Inside The Players: A Members Club Based in the History of American Theater

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In New York City, progressive and liberal as we think ourselves to be, the idea of a social club feels out of place. The original “gentlemen’s clubs”—much different in kind than their modern day association—were begun by upper class males in 18th Century England. If a person could lay claim to the title “gentleman,” club membership was permitted. If not—or if, god forbid, he had to earn an income—access denied. Eventually, hundreds of gentlemen’s clubs popped up around England and beyond. They were gathering spaces for socializing and gambling, yes, but beyond that, for getting on in the world, and gaining status. It was not nothing to be considered “clubbable.”

To the New York City ear in 2016—let alone the Brooklyn ear—this sounds silly. We might not all enjoy the same privileges, but most choose to believe that if we want something, we can work to get it. Clubs are antithetical to this philosophy.

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With this in mind, I was intrigued one night when my friend Johnny—a musician in his 20s who lives near the Navy Yard and gets by with a job beyond his music—could not wait to tell me, sitting on barstools at The Gibson, about The Players. Established on New Year’s eve in 1888 by Edwin Booth in an old Victorian home on the South end of Gramercy Park, its mission was to promote theater and the arts, and to stand as an antidote to clubs with memberships based on wealth and title. Today, many historians consider Booth to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American Shakespearian actor of all time; many more will recognize his name for a different reason: as the brother of John Wilkes Booth, who changed American history far more dramatically than his actor brother Edwin.

But how does a members-only club stay relevant today? Johnny learned about The Players through a friend he met randomly one night, an actor in his 30s who lives in Greenpoint. If this man belonged to The Players—and if Johnny could have a great time there when he was brought one night by his friend—it had to sell something beyond status. And yet: there was no denying its rarefied history figured largely into its appeal. In addition to Edwin Booth, Mark Twain was a founding member. Later, people like Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart joined. Johnny insisted I check it out for myself. So on Monday I traveled to 16 Gramercy South with a solid mix of intrigue and skepticism.

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Inside, I was greeted by a doorman and a sign telling me I couldn’t wear jeans (I wasn’t, but realized my jean jacket might dangerously test this line). I announced myself (as one does, I thought), and, shortly, Rory, a retired high school drama teacher and member appeared to give me a tour. He wore a blazer, slacks, tie-up sneakers, and glasses. We’d begin downstairs in the bar, officially called “The Grill.” Save for the dark wood floors, which were once black and white checks, it looked identical to a photo hung on the wall that was dated 1903. If you could walk inside The Great Gatsby, you’d end up in this bar.

We sat mid-room, near the pool table; a few members in their 60s and 70s stood and talked closer to the bar, wearing blazers, nibbling on cheese, and clutching white wine and gin and tonics. On the wall behind us, Mark Twain’s cue stick hung next to his portrait. Rory leaned in, excited. “In this building, really, you have the history of the American theater, you have the history of New York City, and the history of the united states, all together,” he began.

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It might seem out of place today that a club founded in support of theater resides next to Gramercy Park. But, Rory explained, when Edwin Booth bought this Victorian home in the 19th Century, the theater district stretched from 14th and 23rd Streets, between 5th Avenue and Broadway. “The theater district where it is now is a 20th Century development,” he explained; it moved north with the arrival of the subway.

As we talked, members starting trickling through the front doors for the club’s Pipe Night: a tradition begun in the late 19th Century, essentially a party crossed with a lot of character-grilling, drinking and—per the name—pipe smoking. By the 1920s, Pipe Nights evolved into black tie affairs and, by the 30s, they included a guest of honor—highlighting the theatrical achievements of one of its members. That night, member Robert Creighton, star of the hit musical Cagney—based on the life of revered and late member James Cagney—would be honored. Creighton and other cast members would present selections of Cagney later that night, before a three-course dinner in the club’s large dining room. Members who knew Cagney himself would be present, and talk about how Frank Sinatra used to fly across the country just to see Cagney for one measly night. Before the dinner, Board Member Shana Farr explained the night’s event was “the new generation celebrating the past, and bringing it into the future.”

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Back in the Grill, Rory detailed who that new generation was. “Today it’s heavily membered by people of the arts, but they are not our sole membership, and it was never meant to be our sole membership,” he explained. “There are lawyers and business people, as well as artists and designers—the founders were a very eclectic group of people, including Mark Twain and William Tecumseh Sherman,” he said, the latter, of course, being both the Union army general, but also a businessman and author.

In recent years, the club has fallen on tough financial times; a recent refinancing has righted the ship for the time being. Still, Rory said the club is solvent at 1,000 members; right now there are 600. Wealthier members help bridge the gap with higher annual fees. In the 40s, membership expanded to include black members (Paul Robeson, a civil rights activist, famous for playing Othello, was the first) and in the 80s (!!), women. The actress Helen Hayes was first. Today there are 400 female members, or two thirds of total membership.

