features + interviews

the players library collections: legitimizing the art of the actor for 125 years

[article originally published in HowlRound, February 15, 2015.]

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The mandate to research, record, and archive the art of the actor has always framed the work of The Players, a club for actors and those who love them that has called a stately 1840s townhouse at 16 Gramercy Park South home since the club’s opening on December 31, 1888. After several decades of huge Victorian families and servants roaming the halls of this beautiful building, Edwin Booth, founding President of The Players remade the place. His vision? Upper floors housed quarters for Booth and guests, and lower floors featured an “actors club” replete with dining hall, performing and meeting spaces, and study areas.

Long tenures and traditions distinguish the place, from the presidents to the librarians. There were just four presidents between 1888, when Edwin Booth and colleagues established the club, and 1954, when Walter Hampden stepped down (the first President to step down before dying in office). A twenty-year presidential tenure ended a year ago amidst some turmoil. And the club’s century-old males-only rule was blasted open in 1989, inspired by a New York City ordinance more than unanimous member pressure. That year on Shakespeare’s birthday—traditionally the one day each year that women were welcome—the first thirty female members were installed with a cocktail reception, theatre event, and club dinner.

Current president Arthur Makar leads the social club and repository of American and British theatre history, memorabilia, and theatrical artifacts. Today’s club members are artists from theatre, film, television, music, and publishing, as well as patrons of the arts. The Great Hall hosts receptions, the Dining Room holds special events and performances on a small informal stage, and the basement Grill Room offers libations, simple fare, and camaraderie to members and their guests.

Raymond Wemmlinger is the current curator and librarian of the club’s Hampden-Booth Theatre Library, named for the collections of club presidents Walter Hampden and Edwin Booth that are the most extensive of the library’s holdings. The research mission he oversees today is totally in line with the club’s vision as articulated over 125 years ago:

First—To provide for social intercourse among the members of the dramatic profession, artists, and the patrons of art. Second—For the formation of a dramatic library and a house for dramatic records. Third—To collect historical data of the stage in general and of the American stage in particular. —“An Important New Club Founded by Managers, Actors, and Others,” New York Times, January 8, 1888

Wemmlinger clarifies that The Players consists of the club and The Players Foundation for Theatre Education, into which the finances and business of the library have been merged. The club owns the building, and co-owns the collection (paintings, artifacts, ephemera) with the Foundation. The art collection (excluding contents of the Booth Room, which are owned by the club) is under the care of the Foundation, whose nonprofit status allows for fundraising.

The research collections have been housed in several areas of the club building over the years. Now the second floor library primarily holds valued but replaceable items. Biographies and publications fill the shelves, and ephemera and theatre memorabilia of many varieties are on display to tempt interested general visitors and serious researchers alike. A small room abutting the library reading room was once the “conversation area” and then became an enclosed office, now bearing a plaque commemorating meetings in that location hosted by club member Francis Wilson that led to the founding of the Actors Equity Association. Public hallways are adorned with delights such as portraits (Katharine Hepburn, Rosemary Harris, Marian Seldes, Joseph Jefferson, and scores of their compatriots), stage costumes, and Tiffany glasswork in an interior window overlooking a lounge area.

Article continues here.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 15, 2015)

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