Haven of Cigars and Laughs Seeks a Savior

From a New York Times story by Julia Jacobs headlined “Haven of Cigars and Laughs Seeks a Savior”:

One of the final episodes of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” released this month, captured the bawdy, profanity-laced ritual that was a celebrity roast at New York’s Friars Club — the kind of entertainment that helped make the club the buzzing epicenter of the comedy world.

But these days the landmark home of wisecracks and cigar smoke, and legends like Milton Berle and Jerry Lewis, is trying to fight off extinction.

A loan company has moved to foreclose on the club after it missed payments on a $13 million mortgage. And a federal judge is mulling whether to appoint an outside company to take over the Friars Club’s six-story townhouse on East 55th Street, which has been shuttered for months as the club’s financial problems have deepened.

An inspection in March by the loan company described a building marred by mounds of trash, signs of mice and roaches, mold damage and containers of “unidentifiable liquid waste,” according to court papers. The club said it has “improved the conditions of the property” since that inspection. Still, the Frank Sinatra Room, once a place of fine dining, remained a scene of unfinished renovations with light bulbs hanging from the ceiling during a recent visit.

Long a stomping ground for Manhattan’s showbiz elite, the club has seen its membership age and dwindle and its dues revenue diminish as it faced a series of crises. In 2017, federal agents raided its offices as part of an inquiry into its finances. The authorities later charged its executive director at the time for filing false personal tax returns. In 2020 came flooding that shut the club down, only to be followed by the pandemic. Last year there was enough financial strain that, after the club’s typical summer hiatus, it never resumed regular hours.

Now, its remaining leaders are searching for an 11th-hour savior who might buy the building and cover its debt. Arthur Aidala, the club’s current dean (i.e., its president), said there were several promising offers, each about $18 million, that he believed would salvage the Friars’ identity and allow the club to stay in the building, but would put the operations under new management.

“If it’s one thing I’ve learned, the Friars should not be running clubs,” Aidala said. “They should be telling jokes and singing songs.”

Aidala, a criminal defense lawyer whose clients have included Harvey Weinstein, Rudy Giuliani and Alan Dershowitz, spoke from the second-floor dining room of the club, also known as The Monastery, in which the marble floors, ornate ceilings, stained glass and hand-carved wood combine in a style that is something like Vegas Medieval. Aidala said he viewed the loan company’s contention that the property was “abandoned” as disingenuous because the building had been long in the process of rehabilitation, including when the club secured the loan in 2021.

As of now, the Friars Club’s funds have been depleted and about two months’ worth of mortgage payments remain unpaid, Aidala said, but he promised that after the building is sold, “We’re going to pay them 100 cents on the dollar.”

Beyond its celebrity roasts, its line-crossing comedy and a membership that included Johnny Carson, Irving Berlin, Jimmy Fallon and Carol Burnett, the club has been home to many non-entertainers who cherished the bonhomie of its social settings and a certain proximity to fame. (It’s always been mostly men; the first woman admitted was Liza Minnelli in 1988.) Its headquarters since the 1950s, the Monastery is a shrine to the club’s heyday, with framed black-and-white photos of smiling comedy legends.

But over the past decade or so, the fabric of the organization has frayed. The club, a nonprofit corporation, lost its tax-exempt status in 2010. Its spending on low-net charity events was criticized. Its bills piled up. Its director at the time, Michael Gyure, pleaded guilty to having filed false tax returns. He was kept on for several months after his sentencing, before the club’s board fired him in 2020, an event for which he has brought legal action against the club. The lender said in court papers that the club also owes money to the restaurant and bartenders employee union, the city’s Environmental Control Board, and the New York State Department of Labor.

After shutting down because of the flood and the pandemic, the club inched back to life in 2021, at first offering limited food such as charcuterie boards in place of full lunch and dinner service. At the beginning of 2022, there were a couple hundred dues-paying members — a paltry head count compared to around 2015, when paying membership numbered more than 1,000, said Anthony Trombetta, a former general manager and creative director for the club.

Club leaders had hoped that a roast of Tracy Morgan in spring of last year would reinvigorate the organization, Trombetta said, but after the club closed for part of the summer, as usual, it was not financially stable enough to fully reopen in September.

“After the summer, after the members were back from the Hamptons, our inability to open at that time put everyone on edge,” Trombetta said. “Everyone was able to assume the club’s fate at that time.”

Then, last month, the club was sued by its creditor, which said in court papers that the organization had missed a monthly payment of about $140,000. The loan company, Kairos Credit Strategies Operating Partnership, demanded $13.5 million from the club and asked that a judge allow a company to manage and ultimately sell the club to the highest bidder.

Aidala has been searching for a buyer who will wipe out the debt and get the club up and running again. One bid — for a less-than-desired $6 million — has come from John Catsimatidis, the owner of WABC radio who made his fortune in grocery stores.

“I don’t want the Friars Club name to die,” said Catsimatidis, a former member.

Aidala said a promising offer in discussion involves Charlie Palmer, the chef whose company operates several restaurants across the country, including in Times Square. Under that deal, Palmer would operate a public restaurant on the first floor of the club, keeping the rest of the building for members.

But the club’s plan would become more complicated if the judge handling the foreclosure filing approves the lender’s effort to get a third-party property manager to oversee the building. And some former members are skeptical that, even if a rescue bidder steps in, the club will be able to lure back enough of the old guard to keep the place operating.

“There have been various attempts to revive, renew, reimagine the club,” said Steve Beninati, a former member. “Whether you look at it from a financial perspective or from a more emotional perspective, none of them have ever worked.”

But Marvin Scott, a senior correspondent for PIX11 News in New York and the club’s “prior” (i.e., vice president), said things are not so dire. He said he likes to imagine the club as being like Jack and Rose in the film “Titanic,” holding onto the railing as the ship sinks.

But the ending is different for the S.S. Friars Club, he predicted. In this story, he said, “We’re not going to hit the water.”

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