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“Financially, it’s very hard to keep up,” said Rory. “It is an ironic and unfortunate aspect [of the club] that, sometimes, to enable them to get through a difficult financial crunch, they end up selling one of the treasures that makes the club the club.” Primarily, he was speaking of a large painting of founder Edwin Booth by John Singer Sargent, which had to be offloaded a few years ago.

“Because it’s an aging population, they’re very invested in trying to get younger members here,” Rory explains. “When someone like Ethan Hawk comes here,” who is a current member, “It’s like—great! You know?” Rory giggles. “But they would like to have younger membership expand.”

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Just this spring, for the first time in the club’s 128 years, they are offering an “associate membership.” At 50 bucks per month, it costs a quarter of a full membership, though its privileges are limited to day-time activity—lunch and drinking at the Grill—and doesn’t include perks like attending member events, like Pipe Night, or reciprocity at other Social Clubs. Nonetheless, it gets you there. It brings you into a community of actors and artists in a setting whose only purpose is to revere and support artistic work, buoyed by the weight of history, and—yes—the moneyed support behind it.

Upstairs, the place stuns. Architect Stanford White remodeled the home into a club, giving it a ground floor rather than second floor entrance, switching the main stairs around, and adding walls. It has been incredibly preserved, left largely as it looked then. Crowding every wall are painted portraits of past members: Peter O’Toole, Dick Cavett, Tommy Lee Jones, Katherine Hepburn, and—in the front salon—one massive, glorious portrait of Christopher Plummer. These are the ones I recognized, but there are dozens and dozens beyond that, painted by members whose subjects belong more strictly to the Shakespearian theatrical universe.

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In the card room, there is a large card table gifted to the club by Mark Twain. In the library, a younger member (in his 30s) worked on his lap top surrounded by hundreds of very old books related to the theater. Finally, we enter Edwin Booth’s bedroom on the third floor. To put it lightly, the place smells of preserved death: his bed cloth, personal portraits, dictionary—everything—was left in the exact same position as it rested the night he died. His slippers lay at a diagonal next to his bed, like he’d casually kicked them off. A picture of John Wilkes Booth hangs next to his second wife (his first died shortly after their daughter was born). “It’s his wall of shame,” Rory jokes—neither person gave him pleasure.” On the frame above the bed, a stenciled quote from Don Quixote read, “Now blessings light on him that first invented his same sleep.” The end of the quote is absent, but it finishes, fittingly,  “There is only one thing… that I dislike in sleep; it is, that it resembles death.” More quickly than we would otherwise have liked, our noses made us leave.

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Before the Pipe Dinner that night—during which time I saw incredibly talented tap dancing from the cast of Cagney, including guest of honor and star of the show Robert Creighton; sat at a table with Board Members, among whom was a lawyer friendly with President Obama because they attended Harvard law together; and belted out, with abandon, along with the rest of the dining room, a rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”—Rory brought us back down to The Grill. Were there any more questions I might have?

I wanted to know what he loved about the place, why he still was a member, even if he didn’t attend events like Pipe Night? “I like to come to birthdays, and New Year’s Eve and all the holidays,” Rory tells me. People who live in New York have families far away. “They do Thanksgiving and Christmas every year,” he continues, “It’s a beautiful Thanksgiving. I was here for Thanksgiving this year.”

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But beyond that, The Players has an element of American history that other clubs, say the Princeton or Harvard Variety, don’t. Edwin Booth’s archives reside perfectly preserved on the fourth floor. “Any scholar who wants to do work on 19th Century American theater must come to this building,” Rory explains.

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Ultimately, he told me, his membership is in support of the place continuing to exist, period. Later I would understand a little better where that sentiment came from. Watching members of Cagney perform in the dining room, lighting up the entire place with energetic tap dance and song, not a single person—a single person, save for myself, the opportunistic member in the media, in her 30s—had a cell phone out. Everyone else was nowhere but there. The actors on stage, consummate performers embodying the highest form of their craft, consumed the room’s collective brain and attention. It was pure entertainment, delivered by nothing but bodies, dance, and song. Watching it felt like something slipping into the past, but also something worth fighting to keep alive for as long as possible.

Before Rory got up to leave, he asked if I’d be ok if he left me in The Grill. “It’s a safe place to be—the average age is 90” he joked of the members talking amiably throughout the bar. “But they’re very humane people, all artists, and patrons of the arts.”

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All photos—except for the portrait of Christopher Plummer—by Jane Bruce.

To inquire about membership, send The Players a note here

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1 COMMENT

  1. Great piece! I love The Players and I was there that same Cagney Pipe Night, shooting a documentary on James Cagney. The Players staff made me feel welcome and it was quite a treat to be allowed to shoot in this historic (and exclusive) club and building. Its an amazing place and I am so glad they are making the right efforts to continue and preserve this landmark of theater and new york city.

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