Friars Club Under Fire: Inside a Showbiz Institution Divided by Financial and Sex Harassment Scandals
"A lot of money is missing," says a billionaire member of the New York social club, once a haunt for Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles but now reeling from a federal raid and a discrimination case against a club official.
Seventeen years ago, Christopher Gambale, a screenwriter and former assistant to Harvey Weinstein, paid $1,100 to join the New York Friars Club. Back then, the only issue with the venerable social club was how sleepy it had become. Gambale, now 46, had hoped to soak in the club’s Rat Pack-era glamour while schmoozing his way up the showbiz ladder. Glamour is not what he found. “For starters, it was old. Like, really old,” he says. “Maybe 10 or 12 members were under 30. We tried to keep the place open late, but everyone was out of there by 8 p.m.” As for the glamour, “I wouldn’t even call them celebrities. They were D-list entertainers wandering around the dining room, talking about how big they were back in their heyday.”
Things sputtered along like that for a decade. But then something exciting happened: The club hired a fresh-faced (for the Friars, that is) promoter named Michael Gyure as executive director. “That’s when it all changed,” recalls Gambale. “I mean, massive change. It became an A-list club. Now we have people like George Clooney and Brett Ratner hanging around with Marty Scorsese and Harvey Weinstein.”
But that change appears to have brought consequences, as one of the industry’s most historic social clubs finds itself at the center of a financial and harassment scandal that has divided members and marred its A-list renaissance. According to a dozen Friars Club members interviewed for this story — many of whom are speaking out for the first time — questions about finances have not been properly addressed by Gyure, treasurer Ralph Compagnone or newly installed CFO Robert Rehm. Adding to that, a sexual-harassment lawsuit filed against a club officer has produced a perfect storm of bad press that would have given the club’s founders — turn-of-the-century Broadway publicists — more tsuris than they could handle.
In many respects, the Friars Club remains a relic of a bygone New York — the air inside the East 55th Street headquarters is musty, the decor dilapidated, the roast beef quite bland. But under Gyure (pronounced “jury”), it regained some of its old cachet. In 2015, David Letterman held a staff reunion at the club for his Late Show sendoff, where alums gathered to toast his 33 years in TV. Jimmy Fallon has professed to loving the spot and recently sprang for memberships for his Tonight Show writing staff. And Barbra Streisand showed up in June to christen the Barbra Streisand Room, a cabaret cocktail lounge on the second floor.
“The perception is the Friars Club is just an organization of old comedians who give roasts,” says Bill Boggs, 72, an actor who has popped up in everything from Trading Places to Chappelle’s Show and heads the club’s admissions committee. “But we host probably more events — private events, cultural events, entertainment events — than any other private club in New York. We have all kinds of comedy nights. We do a jazz cabaret night every Thursday.” On any given day, one might spot a Friar like Matt Lauer, Quentin Tarantino or Bette Midler having lunch in the Billy Crystal Room or Jack Black doing curls next to Fran Drescher in the club’s fitness center.
Soho House it is not. But for a certain segment of the industry, the Friars Club’s enduring unhipness, paired with its rich history, is the key to its appeal. Self-described “club yenta” Laura Slutsky — who usually can be found parked on a sofa in the lobby’s “Laura Slutsky Corner” — calls it “a magical place. It’s a museum of comedy history.” Also, one is not likely to attend a seder at Soho House — especially not one held in the Frank Sinatra Dining Room. (“I’m the Passover queen,” says Slutsky, 67. “I do the Haggadah in five minutes.”)
Membership skews male but not overwhelmingly so. “It’s about 55 percent men to 45 percent women,” estimates Boggs, adding that the average member age is 42 and the selection process is “no rubber stamp.” It typically begins with a member referral. “For example, I have a young producer-director who manages my YouTube channel,” says Boggs. “He said, ‘Can I join?’ I said, ‘Listen, you have a terrific personality, you’re 31, you’re a full-time employee in show business. Absolutely.’ ” After introducing the candidate around to other members, the prospective candidate is interviewed by two members on the admissions committee.
Gambale sits on that committee, where he tries to entice young women to join (“Because who wants to be at an all-guy club?”). He’s not entirely sure where Gyure comes from or what qualifications landed him the job. “I know Michael ran a club in Long Island, I believe. He came from the club circuit. And you know, he’s originally from England.”
