By MICHAEL GERBINO
The first thing that drew me to The Players was the pool table.
For years, beginning in the late 80s when I first moved to Gramercy Park, I’d stop just to peer through the windows of the club on the walk home to my apartment on 18th and Irving. Instead of admiring the building’s Beaux Arts architectural details, I marveled instead at the goings-on at the Grill: couples eating dinner and people drinking at the bar enjoying themselves. The entire atmosphere, from the outside, looked magical.
There was a pool table visible in the distance, with a few players always engaged in one type of game or another. At the time I was a regular at Julian Billiard Academy on 14th Street, a second-floor smoke-filled den with an assortment of outcasts, wannabe tricksters and hustlers. There were scores of pool tables at Julian Billiard, lined up in a grid very much like the city of New York. But The Players had just that one table under a halo of lights, and to my eyes that table was unattainable. I would wander over to Julian’s or Chelsea Billiards on 22nd Street instead, while still hoping that one day I’d be invited inside to that Gramercy Park table. The club that promoted "the promotion of social intercourse between the representative members of the dramatic profession and the kindred professions of literature, painting, sculpture and music, and the patrons of the arts” seemed far, far out of reach.
My voyeuristic behavior went on for years until I was invited to a Gramercy Block Association event at the club. The soiree was held in the Kinstler Room, and my wife and I found ourselves surrounded by Everett Raymond Kinstler’s majestic portraits. Giants of the theatre and film world looked at us from every angle: Alfred Drake as Hajj in Kismet and Christopher Plummer as Prospero, Jason Robards and James Cagney, Carol Burnett and Katharine Hepburn. Kinstler’s brushstrokes and line work were emphatic and emotional, capturing the personality of his subjects both as portraits of themselves and as the characters they created on stage or screen. The room seemed to double as a stage, with the greatest actors of their generations waiting in the wings.
My wife and I wandered through the club, finding treasures everywhere. There were paintings by artists we knew from our studies at art school: John Singer Sargent, James Montgomery Flagg, Thomas Nast, Al Hirschfeld, John Falter and Norman Rockwell. We also discovered artists unfamiliar to us: John White Alexander, John Collier, among others. Actors from another era filled every inch of space on every wall. Yet more artwork appeared—stained glass light boxes, sculptures, a chandelier made out of antlers, towering six- and seven-foot canvases depicting actors in costume: Edwin Booth as the sinister Cardinal Richelieu, Joseph Jefferson as Bob Acres. In the Dining Room a Sargent portrait was isolated above a fireplace. A triptych of large paintings hung on wood-paneled walls: Otis Skinner as Colonel Bridau, Nance O'Neil as Lady Macbeth and Walter Hampden as Cyrano. All were imposing and beautiful. I imagined what it was like to stare into a blank canvas, that rectangular void before pigments were perfectly mixed and brush strokes touched the stretched fabric. It was exhilarating and intimidating, and I wanted more.
As the party wound down, at last we found ourselves in the Grill. I had finally made it. I was on the inside, at The Players’ pool table playing eight-ball with club members, hoping one of them would invite me to join. Thankfully someone did, and I became a member soon after. I came to realize that what makes The Players remarkable is its members, followed by the artwork—not the billiard table I had admired for years. I found a club filled with like-minded members and artwork by some artists I already knew and others whom I would come to know, love and admire.
Michael Gerbino writes the monthly email blast “Artwork at The Players” and serves as The Players First Vice President and Chair of both the Art and Branding Committees. Though by day he works as President and Creative Director at Archigrafika while teaching design at Pratt Institute, he also pursues a hidden passion for playing the trumpet. On most nights you will find him playing pool in the Grill.