By MICHAEL GERBINO It's hard to find unique shops and artisans dedicated to their crafts anymore in Manhattan. Florence Meat Market in the West Village comes to mind for prime meats cut to perfection by skilled butchers. The old-school restaurant Emilio’s Ballato on Houston Street is a favorite for authentic pasta dishes. Or Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffé on East 11th Street for coffee and a cannoli. But on West 38th Street you’ll discover two gems. One is Hecht Sewing Machine & Motor, a nondescript shop offering services for industrial sewing machines and doubling as a repository of antiques from the past.
The other, directly across the street on an office building's 19th floor, is the fine art and object restoration and conservation practice of Center Art Studio. Established in 1919, Center Art is one of the oldest conservation studios in New York City, and The Players Foundation For Theatre Education has frequently turned to it to restore and preserve some of the art collection and treasures that adorn The Players' 19th-century Beaux Arts clubhouse.
On my recent visit to their atelier with Amelia Bathke, The Foundation’s librarian, and Pamela Singleton, its treasurer, we were treated to a view of Center Art Studio in action. With the detailed precision of surgeons, Lansing Moore and his talented staff nurse long-suffering, smoke-stained and weathered canvases back to their former beauty and elegance.
Two well-known pieces were being restored during our visit: Nance O’Neil as Lady Macbeth by Paul Swan, and Four Guys A-Singing by John Falter. The Falter was almost complete: the Four Players in gleeful harmony on a freshly cleaned canvas, almost ready to go back to their usual spot in the Grill. The Swan painting was slowly coming to life with painstaking attention to detail. The crimson of Lady Macbeth’s beetle wing dress was beginning to burst off the canvas as we watched Mr. Moore clean away accumulated dirt and grime, revealing colors and nuanced details that had not been visible for decades.
This is all made possible thanks to donations to The Players Foundation For Theatre Education. Besides maintaining The Hampden-Booth Theatre Library and a collection of rare 19th through 21st century American and British theatre artwork, memorabilia, prompt books, costumes, props and more, the Foundation stands on the belief that great works of art connect club members to their historic home and to each other.
In just the last few years scores of paintings have been restored, including sixteen oil portraits by Philadelphia-based artist John Neagle of actors in costume now hanging in the Library, the majestic portraits of Edwin Booth as the sinister Cardinal Richelieu and Joseph Jefferson as Bob Acres in the Great Hall, and Awkins The Busker by John Lambert Jr., which adorns the walls of the Dining Room, with Nance O’Neil waiting in the wings. The portrait of Junius Brutus Booth that hangs above the fireplace where he keeps a watchful eye as the traditional loving cup is passed around every New Year’s Eve is a recent restoration, along with the cathedral scene in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at the entrance to the Grill. There's also David Garrick by Johan Zoffany, Mrs. Anne Hartley Gilbert by Dora Wheeler Keith, and many more -- all of them restored by Center Art Studio under the auspices of The Players Foundation For Theatre Education, true artisans dedicated to their craft.
[Editor's Note: You may contact and/or donate to the Foundation at https://www.playersfoundation.org/.]
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 non-quarantined nights you will find him playing pool in the Grill.