Gramercy Park Block Assocoation - Neighborhood News #328

Players Club Stages a Real-Life Drama Over Whether to Oust Its Director
By JOHN LELAND
Published: March 15, 2013
One thing to be said for theater people: they know drama. On Thursday night, more than 100 members of the Players, a private club founded for actors, crowded into the main dining room of its 1847 Greek Revival town house on Gramercy Park for a vote on whether to oust their longstanding executive director.

The club, whose membership has included Mark Twain and George M. Cohan, faces deepening financial shortfalls, a lawsuit by its employees, fines by city and state agencies and accusations of gross mismanagement from some of its members.

 

Cindy Ord/Getty Images

John Martello, executive director of the Players club, has, so far, survived being ousted.

Orators orated; one member likened the executive director, John Martello, to a baseball manager who had had 10 consecutive losing seasons but kept getting rehired.

 

After more than four contentious hours, a voice vote and proxy votes indicated that members were narrowly in favor of Mr. Martello. The vote in the room appeared to go strongly against Mr. Martello, but as one member said the next day, "everybody had a different count." Mr. Martello's critics charged that he had improperly influenced the proxy votes of members who did not attend.

 

The meeting was closed to nonmembers; the management has expelled members for talking publicly about the club. But The New York Times obtained an audio recording of the meeting and received descriptions of the proceedings from several members, who spoke on condition of anonymity.


 "The main thing the evening revealed was how dreadfully things are run at the club," one member said by e-mail Friday. "The election was chaos."

The meeting began with a report on an 18-month internal investigation by a 10-member financial-audit committee. Among its revelations were that the club had borrowed $250,000 from a lender called borrow.com, at 24 percent interest, to meet day-to-day expenses. An audible gasp swept the room at the mention of the interest rate.

 

That was not the only dark cloud raised. Mr. Martello, 61, who has run the club since 1993, has insisted for years that the club needed 1,000 dues-paying members to cover its expenses, but it has closer to 500. To keep the doors open, the club borrowed $2 million in installments from a wealthy member; when that dried up, management sold one of the club's two paintings by John Singer Sargent. It has been unable to sell the other, which was used as collateral for the borrow.com loan, a step that some members equated with "pawning" it.

 

The club's losses for the fiscal year that ended in April 2011 came to $448,853. In addition, club employees have brought a suit claiming that they were denied money from a year-end tip fund to which members contributed. And for the last 12 weeks, the club has periodically been late with their salaries. Mr. Martello, speaking by telephone, blamed the slow post-Christmas season for the late paychecks.

 

"These are people with kids," said Joseph Canela, the shop steward, who organized the lawsuit, in a telephone interview before the meeting. "Martello's destroying the club."

 

"They owe Con Ed $30,000," Mr. Canela added. "The guy said next time he comes, he's going to turn the lights off."

 

Mr. Martello said in the phone interview that the club was up-to-date on its utility payments.

 

"We're still here," he said. "It's difficult, but we're still open." Asked how the club paid its bills, he did not mention the loan from borrow.com.

 

At the meeting, the audit committee revealed that because the club had not paid its premiums, it had lost its workers' compensation insurance from October to February, leading to a $30,000 fine. Mr. Martello said the problem had been resolved, and that the club was challenging the penalty, which he put at $24,000. He declined to discuss the workers' suit because it was still pending.

 

The committee also suggested that Mr. Martello had squandered opportunities to rent out rooms for functions by allowing his friends or associates to use them at no charge.

"Room rentals are the main source of revenue for the clubs of New York - everywhere but at the Players," said Clive Burrow, a former member who created a Web site last year,savetheplayers.org, that outlined the club's financial woes and proposed solutions - primarily insisting on clearer policies on room rentals. The club management expelled him.

 

At the Thursday night meeting, the audit committee said it had looked into 45 room rentals at random and found no paperwork for most of them. Mr. Martello said he had adhered to strict club bylaws on the rentals.

 

Another thing about theater people: they like cliffhangers and sequels. After all the votes and proxies were tallied, the club president, Johnnie Planco, said that the results were not final, and that the board would consider further action.

 

"Any investigation," he said, "will continue tomorrow. It's not something where one side won and one side lost. We are very aware that a large section of membership is very unhappy." That provided little reassurance for critics of the club's management. 

 

"They came across as fools, clowns and dunces," one member said on Friday morning.

And at least one member heard news on Friday that was not shared at the meeting: the club had lost its members' privileges to use Gramercy Park, for failing to pay its $7,500 annual assessment, which was due on Feb. 1. It was the second time the Players had lost those privileges. "That's something that really gets people worked up," the member said.

 
A version of this article appeared in print on March 16, 2013, on page A17 of the New York edition with the headline: Players Club Stages a Real-Life Drama Over Whether to Oust Its Director.
 
 
Click here to read the full story on the New York Times website