In 2017, NYC photographer, creative director of Archigrafika, and Chair of The Players art committee Michael Gerbino began sending out monthly email blasts entitled Artwork at The Players. He wanted to spotlight the priceless historical artifacts housed in the Edwin Booth mansion at 16 Gramercy Park South with each correspondence.
Recipients of the emails were Players members, visitors, and guests from various professions: actors, artists, and creative minds. Despite coming from all walks of life, those who received the communications had similar ideas–to preserve, protect, and share Booth’s treasured possessions.
Those unfamiliar with The Players Club, a National Historic Landmark, could easily walk by the four-story brownstone with its illuminated gas-lit façade. There’s no exterior clue that the building houses paintings, sculptures, drawings, and so much more within its famous walls. Booth’s vision was for great minds to gather in this place, and in 1888, he purchased the home with that intention.
“We do not mingle enough with minds that influence the world,” Booth said. “I want my club to be a place where actors are away from the glamour of the theater.”
Booth incorporated The Players along with 15 other prestigious founders. Men like William Tecumseh Sherman, Mark Twain, and Augustin Daly were on site on December 31, 1888, when Booth deeded the home and his entire collection of books, prized works of art, and theater memorabilia to the club.
One hundred and thirty-three years later, Gerbino’s vision is to educate and enlighten the public, not just actors, about the exquisite contents of the property. Thus, the first volume of Artwork at The Players was published to do that. The book is a treasure from the front cover to the back.
Creative genius Gerbino spun his first 50 emails into an 83-page book showcasing paintings and artwork produced by some of the greatest artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, alongside well-researched backstories in composition form. While some contents in Booth’s home are of unknown origin, others originated from prolific masters of the arts, including painter John Neagle, political cartoonist and Player Thomas Nast, and portrait artist Everett Raymond Kinstler.
Undoubtedly, the first place to stop when leafing through Gerbino’s book is on page 18, where readers encounter the photograph of the carved wooden bust of William Shakespeare that adorns the banister near the club entrance. The accompanying essay pays homage to the world’s most famous playwright. It is fitting The Bard of Avon is one of the first things visitors see in the entranceway since we know Booth was one of the most legendary Shakespearean actors of his time. Unfortunately, the origin of this carving is unknown.
The book presents nine of sixteen portraits by John Neagle, shared on pages 24 through 27. According to Gerbino, the portraits that hang in the Hampden-Booth Theatre Library are one of the largest collections of Neagle’s talent. Booth purchased the collection from the widow of 19th-century actor and comedian John E. Owens. The assemblage of paintings is a selection of famous actors portrayed as characters from the stage in the 1800s. Owens was an intriguing actor and comedian; four portraits of Owens by various painters are on pages 28 and 29.
It should please historians and visitors to Gerbino’s book to see the familiar Mr. Timothy Toodles, a.k.a. comedian William E. Burton, painted by notable caricature artist Thomas Nast on page 37. This invaluable portrait hangs in the foyer of the Great Hall. Many are familiar with Nast, the controversial yet exalted political cartoonist of his day known for bringing about the demise of Boss Tweed.
The infamous caricature portraying The Tammany Tiger on page 64 highlights the uproar Nast infused into bureaucratic history for all who have forgotten. His other illustration in the book, on page 65, entitled Founders Night 1901, displays his reverence for Booth. The club has both drawings on exhibit.
The Players dedicated an entire room to portrait artist and Player Everett Raymond Kinstler. Kinstler began his career as a comic book illustrator and had painted thousands of well-known personalities and eight presidents before passing in 2019. On display is a portrait of Tony Award-winning actor Alfred Drake from his role in Kismet, along with the charcoal drawings of Carol Burnett and Peter O’Toole and dozens of other exciting pieces of artwork. Kinstler’s work and essays are on pages 55 to 58.
If these hallowed walls, paintings, and artwork could talk, the applause would bring down the house on Broadway. Imagine the mingling of minds and the extraordinary conversations to be had at 16 Gramercy Park South, influencing today’s diverse group of members, guests, and visitors. So pick up Artwork at The Players today and acquaint yourself with “a culture that has stayed the same,” as Gerbino stated, yet has transcended time as Booth envisioned.
With the support of The Players Foundation for Theatre Education, the tireless help of The Foundation’s past and present librarians Raymond Wemmlinger and Amelia Bathke, member editors C. Claiborne Ray and Tom Dupree, and an anonymous member who made publication possible, Artwork at The Players was published in 2021 and represents what Gerbino says will be the first of several volumes. Booth wanted people to gather and revere the place that was once his residence, and Gerbino’s selection of essays and images will convince you the effort to bring this book to fruition was worth the time.
Artwork at The Players: 50 Selected Essays
Compiled by Michael Gerbino
Published by The Players Foundation for Theatre Education, a 501(c)(3) organization, 83 pages, $75.
Get your copy by contacting The Foundation at 212-228-1861.
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