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Long Debt-Ridden Players Club Finally on Stable Ground, New President Says

 Michael Barra has been elected as the new president of The Players club, a social club in Gramercy for actors and theater types.
Michael Barra has been elected as the new president of The Players club, a social club in Gramercy for actors and theater types.
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Wikimedia Commons/Beyond My Ken

GRAMERCY — The historic Players Club is on stable ground after years of financial trouble, according to its newly elected president.

The Players, a 125-year-old private social club at 16 Gramercy Park South, has paid off or been forgiven the millions of dollars in debt it had amassed by 2014 and is now looking to expand membership, according to Michael Barra, who was elected president on Tuesday.

“We feel like we’ve built a really strong club,” said Barra, 41. “We’ve managed to not only get a clean slate but are now able to invest in the future.”

Barra is president of a division of the Araca Group, a Broadway production and merchandising company that has put on shows including "Urinetown" and "Wicked."

The Players, which has a bar and dining room for its members and their guests, found itself in about $4.5 million in debt by 2013 thanks in part to what Barra described as a series of short-term fixes for long-term problems.

“You were getting through the month but there was no focus on the future,” he said.

In order to pay off that debt the club last November took an $8.5 million mortgage on its headquarters, the Gramercy Park mansion that once belonged to club founder Edwin Booth, and managed to pay $2.8 million of what it owed with the rest forgiven, Barra said.

The club may owe that mortgage, but Barra said the loan stands in stark relief to the morass of bank loans, loans from members and penalties that had made up the club’s debt two years ago.

The rest of the money from the mortgage loan is being used to spruce up the building, which had fallen into disrepair, as well as improve programming, dining options and staffing, Barra said.

Barra is replacing Arthur Makar, who took over in 2014 after what Barra described as an “insurrection” when the club’s membership ousted the executive director in an attempt to get a grip on the mounting debt. 

Makar has taken over as chairman of the club's board, according to a spokesman.

For years the former leadership had kept the extent of the club’s problems hidden, Barra said, and was forced to take out loans from members and sell off some of the club’s assets, including a pair of paintings by John Singer Sargent that Sargent, a regular at the club in his day, had bequeathed to The Players.

The final straw came in March of 2013 when the club put up its last Sargent painting, a portrait of co-founder Joseph Jefferson, for collateral on a pawnbroker website for $300,000 at a 24 percent interest.

Outraged, the membership revolted, “wiped out” the old leadership and brought in a new group of stewards to steer The Players, Barra said.

Barra was not part of the revolt, he said. He was elected as the club's secretary in 2014 and was part of a three-phase plan to rescue it, which according to a representative is the oldest social club in New York that still operates in its original home.

The first phase focused on getting a true picture of the troubles facing The Players, with the second phase being to pay off the debt.

Now, under Barra’s leadership, he said The Players will focus on reinvigorating the club, bringing in new members and becoming a more vital part of the New York entertainment scene.

“Phase three is ‘if you build it they will come,’” he said.

“Now is the time to make a real plea to the theatrical community and the Gramercy Park community to show people what the new Players is.”

The Players was founded in 1888 by actors Edwin Booth and John Drew, who hoped that getting actors in the same room as industry titans and cultural bigwigs like Mark Twain, an early supporter, would elevate the profession from the lowly stature it suffered at the time.

The club currently has about 400 members who pay $2,000 in dues each year after a $1,500 initiation fee, as well as another 250 or so honorary or lifetime members, Barra said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Barra's acting experience. It also misstated the last name of one of the club's founders.