By Sabina Mollot
At The Players club on Gramercy Park South, which has been in financial trouble for at least the past few years, members were shocked after a meeting held two weeks ago in which it was disclosed by a newly formed audit committee just how far into debt the club had plummeted, and that the landmark institution, founded in 1888, is in danger of closing.
Since then, some members and former members have been calling not only for the removal of the club's executive director of 20 years, John Martello, but also the executive committee, a seven-member subcommittee of the 21-member board of directors who've stood by Martello.
The reason, said a few members who spoke to Town & Village on the condition of anonymity, since those who've spoken to the press have been booted from the club, is that some of the members have relationships with the club that could be considered a conflict of interest. The club's two vice presidents for example, James Fenniman and Anne Vellis, both sell insurance to the club. Additionally, Fenniman's brother was chosen to do costly facade repairs on the building, while members have seen no evidence that a bidding process ever took place for that or the insurance contracts. Vellis also currently occupies an office at the club that had previously been used as the Actors Equity Room.
Then there's a board member, Glenn Kalison, who hired Martello to teach classes of the New York Film Academy's Acting Department, of which Kalison's the chairman. Those classes have been taught in the club's dining room, although The Players isn't paid for the use of the space.
"There's no transparency and there's all kinds of incest going on," one longtime member said.
Joe Canela, a bartender at The Players, who last year filed a lawsuit against the club over a discontinued post-holiday bonus fund for employees, called the club's leadership "a dictator-type situation.
"The executive committee is handpicked by him so (Martello) basically controls them," he said.
At the March 14 meeting, a majority of members present voted to oust Martello, although combined with the number of proxy votes, the majority was in his favor.
"There have been rumors since day one that there's been inappropriate conduct but with the presentation on March 14, that's when everyone's eyes really opened," another member told T&V.
In addition, members were never allowed to see a financial report at meetings either with one reason given, said the member, "that they can't afford photocopies." Eventually an audit committee came about after a member suggested it to the board, and the findings of that committee were finally shared at the last meeting, with around 150 people in attendance.
Last May, Martello told Town & Village the club needed 1,000 members to stay solvent, but that the number had dwindled from 750 to around 500 after the recession. At that time, in order to pay the bills, including pay for the facade repairs, Martello decided that the club's prized John Singer Sargent paintings would have to be sold.
The move outraged members, who are now saying it's not the recession to blame for the club's financial woes but the fact that there have been too many free memberships and room bookings. With the club not earning as much, services have declined.
One former member told T&V, "Members by the droves have been resigning."
Still, Martello this week insisted he wasn't to blame, saying the free events, like lectures and play readings, are intended for the enjoyment of members and part of what they expect as member services. He also denied any nepotism with contracts, saying that both Fenniman's and Vellis' firms have gotten the club good deals. In addition, he said Fenniman's family has been selling liability insurance for almost 60 years to the club and that Fenniman has been a financial supporter of the club. "He's always gotten us the lowest premium that he can find," said Martello.
Fenniman, after T&V asked for comment from him and a few other executive committee members on the relationships, declined to comment.
"The Executive Committee of The Players Club does not communicate to the outside media about internal club matters," he said in an e-mail.
Martello also defended the Film Academy classes, because in exchange for them, the school has been filming events at The Players for the club's archives. Kalison declined to comment.
As for members' claims of crony-ism among the executive members, Martello denied this, saying they're chosen by the rest of the board, whose members include actress Martha Plimpton, after a nominating process.
"I don't interfere with that process," he said.
But Dennis Davies, who, for over five years worked as an executive assistant to Martello, said he thought that "the conflicts of interest are pretty clear."
When he worked at the club, Davies said he regularly had to turn away people looking to book events because Martello had already planned to use the space for a freebie event. "Any friend of a friend" could make such an arrangement, he said, though room rentals should have cost $3,500.
Davies, who now works for Related, a real estate firm, said he was eventually fired by Martello for asking for a raise.
Martello, however, said Davies was fired for being disorganized and that at times Davies had neglected to tell Martello about some people who inquired about room rentals. If he'd known, Martello said, he would have asked those who'd booked the space for free if they'd reschedule.
Photo by Sabina Mollot
The Players Club building pictured last May
Clive Burrow, a former member who was kicked out out of the club for starting a watchdog website called Save The Players, said Martello "isn't an evil guy. He's rather well liked." But, he added, "He isn't a manager. It doesn't take a genius, but it does take some organizational skills. He gives rooms to friends. It happens all the time, but now he's being watched, so he's being a little more careful."
For years one free event held monthly was the Project Shaw plays organized by the Gingold theater group with Gingold selling the tickets. The director is David Staller, a Players board member, though he recently began paying $200 for each Project Shaw night to the club's foundation.
On his website, Burrow addressed Staller, saying, "We understand that like others on the Board, your intentions were not bad. But the truth is that actions like this mount up, and self-serving is killing our Club."
Meanwhile, the club has been paying its employees late. According to Canela, who represents he union that employs waitstaff, bartenders and doormen, as of this week, employees' paychecks are two weeks behind.
Additionally, they've been without their workers compensation insurance since October, which if The Players doesn't get back, could cost the club hefty fines. Then there's the lawsuit which was filed by Canela last September. But even before that Canela and Martello had butted heads for years over the cost of the club's union labor. The club's chef, office workers and Martello are non-union.
Martello, in response, said this week that checks were one week behind, not two, and that he was just as unhappy as anyone else since he wasn't getting paid on time either.
"We don't have any money," he said. "We have very low cash reserves."
At one point, the club took a $2 million loan from one member, and also in 2010, wrote off an amount between $250,000 and $300,000 in debt from a contracting catering company, Elegant Affairs, according to former board member Doug Gerbino. The catering company had been brought in to handle food and drinks at the club.
Gerbino, who was booted from the club last year for speaking to the press, said he quit the board in protest after the board was told to write off the loss of the Elegant Affairs money.
"You start to feel like a patsy," he said. But those who protest end up getting the cold shoulder, he said.
"It's a sinking ship, but they're throwing over the wrong cargo, people who stand in their way. My opinion is they need all new blood."
While this week, word around the club is that Con Ed may shut off the power, according to Martello, the club did however just get an infusion of cash from the loan for the Sargent painting, which was reported by the New York Times to be for $250,000. Additionally, said Martello, Broadway show producer Gordon Hughes has been tapped to work on an 18-month financial plan. What that plan is "will probably be presented at the next meeting." A date has not yet been set for this meeting though there is already a club meeting set for April.
Not everyone is optimistic about the future though. Another member of the club told T&V he thought that even with the state of the club's finances out in the open, "I think this club is over and out. This place is hemorrhaging money. I'm not sure it's solvable."