It began for the oldest reason in the book: Folks were getting swindled. In this case, it was a group of wily Press Agents in turn of the century Manhattan; 1904. The agents dished out free tickets to reviewers for their clients’ Broadway shows in exchange for well-placed plugs in the papers. It was standard industry reciprocity, until the agents learned they were getting bamboozled by “reporters” unaffiliated with any publication. Times Square certainly wasn’t the birthplace of the scammer, but people like Ponzi had recently drifted into town and raised the bar for his fellow con-men.
So eleven agents began meeting weekly at Browne’s Chophouse in midtown to sort out who was legit and who was full of it. Swapping industry war stories bonded them around a common cause and the group became more and more tightly knit. A blacklist was eventually disseminated and the impostors were vanquished soon there after. Yet in solving their problem, the group had also eradicated the reason for their gatherings.
It didn’t take long to find another reason to meet regularly. The group had become the kind of friends that looked out for one another, and they liked celebrating that bond over ample food and drink… The resulting organization was the Press Agents Association, and it wasn’t long before their clients were joining their jovial get-togethers, adding the kind of color and depth only playwrights, directors, actors, comedians, magicians, singers and dancers can.
One that encompassed a diversified band of artistic brothers. Friar stems from“Frater,” the Latin term for brother, and thanks to the likes of Shakespeare, who created memorable Friars in plays like Romeo and Juliet, and actual Trappist monks perfecting intoxicating beer recipes between strict vows of silence, this band of brothers began to acquire the reputation for intelligent, if not always benevolent mischievousness.
There were older, more prestigious social institutions in the city, but none were quite as engaging as the newly formed Friars. Mingling with Manhattan’s entertainment illuminati was a plus, but the club’s real value was found in the camaraderie of common interests. Prae Omnia Fraternitas, Brotherhood Forever, became their motto.
The troupe began honoring its own with Bacchanalian dinners featuring talent drawn from their deep pool of entertainers. A New York Tribune headline from 1910 read, “FRIARS KID MR. HARRIS: Veteran Theatrical Manager Butt of Jokes at Dinner.” The dinners bloomed into an exclusive event, and the first formal “Roast” went down in 1949 with none other than Maurice Chevalier as the guest of honor. It was obscene, unedited, outrageous and side-splitting. The Friars soon coined another motto: “We only roast the ones we love.”
The club was exclusively male, but that didn’t stop members from wining and dining their better halves within its hallowed halls. During the club’s early history, several women were invited to, and even honored at, the club’s Testimonial Dinners. The Roasts, however, remained stag, a fact that didn’t thrill Lauren Bacall when they Roasted her husband, Humphrey Bogart, in 1955. Bacall sent in an audiotape which was unapologetically played during the meal. “This is Lauren Bacall, the uninvited guest, you rat bastards…”
When the Friars roasted Lucille Ball in 1962, Roastmaster Johnny Carson began the evening by admonishing the crowd. “We have a lady present and we need to treat her like one.” He then introduced her as “Lucille Testicle.”
In 1983, Phyllis Diller couldn’t contain her curiosity any longer. She dressed as a man and snuck into the cloistered Sid Caesar Roast, noting that, “It was the funniest and dirtiest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
In 1988, Liza Minnelli, smashed through the club’s Tiffany ceiling, by becoming the first official card-carrying female Friar.
The club itself called several locations in midtown town before settling in their current edifice on 55th street, built in 1909 by Martin Erdmann, an investment banker with actual taste. He engaged the architectural firm of Taylor & Levi to build his urban estate. When completed a year later, the five-story English Renaissance tudor was considered a daring and clever work by critics. (And is currently being proposed for Landmark Status.)
The vaulted ceiling of its marble entrance hall immediately establishes a regal tone, as does the detail of carving in the cherrywood walls and the stalwart railings along the multiple spiraling staircases. The Erdmann Residence formally opened as the Friars Club Monastery in November 1957. A building fit for a king, now in the hands of court jesters. In a grand gesture, Abbot Joe E. Lewis flung the keys to the front door into the street to symbolize that the doors would always be open.
