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Debt-Ridden Players Club Lures Would-Be Saviors, but Only if Leaders Leave

By Amy Zimmer | April 1, 2013 6:56am

MANHATTAN — Help may be on the way for Gramercy Park’s debt-ridden Players Club — but only if the actors society recasts its leads by ousting its executive director of 20 years and the executive committee that oversees him, according to club insiders.

Would-be saviors have apparently been stepping forward after DNAinfo.com New York reported that the 125-year-old club was in “imminent danger” of closing because of alleged fiscal mismanagement. 

Members have been working behind the scenes on a plan, recruiting individuals from within their ranks who would serve as interim board officers and bring in needed cash if the current regime took its final curtain call, several members said on the condition of anonymity, since the club bars them from speaking to media.

“The executive committee and people who run the club are without credibility,” one member said. “In order for the Players to go forward, they need to have trustworthy people at the helm. There are people who are credible and can reach out and probably get the dough the club needs.”

A member-led financial audit committee spent nearly two years examining the organization’s fiscal health, uncovering that the organization has lost nearly $3 million over the past nine years.

Unable to pay its bills, the club’s electricity was on the brink of being shut off, and it was fined $30,000 for failing to pay workers compensation, members and employees said. The club was forced to sell off prized John Singer Sargent paintings to help cover facade repairs. It also lost its key to get into private Gramercy Park when it did not have enough cash to pay the $7,500 yearly assessment to the Trustees of Gramercy Park.

The audit committee ultimately called for the firing of executive director John Martello, claiming he ran the room rentals and other club business in a sloppy way. But Martello was able to come up with enough proxy votes to keep his job at a contentious recent meeting.

“We have pledges from different members for $350,000 in the event that [Martello] is removed,” claimed Joe Canela, a waiter and shop steward, who filed a class-action lawsuit against the club for allegedly stealing tips from a year-end holiday fund in which members contribute.

Martello did not return calls for comment, and executive committee members remained mum on plans to help the club’s financial situation.

“The Executive Committee as a policy does not communicate to the outside media about internal club matters,” first vice president James A. Fenniman wrote in an email.

The ritzy neighborhood was abuzz with outrage over the current situation, prompting wealthy neighbors to look for ways to step in.

“In the last week prominent residents have called me with offers to buy the building,” said Arlene Harrison, the president of the Gramercy Park Block Association, who serves as a Trustee of Gramercy Park and is known as the “Mayor of Gramercy Park.”

“Real estate developers have asked if it’s for sale because they have buyers,” she continued. “This is a very close-knit community and people were shocked and then truly saddened, and are now outraged at how this venerable club has been allowed to come to the brink of closing. They had no idea. That’s why they reached out to me.”

A group that claimed to have turned around the 150-year-old Dover Streets Arts Club in London — which, like the Players, faced declining membership — also approached Harrison, she said.

“It would be truly a great American tragedy if the Players is allowed to close,” said Harrison, who brought in roughly 200 new members from the community when it was struggling five years ago. “The Players is not only a cultural treasure of the American people, but stands as a monument to theater life in New York City, as it houses one of the finest and rarest collections of theatrical literature and memorabilia.”

A majority of those members left, Harrison noted, because of lack of services at the club.

Martello has told DNAinfo that declining membership in a down economy was the source of the problem. Membership costs $2,000 a year, and some members said friends would rejoin if they knew their dues were being spent better.

Founded by legendary actor Edwin Booth — brother of the notorious John Wilkes Booth — the townhouse is home to his personal collection of props, costumes and library of theatrical literature.

“It's a beacon for theater folk,” British director and actor John Clark told DNAinfo.com in an email.

Clark, a lifetime member of the club, was married to the late actress Lynn Redgrave when she was president of the Players Club from 1994 until being dismissed a year later.

Mismanagement was a problem then, too, he recalled.

“It was not until she was presented with the annual tax return to sign, that I noticed outstanding loans that suggested big problems that we'd have to resolve,” Clark explained. “Then we found that there was not a proper set of books, so we put a few thousand dollars into their empty bank account, to start afresh with new accountants.”

Redgrave lost her position before being able to enact some changes. For instance, she wanted to run an “after-curtain” bus to bring actors to the space, Clark said.

“The Players, we felt, should be a home for the working actor, including stars and notables, a place where he and she would want to visit as often as possible, for eats and drinks, to do workshops, teach, be a place for study, and meet new people and make helpful contacts,” he said.  

He added the club needed a handout to survive.

“To get that, in return, it must promise to provide a transparent, stable, business plan," he said. "It remains to be seen if it can.”