In fact, almost no biographical information about Gyure exists online, and he refused to share even basic details like age and birthplace for this story. But questions about him are mounting since a February raid this year by U.S. Postal inspectors — multiple club members say they were looking for evidence of financial fraud committed by Gyure and his handpicked executive committee. Club leadership denies all wrongdoing and no charges have been filed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which declined to comment.
The New York tabloids had a field day covering the Valentine’s Day raid. A letter of reassurance sent by Gyure to the club’s 1,000 members (“We don’t know what the allegations are. … Just know that the club has done nothing wrong”) did little to quell anxiety.
“The mood at the club is not hunky-dory,” says John Catsimatidis, 68, the billionaire owner of the Gristedes grocery chain, a 2013 New York City mayoral candidate and longtime Friars member. (Membership comprises about two-thirds “entertainment pros” and one-third “non-pros.” Non-pros like Catsimatidis pay more than twice the initiation fee that showbiz folk do — $7,000 versus $3,000.) He adds: “What I’ve heard around the club is that there is definitely some wrongdoing here. A lot of money is missing.” He admits he possesses no hard evidence of this (and a rep for the club denies any malfeasance) but says multiple members have confirmed his suspicions — and “my gut says there’s something wrong. You think the postal authorities would go in and confiscate every computer and every book if they didn’t have verified information?”
The raid came only nine months after former receptionist Rehanna Almestica, 34, filed a sexual-harassment suit against the club and scribe Bruce Charet. (All officers of the club have monastic titles and are not salaried.) In her filing, Almestica accuses Charet, 53, of harassing and intimidating her over a six-year period. He grilled her about the “color of her panties,” claims the lawsuit, and offered her “designer shoes in exchange for oral sex”; put his cellphone in her face and made her look at a photo of a “woman’s hand holding an erect penis”; told her he “had an erection” and requested that she touch it; and called her desk and breathed “heavily, moaning and saying, ‘I’m cumming, I’m cumming.’ ” Charet threatened he “would have her fired if she were to complain,” according to the lawsuit.
Almestica alleges in the filing that she did complain — to Gyure in July 2014, during which Gyure is said to have called Charet a “psychopath” and assured her that he would “take care” of the situation. The suit then states that Gyure hired the law firm of Davidoff, Hutcher and Citron LLC to investigate the incident; that Gyure allowed Charet to stay on at the Friars throughout the investigation while Almestica remained assigned to his desk; and that on June 22, 2015, Almestica filed a sexual-harassment complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights — only to then be fired by Gyure three days later.
Several Friars Club members say they are outraged that Charet has not stepped down or been forced to do so. “I have specifically asked why he is still a member of the club, as many other members have,” says one. “And according to Mr. Gyure, he is needed because of his ‘very good connections with the entertainment community’ — which is complete nonsense.”
In an interview, Charet, who is less mysterious than Gyure, says his main function, beyond his ceremonial role at the club, is to lure stars and produce the roasts and dinners. He also works as a special-projects consultant at Brett Ratner’s RatPac Entertainment and is frequently pictured alongside the director at social events. (Ratner declined comment.) Charet, who relocated to Los Angeles three years ago, says that he did, in fact, take a yearlong leave of absence in the wake of Almestica’s accusations.
“These allegations are completely false,” Charet says of her claims. “I never did any of these things in any way, shape or form. Anyone who has worked to build his reputation — only to be falsely accused — can understand how difficult this is.”
One member fondly recalls the pre-Gyure days, when Borscht Belt comic Freddie Roman was dean. (Larry King replaced Roman as dean in 2013.) “It was more like Cheers back then,” says the member. “Freddie would go around and talk to everyone, make you feel welcome. Now we have Jerry Lewis as abbot [another ceremonial post]. He’s never here. And Larry King hasn’t made a statement about any of this. He’s supposed to be buddies with Charet. I hear that’s how he got the job.” (King did not respond to requests for comment.)
To be sure, Charet has supporters at the club, Gambale among them. “Bruce is a hell of a guy,” he says. “He’s a friend. I have friends who are good people and friends who are not good people — he’s a good guy.” As for Almestica, whom Gambale once “considered a friend,” he characterizes her as “an opportunistic person.”