The building’s deed forbade the establishing of such “nuisances” as livery stables, breweries, tanneries, blacksmith shops, glue factories, vitriol manufactories or others of equally noisome character. The irony is that since acquiring the building, almost all of the above has gone down, in one form or another, within the clubs sometimes joyfully desecrated halls.
COMEDIANS: Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, George Burns, Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, Phyllis Diller, Redd Foxx, Red Buttons, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, Carole Burnett, Carl Reiner, Rich Little, Bob Newhart, Freddie Roman, Joan Rivers, Richard Prior, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Robert Klein, Gilbert Gottfried, Totie Fields, Rita Rudner, Jeanne Carroll, Sophie Tucker, Joey Adams, Henny Youngman, Gene Baylos, Richard Lewis, Billy Crystal, Chevy Chase, Robin Williams, Lewis Black, Joy Behar, Janeane Garofalo, Jerry Seinfeld, Susie Essman, Lisa Lampanelli, Whitney Cummings, Sarah Silverman, Jack Black.
ACTORS: George M. Cohan, Douglas Fairbanks, Will Rogers, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Ernest Borgnine, Candice Bergen, Elliot Gould, Elaine Stritch, Abe Vigoda, Richard Dryfuss, Robert Deniro, Morgan Freeman, John Travolta, Danny DeVito, Betty White, Roger Moore, Renée Taylor, Joe Bologna, George Raft, Kelly Preston, Candice Bergen, Bill Murray, Susan Lucci, Pierce Brosnan, Brooke Shields, Tom Cruise, Sam Jackson, Alec Baldwin, Don Cheadle, Lainie Kazan, Anjelica Houston, Bebe Neuwirth, Matthew Broderick, Bruce Willis, Neve Campbell, Rosario Dawson, Lea DeLaria.
MUSICIANS: Oscar Hammerstein, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Barbra Streisand, Perry Como, Enrico Caruso, Liza Minnelli, Tom Jones, Tony Bennett, Nancy Sinatra, Diana Ross, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Frankie Valli, Art Garfunkel, Elvis Costello, Dee Snider, Dionne Warwick, Allen Toussaint, Debbie Reynolds, Aretha Franklin, Boyd Tinsley, Clive Davis, Natalie Cole.
TALK SHOW HOSTS: Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, Dick Cavett, Joe Franklin, Sally Jessy Raphael, Regis Philbin, Matt Lauer, Steve Allen, Meredith Vieira, Kathy Lee Gifford, Al Roker, Larry King, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon.
RESTAURATEURS & FOOD SHOW HOSTS: Drew Nieporent, Padma Lakshmi.
JOURNALISTS & BROADCASTERS: Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters, Edward R. Murrow, Mike Wallace, Bob Woodruff, Diane Sawyer, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Chuck Scarborough, Roger Grimsby, Rolland Smith, Rosanna Scotto, Earl Wilson, Brian Williams, Janice Huff, Ernie Anastos.
WRITERS, DIRECTORS & PRODUCERS: Neil Simon, Herb Sargent, Gary Smith, Chuck Barris, Joe Cates, Alan Zweibel, Elie Wieser, Tom Fontana, Evan Hunter, Marc Eliot, Nelson DeMille, Sam Denoff, Gil Cates, Michael Tadross, Will Friedwald, Quentin Tarantino, Rob Reiner, Eli Roth, Brett Ratner, Brad Grey, Michael Lynne, Leslie Moonves, Joel and Ethan Coen.
SPORTS FIGURES: Rocky Marciano, Rusty Staub, David Cone, Howard Cosell, Goose Gossage, George Foreman, Tiki Barber, Boomer Esiason, Leo Durocher, Arthur “Bugs” Baer, Tommy Lasorda, George Steinbrenner, Adam Graves, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Keith Hernandez, Don King, Bert Sugar, Bob Arum.
ENTREPRENEURS: Carl Icahn, Steve Tisch, Jonathan Tisch, Samuel J. LeFrak, Hugh Hefner, Caroline Hirsch, Donald Trump, Leonard Wilf, Carlos Slim, John Catsimatidis, Sheldon Adelson, Alan Patricof, Ron Perelman.