NRHP Reference #
Added to NRHP
October 15, 1966
16 Gramercy Park, Manhattan, New York City, New York
Stanford White (1888 renovations)
16 Gramercy Park S, New York, NY 10003, USA
Gramercy Park, National Arts Club, The Theatre Museum, Samuel J Tilden House, Saddle River County P
The Players, or the Players Club, is a private social club founded in New York City by the noted 19th-century Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth.
In 1888, Booth purchased an 1847 mansion at 16 Gramercy Park, reserved an upper floor for his residence, and turned the rest into a clubhouse. The building's interior and part of its exterior were designed by architect Stanford White; its entryway gaslights are among the few remaining examples in New York City. It is reportedly the oldest club in its original clubhouse and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1962.
The Players serves as a social club but is also a repository of American and British theatre history, memorabilia, and theatrical artifacts. It has been reported to have the largest private collection of stage memorabilia, including costumes and weaponry, and owns portraits of its members, most notably a portrait of actor Joseph Jefferson painted by John Singer Sargent. A portrait of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, hangs in Edwin Booth's suite, along with the letter Edwin wrote to the public apologizing for the actions of his brother.
Today, the club still holds "Pipe Nights" honoring theatrical notables, and maintains a kitchen and wine cellar and a billiard table in its usually busy Grill Room. In the Dining Room, filled with portraits of theatre and film notables and rare playbills from the 19th and 20th centuries, a small stage has been built where members and people of the theatre can be honored; staged readings can take place and new works tried out.
The Players also gives the prestigious "Edwin Booth Life Achievement Award" to actors who have had a long, important body of theatre and film work. Past recipients include Helen Hayes, Jose Ferrer, Garson Kanin, Christopher Plummer, Jason Robards, Jack Lemmon, and Marian Seldes. In June 2007, Angela Lansbury was the recipient, and Edward Albee received it on September 30, 2007.
On April 14, 1865, Edwin's younger brother John Wilkes, a popular actor, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, after which the life of his family changed. In 1888, Edwin purchased the former residence of Valentine G. Hall in Gramercy Square and, perhaps inspired by London's Garrick Club, established a social club to bring actors into contact with men of different professions such as industrialists, writers, and other creative artists.
Booth had the building redesigned, furnished, equipped, and decorated with his personal possessions. In its title, he stipulated that the building be equipped with a furnished apartment for his own undisturbed use. When completed, a series of meetings was held, and a small group of founding fathers turned the clubhouse over to newly invited members in a grand ceremony on December 31, 1888.
Booth died at the club on June 7, 1893, at the age of 59.
Beginning in the 1970s, widows of club members were afforded limited privileges to the club. In September 1987, the club voted to allow women to be full members, a change that allowed the Players to rent its facilities for outside functions, which it had not been allowed to do before under New York City law. Helen Hayes was admitted as the first woman member on April 23, 1989, the birthday of William Shakespeare.
In 2000, the New York State Attorney General's Office launched an investigation into The Players' financial dealings with the Hampden-Booth Theater Library, which occupies about a third of the club's building, and the John Drew Fund, a charity which has its offices in the building. The allegations were that the club may have overcharged the library for building upkeep, and kept more than its appropriate share of the sale of a collection of books in 1984, using the money to help pay for a major renovation to the building. The club also borrowed money from the John Drew Fund to pay for the renovation, a loan which had not yet been paid back. The boards of the club, the library, and the fund have overlapping members, a circumstance which may have contributed to the financial irregularities. The dispute between the library and the club was settled, with neither owing the other any money; the settlement also satisfied part of the state's investigation. One of the terms of the settlement was that the club would sell its John Singer Sargent portrait of Edwin Booth to raise money.
A labor dispute in 2008 came about after the club fired 16 union workers in a cost-cutting measure, replacing them with a catering company which used non-union workers. This led to several weeks of picketing of the club by the union, before an arbitrator ruled that the club had breached its agreement with the union, and the workers had to be reinstated with back pay. The club went to court, seeking to overturn the arbitrator's decision, but eventually was fined $100,000. One member was quoted as saying "The [club] is being horribly mismanaged. Nobody knows what they are doing, and the board is a rubber stamp."
In June 2012, the club's leaders were criticized by some members following allegations of financial mismanagement. The misconduct included selling one of its two paintings by John Singer Sargent for $2.5 million to pay for an estimated $650,000 in repairs to the building's facade; awarding the construction work to the brother of one of its vice presidents; and allowing its rooms to be used by favored parties for free or nominal rates. It was reported that while about 1000 members are needed to keep the club running, the club's rolls following a recent membership drive amounted to only 625. In response, the club has been forced to cut services, assess the members a $450 fee, and borrow $2 million from a member.