All of the current officers — Charet, Lewis, King and the rest — were picked by Gyure alone. In the past, candidates for executive positions collected signatures, were reviewed by a nominating committee and ran for election voted on by members, but Gyure changed that after about a year on the job. The process was inefficient, he argued, and favored stars. Members went along with the plan and “anyone construed as an independent voice on the board either left on their own or their term was not renewed,” says a source. Gyure installed his executive committee — an inner circle that includes Charet and theater producer Stephen Weintraub.
Almestica’s lawyer, Lowell Sidney, says the lawsuit is in the discovery phase; he hopes to head to trial in the fall. No monetary damages have been specified, but Almestica will seek an amount “commensurate with this sort of case,” he adds.
One potential witness is Shea Zephir, also a former Friars Club receptionist, who in February penned an angry Facebook post about her own alleged sexual harassment by Charet. “The 365 days I worked at this place Bruce Charet was the head honcho of ‘THE CREEP SQUAD,’ ” wrote Zephir. “My first few weeks at this place was a jarring reality of racism, sexism and foolery that I will never forget.” Like Almestica, who is Latina, Zephir, who is African-American, said she reported the incidents to Gyure and got a “half-ass apology” from Charet. “If you ain’t White & Jewish,” concluded Zephir in her post, “beware of ever going to the Friar’s Club around some of its members … Period!!!”
Zephir has not filed formal harassment claims against Charet and did not respond to requests for comment. Charet, who is Jewish, says that he only vaguely recalls Zephir and vehemently denies the allegations.
Historically speaking, the institution has been a bawdy boys club. It began in 1904 as a series of informal gatherings of theater press agents. Before long, the all-male group gave themselves a monkish name, adopted a Latin motto — “Prae Omnia Fraternitas,” or “Before All Things Brotherhood” — and found a clubhouse to pal around in. As the late Red Buttons once put it, “It was just a place for the guys to get away, have a cognac, smoke a cigar, and if they wanted to talk dirty, they could do it.”
Throughout the 1920s, the club held Friars Frolics — formal dinners honoring big stars of the day like Irving Berlin and Al Jolson. Those grew rowdier and raunchier through the 1940s, when the club’s legendary roasts began. After several moves around Midtown Manhattan, the Friars relocated in 1957 to its current headquarters: a five-story English Renaissance townhouse, referred to by members as the Monastery.
That Golden Era in the 1940s and ’50s was dominated by larger-than-life personalities like Milton Berle, whose outsize penis became a recurring gag, and in the ’60s by Frank Sinatra (dean from 1975 to 1996) and Rat Pack cohorts like Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. (who had his conversion-to-Judaism party at the club).
A West Coast auxiliary opened in 1947. By the early 1960s, the Beverly Hills Friars Club was facing a scandal involving rigged gin rummy games. After years of declining membership, the club on Little Santa Monica Boulevard closed its doors in 2008 (the building was demolished in 2011).
Through it all, women were welcome to attend the New York club’s roasts and dinners and were occasionally honorees; Liz Taylor, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett all were feted at one point or another. But they were not permitted to be members, nor to eat at the club, except after 4 p.m. on weekdays. That all changed in 1987, however, when lawyer Gloria Allred sued to join.
After receiving word that the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld a New York City ban on sex discrimination in private clubs, Allred hopped a midnight flight to New York to eat a now-sanctioned lunch of poached salmon and zucchini. But before she entered the club, Allred was met by irate members — led by Henny “Take My Wife, Please” Youngman — who shouted names at her through the windows and refused to let her in, according to an AP report. “There’s a million clubs in New York,” Youngman snapped to Allred. “Why do you have to come here? We have fun here.” Allred eventually squeezed by Youngman and offered, “Nice to have met you, sir. You’re entitled to be wrong.” Women have been permitted to join the club since.
It has been nearly two years since Allred, 75, last visited the club, “but every time I have been there they have been cordial and friendly,” she says. She still remembers the time Freddie Roman apologized to her for her rude reception. “He said: ‘You were right, we were wrong. Sorry about the names we called you from the window. And thanks for making us do it, because we’re a better club as a result.’ ” Allred would not comment on Almestica’s lawsuit because she has not read it “and I don’t represent her.”
