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Debt-Ridden Players Club Looks for New Leader

By Amy Zimmer | April 9, 2013 8:26am

GRAMERCY PARK — It’s time for a scene change at the historic Players Club.

With executive director John Martello out after two decades — following allegations that fiscal mismanagement put the 125-year-old actors society in “imminent danger” of closing — the debt-ridden institution is looking for a new head.

“We are beginning a process this week of forming a search committee to find a new general manager and to re-staff and reorganize the office,” board president Johnnie Planco, a theater manager, said Monday.

Meanwhile, the club was planning for the first time to begin operating public tours of the famed “Booth Room,” prying open the bedroom of Players founder and legendary Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, according to John McCormick, who works in the administrative office.

Planco claimed the board only “recently” learned that the money-losing club mishandled room rentals — the part of the club that should have raked in cash.

“Hopefully now a lot of the resistance has been removed,” he said.

There were no records or invoices for many events, and fees were routinely waived or deeply discounted, even for outside parties hosting profit-making events, a member-led Financial Audit Committee found after a nearly two-year investigation. 

“That will no longer be the case,” Planco told reporters in the club’s wood-paneled “Grill Room,” as members sauntered past billiards tables to play their weekly game of bridge.

“We are open for business as usual. We are open for events, which is part of the lifeblood of the club — for weddings, memorials,” he added.

The board was still going through the committee’s 18-page report and planned to meet with the committee to discuss its recommendations, Planco said.

When the report was presented at a meeting last month, members overwhelmingly voted to oust Martello. But the club’s executive board backed him and Martello’s skin was saved — for the time being — by a proxy vote of members not present to hear the findings.

The committee warned of the club’s demise once money from a prized John Singer Sargent painting — hocked to a pawnbroker website for a $250,000 loan at a 24 percent interest rate — dried up.

But Planco was confident that the club would still be humming when it found a new head — a process he expected would take about a month — even though “a lot” of the money from the painting has already been used for outstanding debts.

He declined to disclose how much cash was left.

He also declined to discuss the club’s mounds of unpaid bills, which almost resulted in the loss of the building’s electricity.

“I can say most of it has a satisfactory conclusion,” he said.

It seemed that board members were unaware of how deep the fiscal problems ran.

Planco, who has been in his position for roughly six years, claimed the club had suffered from financial issues for only “a few years.”

The audit committee, however, claimed that the Players hemorrhaged nearly $3 million over the last nine years.

Others also said financial problems plagued the club.

When the late actress Lynn Redgrave was president of the club in 1994, there were “outstanding loans that suggested big problems that we'd have to resolve,” her then-husband John Clark told DNAinfo.com New York. “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.”

When it was struggling five years ago, Arlene Harrison, president of the Gramercy Park Block Association — who serves as a Trustee of Gramercy Park and is known as the “Mayor of Gramercy Park” — brought in roughly 200 new members from the community.

Most left because of the way the club was being run, she told Planco as he talked with reporters on Monday. She blasted him and the executive committee, saying the committee was “equally responsible” for the problems as Martello.

A group of members were organizing to demand the ouster of the executive committee, a member who requested anonymity told DNAinfo. “The members are fed up. They have not forgotten that only three weeks ago they voted to keep Martello.”

Amid the drama over the Players leadership, the club — whose founding members included Mark Twain and whose newer members include Jimmy Fallon — was looking ahead at celebrating its 125th anniversary this year and gearing up for the tours.

Though no date has been set for the tours to start, plans were “percolating,” McCormick said.

“The Players, I don’t want to say was a secretive club, but you couldn’t apply. You had to be invited,” McCormick said, giving a brief tour of the room where the brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth slept.

“Now we want everyone to know."