In March 2013, it was reported by The New York Times that as of the end of the fiscal year in April 2011, the club had $448,853 in losses. It was also claimed that the club owed Con Edison $30,000, a charge that was denied by executive director John Martello. In addition, employees sued the club, claiming that their salaries had been paid late and that they were not given money from the year-end tip fund that they were due. At a club meeting, at which Martello narrowly survived a vote to oust him, the club's audit committee reported that the club had been in arrears in it workers' compensation insurance premium payments for 5 months, which led to a fine of $30,000. The club had also lost its access to Gramercy Park because it has not paid the $7,500 annual assessment. Although the meeting was closed to outsiders, the Times based its report on an audio recording of the meeting it had obtained. Martello was removed as executive director less than three weeks later, on April 4. Shortly afterward, three members of the club's executive committee resigned and members circulated a petition that called upon the club's president and two vice presidents to step down as well.
On June 19, 2013, Johnnie Planco was re-elected as President. Planco informed members at that time that the club was about $4 million in debt, and raised the possibility that their clubhouse may have to be sold; some estimates put the value of the property at more than $14 million. In addition, it has been reported that according to the New York City Department of Finance a lien has been placed against the club due to $250,000 in back taxes owed, in addition to other debts. The tax debt has been sold to a third party.
Options under consideration to ameliorate the club's financial problems include, it has been reported, renting the club's rooms for parties and meetings, providing the building to be used as an interior location for film shoots, and selling naming rights to the rooms. Creative partnerships with Actors' Equity the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild are also being pursued. In October 2013, the effort to restore the deteriorating facade of the club's historic building was initiated, with the formation of a not-for-profit 501c3 organization, "The Players, 16 Gramercy Park South Preservation Fund, Inc."
In December 2015, the club hosted the official 30th Anniversary Celebration of the film Clue, honoring the film's screenwriter and director Jonathan Lynn with a live reenactment performance on the clubhouse stage featuring actors Zachary Levi, Michael Urie, Sarah Chase, Lauren Adams, and Brandon Uranowitz, among others.
The Players obtained a $8.5 million loan from Terrapin Lending Company to help it straighten out its financial problems without having to sell its prized artwork, including a John Singer Sargent portrait of actor Joseph Jefferson, which they loaned for a time to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The club plans to focus on its members, including bringing in new ones, and hold fewer ticketed events aimed at the general public, according to Michael Barra, the chair of the club's managing committee and executive committee of the Board of Directors.
In 2016, The Players began a new Associate Member program, which allows access to the club until 5 p.m., at a cost considerably less than full membership. The club also worked to improve its dining program, which had recently received a "C" rating from the New York City Department of Health. The club hired Dennis Paul from the Princeton Club of New York as the new director of food and beverage. In February 2016, the union shop steward, Ellie Narpier, said that club-employee relations had started to get better about a year previously, and improved even more after Price was hired.
Members of the Players included the local pillars of society of the day, prominent bankers, lawyers and businessmen, as well as those identified with other arts — writers, journalists, sculptors, architects and painters.
Presidents of the club have included Joseph Jefferson, who succeeded Booth as president after his death, as well as John Drew Jr, Walter Hampden, Howard Lindsay, Dennis King, Alfred Drake, Roland Winters, Jose Ferrer, Robert Lansing, John Bartholomew Tucker (pro tem), Michael Allinson and Lynn Redgrave. President Timothy Hutton resigned on June 5, 2008, because work was keeping him on the West Coast. New York producer and longtime member Herb Blodgett took his place, and in June 2010, it was announced that theatrical manager Johnnie Planco would replace him.
Some past and present notable members include: Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), George M. Cohan, William Astor Chanler, Stanford White, Nikola Tesla, John Barrymore, Eugene O'Neill, James Cagney, Gregory Peck, Alfred Lunt, Robert M. McBride, Walter Cronkite, Alexander Woollcott, Kevin Spacey, Judy Collins, Rue McClanahan, George S. Kaufman, Angela Lansbury, Sidney Poitier, Tony Bennett, Tony Roberts, Carol Burnett, Liza Minnelli, Dick Cavett, Billy Connolly, Vartan Gregorian, Hal Holbrook, George Innes, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, Ben Gazzara, Christopher Plummer, Budd Schulberg, Ethan Hawke, Jimmy Fallon, Marian Seldes, Peter O'Toole, Rosemary Harris, Roger Moore, Russell Miller, and Sidney Zion.
The longtime syndicated columnist Earl Wilson said in 1964: "Long ago a New Yorker asked the difference between the Lambs, Friars, and Players, since the membership was, at the time, predominantly from Broadway. ... [A] wit believed to have been George S. Kaufman [drew the distinction:] The Players are gentlemen trying to be actors, the Lambs are actors trying to be gentlemen, and the Friars are neither trying to be both."