Says Slutsky of the men-only years: “They were terrified of us women. But we have added so much to the club — in terms of humanity, in terms of listening, in terms of talent.” One beneficiary of Allred’s crusade is New York TV journalist Jane Hanson, 61, a member for 20-plus years. She says she never has felt she was “encroaching on a men’s space.” The understanding is that the roasts remain the exception: a PC-free boys club where no one is ever censored. Still, women long have been welcome at the events, and the Friars pride themselves on being equal-opportunity offenders: Ted Danson appeared in blackface at the 1993 roast of then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg. Just weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Gilbert Gottfried told a now-infamous 9/11 joke that, according to Gottfried himself, was the first recorded instance of someone saying, “Too soon!” And in 2004, Donald Trump invoked the C-word while addressing Katie Couric when he was guest of honor. The chaos is too much for some. “I don’t go to the roasts that often,” admits Hanson.
Just how much money is made by the roasts — black-tie affairs attended by more than 2,000 guests who pay anywhere from $250 for one seat in the back to $50,000 for a ringside table — Gyure isn’t saying. The executive director declined to share financial data, and a copy of a 2016 balance sheet obtained by THR, prepared by an independent auditor, does not itemize revenue from the roast. It does, however, show that the club reported $3,522,478 in total assets and $3,522,478 for total liabilities. Yes, the same exact amount, either a bizarre coincidence or evidence of a misstatement, either intentional or in error. In that same annual statement, the club reported as an asset $800,000 for the land but does not list the building as an asset. Club officials would not comment on these figures.
One record available to the public, a 990 IRS filing for the club’s now-defunct charitable wing, the Friars Foundation, raises further questions. The IRS filing for the tax year ending June 30, 2015, shows net assets of $743,217. That year the club mounted the Lincoln Awards: A Concert for Veterans & the Military Family, an event benefiting the Wounded Warriors Project held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington featuring pretaped appearances by Michelle Obama and Bruce Springsteen. It exceeded all past Friars events in scale and budget and was touted as having been highly successful in terms of fundraising.
The 990 seems to confirm as much. It lists $1,406,884 in revenue under the heading “contributions and grants.” (By comparison, the 2014 figure is $47,198.) The club declined to comment on the tax form.
No tax return was filed the following year, and the foundation was dissolved in June. The whereabouts of the declared assets — and an itemization of the $1,344,403 in expenditures the foundation claimed — remain unknown. Says one member: “We have never seen any accounting and have asked the question numerous times: ‘Where’s the money?’ “
According to Catsimatidis, who sat on the foundation board, the sum in question “was given away to 501(c)(3)s. I was there the day they gave it all away.” Though he believes money from the club’s operational budget is not properly accounted for, the foundation’s finances are solid. Still, Catsimatidis, who is worth an estimated $3.4 billion, has no idea who received the donations or whether a paper trail exists to track them. As for why the foundation was disbanded, Catsimatidis says, “There were arguments about when a show [like the Lincoln Awards] would be put on: For whom do the bells toll? Does the money go to the foundation or to the club?”
Gyure hasn’t answered that question to everyone’s satisfaction. Says one longtime member, “There is a complete gray area between the former Friars Foundation and the Friars Club. They are two separate entities, two separate checkbooks and sets of accounting — and we have been completely left in the dark.”
There also are questions regarding unpaid property taxes. Public records indicate the club has failed to pay them for several consecutive quarters and is in arrears to the city to the tune of $154,037.65.
That has disturbed many returning members, who pay annual fees of $4,235 and must spend at least $375 on food, drink and entertainment per quarter. And there are fees: a monthly $300 tab for a “capital improvement fund” and a $100 monthly charge for something called “the Friars Benevolent Association,” listed online as a new nonprofit but whose nature and function is not clear. For frustrated members, the unanswered questions, federal probe and Charet’s continued presence leave a rancid taste and a longing for the way things used to be.
Citing the advice of lawyers, Gyure declined comment. A statement from the club’s attorneys says that it “is committed to full cooperation with the U.S. Attorney’s investigation and has been in dialogue with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to facilitate that cooperation. So as not to potentially impede the ongoing inquiry, we cannot comment further at this time.” Boggs adds this statement to THR on behalf of the club: “We couldn’t be more excited about the future of the Friars. We look forward to continuing our great tradition as a premier New York City establishment where the entertainment community can relax and entertain in an inviting setting.”
For his part, Gambale is content to keep his head down and the party going. “As far as the legalities of it all, I don’t know much about it,” he says. “But I do know all the people involved. They’re really getting a bad rap here — and unfortunately the club is suffering because of it.”
This story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.