EXCLUSIVE The Famed Friars Club on East 55th St. is in hot, hot water.
Their controversial president, Bruce Charet, has been sued for sexual harassment in a lawsuit that’s rocked the staid club, home to famed comedians, singers and actors for decades.
Charet has become such a lightning rod that several veteran members of the club have left. And to make matters worse, comic Stewie Stone, one of the Friars stalwarts, was “suspended” recently without a hearing. Stone has served in various capacities and offices for years and, with Freddie Roman, is one of the very popular senior members.
“There is no Friars Club without Stewie Stone,” says Susie Essman, the hilarious comedian who co-stars in Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Essman has also left the Friars– but for a different reason. She is furious that 90 year old star Jerry Lewis has become the head, the Abbott, and that the “Monastery”– the main room in the gothic East 55th St. townhouse club– has been named for him. She calls Lewis a “misogynist.” She’s “utterly disgusted” with Lewis’s comments that “no woman” can be a comedian. “He said Joan Rivers should drop dead two months before she actually did,” Essman says. “I’m through with the Friars Club.”
I’m told other members have resigned or are in tense negotiations with the club right now. Tonight’s salute to director Martin Scorsese at Cipriani Wall Street is going to be light on celebrities, I’m told. “At the last event, for Tony Bennett, at the Sheraton, they closed off the dividing wall in the ballroom because they didn’t want to show how few people were there,” says a source.
Charet has scant credentials available on the internet. He lists himself as president of Bruce Charet Productions, but there are no credits for him in the Internet Broadway Data Base. On the Internet Movie Data Base, Charet is listed as co-executive producer in 2006 of “Bigfoot Presents: Meteor and the Mighty Monster Trucks.” He’s referred to in a few articles from 2004 as Reverend Al Sharpton’s LA-based entertainment manager. His own postings suggest a tie to Frank Sinatra “in his later years.”
Additionally, there are significant questions about the Friars’ philanthropic efforts. They are registered as a 501 c 3 charity, and for years have raised money and donated it to various causes. But their 2014 federal tax filing should set off alarms. Contributions to the foundation went from $676,216 in 2013 to just $47,198 in 2014. Hence, the Friars’ donations to outside groups went from $351,896 to a startling $8,685. Their net assets or fund balances dropped from $1.2 million to $985,125. My call to Martin J. Gross of Sandalwood Partners, who signed the Foundation’s tax filing, has not been returned. (UPDATE: Mr. Gross declined to answer any questions and referred me to another Friars exec.)
Charet seems to be the central issue. Rehanna Almestica, who worked for the Friars Club since 2007, alleged in a lawsuit this past spring that Charet “subjected her to sexual harassment – by, e.g., soliciting sex from her, forcing her to look at a picture of a penis, asking her personal sexual questions, asking her to touch his groin, and telling her by phone that he was having an orgasm – and that defendants fired her in retaliation after she submitted a complaint to the NYS Division of Human Rights complaining of the harassment.”
The Friars Club was founded in 1904. Its modern associations have been with Frank Sinatra, George Burns, Jack Benny and all the classic comedians. It was featured in a famous episode of “Seinfeld.” But the membership has been aging. “Younger”comedians– like David Letterman and Jon Stewart– have eschewed the Club.