Journey to The Players social club at the center of New York’s storied theater arts culture and you’ll find the curtain being gently lowered on the glamorous old guard just in time for a new generation of different thinkers to step on stage and into the spotlight.
From the outside, The Players is a bit intimidating: the gold and black ornate iron railings, the twin gas lamps with long spikes jutting into the sky like an ancient crown, the club’s shiny gold crest. It could be an embassy for all you’d know. The mansion on Gramercy Park, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963, pours over a hundred years of stage presence onto the sidewalk as if it were a carefully crafted set from Broadway.
I stood there, hands in pockets, feet shivering in the cold, feeling unprepared to enter. That uncontrollable awe and admiration you get sometimes in New York when you pass an old institution on the street. They always seem to have sprouted from the very granite that holds up Manhattan island.
Founded in 1888 the club has been the home base of New York City’s theater and performing arts elite, and the patrons that admire them. Edwin Booth, superstar of the stage and brother of infamous John Wilkes Booth, brought together the best and brightest of his day. Along with early members like Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla, Edwin established a social club with a sociocultural mission in mind. In the 19th century the popular perception of actors and the theater world was similar to the attitude given to prostitution. The Players was a chance to integrate its members into polite society and find allies in the broader community of creatives, thinkers, and businessmen. “We do not mingle enough with minds that influence the world,” Booth once said about his fellow actors.
The mission of integration and expansion continues to this day. During a recent Meet The Players event, where members and their guests mix and mingle, I was invited to take a glimpse into the ancient history and bright future of this prestigious institution.
Almost everything inside is literally over a hundred years old. Walk past an ordinary looking card table in a corner, oh that was Mark Twain’s. A small plaque on a small door and boom, the founding place of the Actor’s Equity Association. An enormous 20-ton marble fireplace shrinks under dozens of giant paintings that cover the walls. Player portraits that leap forth with a living, breathing nostalgia painted by hands as famous as the faces. Cabinets filled with historical oddities like death masks and old stage prop daggers. Hardly an inch passes your eyes without something of significance practically jumping out at you.
As I stood there in the entrance area taking it all in I had a profound realization. I couldn’t believe it but there was a total lack of snobbery in the smiles and eyes of the people inside. Despite its royal appearance I felt totally welcomed. Like a local pub where everyone is happy to have another person there to love and laugh with. It was easy to appreciate the heartfelt openness when so much of today’s city is consumed by elitism. The thing is, this place truly is of the theater culture. Its not pretending to be or trying to be, like so many other newer and hipper spots. The jaded little child inside me that always fears rejection breathed a long sigh of relief when it realized that nobody was judging it and it wasn’t on the brink of being outed as a non-member.
Huddled around the piano a group of people listened as an opera singer belted out show tunes. About fifty guests mingled mostly in front of the fireplace with a few meandering into the theater room or ascending stairs to the upper floors. Almost everyone was over 60. I was surprised not to see more young faces in the room. Understudies, apprentices, up-and-comers, hanger-on-ers. I was a little offended. Not by the people in the room, but by the people who were not in the room. Had my generation and those younger totally forgotten their roots? This was a sad question which was all too easy to answer yes to. It was a let down. A room filled with great talent, a wealth of wisdom, openness and warmth, and very few youngsters taking advantage of it. Unbelievable. It didn’t just make me fear for the future of the club but for the performing arts and humanity in general.
In walks Christian Campbell. The young club member who sits on the board of directors, has a snap in his step, a gleaming smile, and a bold new vision for the future. After a few minutes with Christian my spirits begin to lift. His energy is contagious. As the de facto leader of a small but growing number of next-generation board members, he beams with an encyclopedic knowledge of The Players history and an infectious excitement for the future of the club that is hard not to admire.
Soon I’m shaking hands with a self proclaimed “recovering studio exec” from Los Angeles who seems to think The Players is a place where he can find some peace. Then from seemingly out of nowhere another youthful yet slightly less bouncy board member slips in to shake my hand. Christian, excited to introduce me to more of the club’s younger generation makes sure I understand just how important his mission is: enroll 400 new members over the next year, digitize their library, the largest 19th century theatrical collection in North America, and introduce new incentives from performances and workshops to an updated menu for the club’s restaurant/bar.
After grabbing a drink we head through some large sliding wooden doors into the banquet hall/theater. A small stage at one end, again lined with portraits and memorabilia. There’s no musty odor, no dust caked on the windowsills. It’s old but it’s not worn. It’s filled with nostalgia and icons from the past but it feels quite fresh and alive. The room is modest but large enough for a few hundred people. Christian shows me some of the portraits but my mind wanders onto the stage, imagining Edwin Booth, the club’s founder, booming lines from Shakespeare as the horned chandeliers rattle along with his voice. I also imagine a future for the club and how this room might once again be the city’s center stage where our community of performers and playwrights come to indulge one another. I mean why not? If it’s going to happen, this is the place it should be.
We then rush upstairs to see the floor Booth kept as his personal quarters. It’s still in perfect original condition, just as it was over one hundred years ago. The skull on the armoire, the place in the corner specifically for reading, the tiny single person bed, all throw back to a time when entertainment was labor intensive and social interactions happened between people who were actually in a room with each other. Christian, with his endless ability to retell histories with the same enthusiasm every time, couldn’t have been prouder.
Perhaps in this room is where the solution can be found. People sharing the same space with no distractions other than each other, looking into one another’s eyes, hearing one another’s breath, feeding off of each other’s energy and ideas. Perhaps Edwin is still alive in this castle on Gramercy Park. Maybe he saw the end of his vision approaching and decided to possess the next generation embodied by Mr. Christian Campbell. It all made sense. How old bones and new blood were going to come together in this place and renew the mission. The white haired complacency echoing memories downstairs was being replaced by howls in the attic, coming from the born-again ghosts that had inspired the membership so many years ago. It was thrilling to be in this unchanged room on the cusp of revolution. And to think what the future may hold for the next generation of New York City’s Players.