In April 2021, one of New York City’s most beloved, stalwart—and exclusive—organizations hosted a much-anticipated re-opening. After flooding in January 2020, mandatory closure during the COVID-19 pandemic, and extensive reconstruction and remodeling, the Friars Club at 57 East 55th Street hosted its first Friars Club Live music-and-comedy event in more than a year. Laughter came back home.
Everything old is new again
The club’s new look includes new management and a new perspective. Its new “dean” is Arthur Aidala, a 53-year-old attorney taking the reins after the death in January 2021 of legendary talk show host Larry King. The 87-year-old King had served as the club’s dean since 2014.
One of Aidala’s main goals is to modernize the club in more ways than one, making it more accessible and comfortable for young business professionals and women than the venerable entertainment “boys’ club” of its past.
In what Aidala calls its “2.0” version, the Friars Club has kept its popular amenities virtually unchanged: its game rooms where members can enjoy playing cards or billiards, and its barbershop, gym, and luxurious marble-appointed steam room where comedian, actor, and “Mr. Television” Milton Berle (1908 - 2002) often held court.
However, the club has also lightened its dark-paneled walls and modernized much of its old-style decor. Its stained glass windows got a glow-up through much-needed repairs and restoration, and its Barbra Streisand Bar now sports a set of leather banquettes and antique mirrors. Herringbone-patterned flooring has replaced the former wall-to-wall carpets, while the Milton Berle Room’s original floors got a thorough makeover to restore their splendor.
Instead of the formerly de rigueur coats and jackets, the members’ dress code has also now relaxed with the times. And in the new Abbot’s Lounge, there’s now a co-working office space for members to use, supported by fast WiFi. The club plans to construct a well-appointed podcasting studio as well.
A rollicking history
Even with all the upgrades, it’s easy to see the spirit of the classic Friars Club throughout the historic 1909 English Renaissance Revival townhouse that has served as its “monastery” since 1957.
The Friars Club got off to an uncharacteristically serious start in 1904. The private organization was originally designed to foil a widespread Broadway ticketing scam, in which bogus entertainment journalists connived to get free press tickets but never actually reviewed a show. The directors, actors, playwrights, and other performers who banded together to protect their industry soon evolved into the private social club we know today.
The idea of calling themselves “Friars” (derived from the Latin for “brothers”) is supposed to have come from journalist and playwright Frederick F. Schrader. The theme would go on to encompass naming the group’s newsletter the “Epistle” and their officers “abbots” and “deans.”
The group (all-male until 1987) first met at Browne’s Chop House, a popular spot with the theater crowd. Still in their early days, the Friars were already hosting the tribute dinners to celebrated theater people that would evolve into their hallmark comedy roasts decades later. Among the first honorees was impresario Oscar Hammerstein I in 1908.
In 1916, work was completed on the Friars’ first “monastery,” a Gothic-style residence on West 48th Street. That building went into receivership in 1932. The Friars, down on their luck during the Great Depression, couldn’t afford to pay the approximately $1,000 they owed to their vendors of butter and eggs, and had to leave their building behind.
Under a board whose members included comedians Red Buttons (1919 - 2006), a Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winner that year, and “Sergeant Bilko” Phil Silvers (1911 - 1985), the Friars bought their current monastery from the estate of investment banker Martin Erdmann in 1957.
Roasting the famous since 1950
The club’s infamously ribald and no-holds-barred comedic roasts of popular celebrities kicked off in 1950. That’s when the group roasted comedian, journalist, and television host Sam Levenson (1911 - 1980), renowned for his stories of growing up in a poor Jewish family on the Lower East Side.
The Friars have become better known for the broadcasts of these roasts than perhaps anything else in their long history. Others who have received the honor of a roast include “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” singer Frank Sinatra (1915 - 1998), Tonight Show host Johnny Carson (1925 - 2005), and sweet-voiced singer Dinah Shore (1916 - 1994).
In 1971, in one of the most famous roasts of all time, insult comic Don Rickles (1926 - 2017) roasted comedic actor, singer, and humanitarian Jerry Lewis (1926 - 2017), one-half of the Martin and Lewis performing duo alongside singer Dean Martin. The Friars Club officially renamed its current building “The Jerry Lewis Monastery” in 2014.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Comedy Central broadcast the roasts. The channel has gone on to host its own roasts, based on those at the Friars Club.
The 1999 Cinemax documentary Let Me In, I Hear Laughter: A Salute to the Friars, directed by Dean Ward, offers a hilarious and poignant recap of the Friars’ history up until then and features Phyllis Diller, Sid Caesar, Alan King, and a host of other 20th century comedy and theater luminaries. In 2004, New York City designated 55th Street’s southeast corner as “Friars Way.”