By TOM DUPREE
I first walked into the Players clubhouse during the last week of October 1992.
The occasion was an eightieth-birthday celebration for Oscar Dystel, the brilliant publisher who transformed Bantam Books from a money pit into the most profitable book imprint in America during his reign from 1954 to 1980. Oscar’s actual birthday fell on a Saturday that year, so I’m sure the organizers scheduled the event during the workweek for easier access by Oscar’s many pals.
My host was Player Ian Ballantine, who had founded that same Bantam Books in 1945 and then, with wife Betty, after a tiff with then-Bantam-management, founded their eponymous Ballantine Books. That’s two publishing houses that are still in business today. Ian wanted me to meet Oscar, but I think he also wanted to show off the clubhouse to a theatre major.
I had never before met a man who had attained Ian’s age but was still so forward-thinking. Some 76-year-olds can’t stop yapping about how swell things used to be, but Ian never quit seeking — or even inventing — the next trend in publishing. So I was startled and delighted, in equal parts, to behold how reverent this place was regarding its own history and how enraptured Ian was in showing me around.
I had no idea that theatre people had their own clubs, or that they might consider book people to be their peers (as they certainly had with Ian). The concept was utterly new. A private social club to me was a bunch of elderly Brits nodding off in overstuffed chairs. But this place was absolutely dynamic. Every available inch was covered with magnificent artwork, sculpture, programs and other memorabilia — for a theatre devotee, it was like being in Heaven’s waiting room.
But the foreground — the purpose of my visit — was a big dinner party, lots of introductions and handshaking. I’d only been editing books at Bantam for a short while, so I knew maybe half a dozen people in the whole joint. I’m almost positive we didn’t go upstairs that night. As much as I was impressed by what I now know to be the Great Hall and the Dining Room, the Booth Room would have just taken my breath away and forever imprinted.
My Gramercy visit had been a great privilege, thanks to Ian. Never did I entertain the possibility that one day I might personally be part of The Players; it seemed way out of reach. But about a quarter century later, our friend Courtney Thomasma invited Linda and me to a prospective members’ reception, sort of a “rush party.” There were no snoozing Brits; the people we met were charming and vibrant, and they made us feel right at home, the utter opposite of the snooty private-club stereotype I’d held in my head. And this time we toured the whole house, including the Booth Room, where I think I forgot to swallow for about five minutes.
We had a short but intense talk at home that night and decided to seek membership, and the rest is sociology. Our take on the club’s genial atmosphere turned out to be exactly right, and now our only regret is that we didn’t join you people long ago.
Tom Dupree has been a professional newsman, adman, critic and editor, and an actor and director at the college and community level. His personal blog is at tomdup.wordpress.com. He is the editor of The Brief Chronicles.
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