, but the options lessened as time went on."

The Department of Buildings issued a violation to the club in December for failure to maintain the façade, noting that the balconies and columns were in disrepair. A second violation for this hazardous condition was issued in February.

A DOB spokeswoman noted, however, if the situation were deemed unsafe, the department would step in and force emergency repairs.

If the club delays its building repairs, it will be subject to escalating fines, Martello said, noting the work is expected to begin June 15.

The neighboring National Arts Club is facing its own challenges with dual probes into the group's finances by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the state Attorney General's Office, DNAinfo revealed last year. 

The Player's club's archivist and member Doug Gerbino, who is a middle school music teacher on Long Island, said the club needs more transparency.

Gerbino, who fell in love with the Players decades ago when he began attending meetings of a Laurel and Hardy appreciation society, said he quit the Players' board in protest in 2010 after serving for five years.

"A lot of members are saying, 'This is not the club we had 10 or 15 years ago,'" he said. "The club is spending too much time putting their finger in the hole instead of looking at the future."