Many of the Friars comedians have their own tales of how the Friars Club began but truth be told–comedians pretty much have a different agenda than keeping the historic record, that agenda being to go for the laugh at any expense. For the sake of realism, not to mention legitimacy, this will serve to explain the origins and dispel any myths about this legendary private club’s entre into the world of showbiz–sans laughs.
In 1904 press agents were doling out tickets to reporters to Broadway shows in the hopes that they would plug their clients in newspapers and magazines. They eventually noticed that not all of these reporters were legit. It became so frustrating for them that a band of 11 agents gathered together weekly at Browne’s Chophouse, in Manhattan, to discuss the problem. They dealt with it by setting up a blacklist. When the problem at hand was resolved they realized that they actually enjoyed these weekly meetings and continued to meet and just hang out together.
They formed a club called the Press Agents Association. When the actors and musicians started to join them on their weekly get-togethers the group realized they needed a broader name to incorporate the ever-diversifying membership. The term Friars stems from the Latin “frater” meaning brother–the perfect name for a fraternal organization whose motto would soon become Prae Omnia Fraternitas (brotherhood forever).
The newly formed Friars Club quickly established itself as the club to join. They started honoring their own with lavish black tie dinners utilizing the enormous talent that the members from the Broadway stages possessed. Even as early as 1910 they were known for their unorthodox ways. “FRIARS KID MR. HARRIS: Veteran Theatrical Manager Butt of Jokes at Dinner,” read the headline of the December 10, 1910 issue of the New York Tribune. They’ve been making headlines ever since.
It was only a matter of time before the Friars would see the need to contain their bawdy behavior at these dinners into a separate event, so in 1949 with Maurice Chevalier as the guest of honor, they held their first “Roast.” This luncheon launched the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the Friars and the world at large, showcasing the greatest wits in show business telling the funniest jokes ever told. Add on to that the Friars motto, “We only Roast the ones we love” and even the guest of honor is happy.
The famed Celebrity Roast, which features the greats of the entertainment world taking their best barbs at a guest of honor, is the most imitated event throughout the world. Be it a private affair or on television if it’s not produced by the Friars, the Friars imprint is still certainly apparent. Usually presented behind closed doors the Friars have, on occasion throughout the years, allowed the TV cameras in and the laughs out for all the public to witness for themselves.
The Friars Club started out as an all-male Club, owing to the era, but that didn’t stop women from being wined and dined themselves by the guys. Several women throughout their early history were honored and they were also allowed to join the men folk at some of the 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 an audiotape to be played for the boys: “This is Lauren Bacall, the uninvited guest, you rat bastards.” When they held a Roast for Lucille Ball in 1962 Roastmaster Johnny Carson told the crowd, “We have a lady present and we need to treat her like one” and then introduced her as “Lucille Testicle.” And In 1983 Phyllis Diller was so curious what went on behind those closed doors she dressed as a man and snuck into the Sid Caesar Roast, noting “It was the funniest and dirtiest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” By the time 1988 rolled around and most all-male clubs started letting women in the Friars welcomed women into the fold, making Liza Minnelli the first official card-carrying female member.
The Friars have had several homes over the years as they moved on beyond Browne’s Chophouse (and later Keene’s Chophouse) settling in to their first clubhouse in 1908. Located at 107 West 45th Street and calling it the Monastery (a name that lays claim to all subsequent Friars clubhouses) this building allowed the membership the freedom to meet, greet, party and conduct all their Friarly business. As the membership grew so did their events and with funds raised through shows known as the Friars Frolic they eventually built a new clubhouse in 1916, made to their order, on West 48th Street. This new Monastery was as grand as any hotel, with suites for sleeping, a ballroom, dining room, poolroom, a gym, bars, and meeting rooms. When they laid the cornerstone, Abbot George M. Cohan broke a bottle of sparkling American wine on the stone saying, “I dedicate this club to art, literature and good fellowship.”
They enjoyed a great run in the 48th St. Monastery with Testimonial Dinners and other events that solidified their place in entertainment. But while fraternity lasts forever, clubhouses can come and go, and in depression-era 1933 owing to not being able to make good on a bill for butter, eggs and cheese for $1,130.00 the Friars lost their beloved building. Fearing their club’s survival it was by the sheer passion of several members that they were able to hold the Friars together though nomadic for several years and hopping from hotel to hotel they saw their numbers dwindling, But survive they did through the 1930s and 1940s and by the 1950s they were back to being the premiere club in entertainment. They moved into their current Monastery on 55th Street in 1957, a building steeped in its own grand tradition fit, if not for a king, then certainly for court jesters.
Whether it was the eras of Will Rogers sniping at politicos with hilarious results or Milton Berle in drag bringing TV audiences to tears of laughter or Jack Benny thinking over his money or his life to contemporary Seinfeld leaving the club still wearing the Friars jacket or Homer Simpson being roasted by the Springfield chapter of the Friars Club or Joy Behar giving her view, the members throughout the years have maintained a steady dose of wit ready to dole out laughs at a moments notice. They have also kept the music playing. Be it Victor Herbert writing the Friars theme song “Here’s To The Friars” rather than make a speech at his Testimonial Dinner or Irving Berlin composing “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” for a Friars Frolic to Clive Davis being serenaded by Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow, Whitney Houston, and Dionne Warwick the Friars have kept the melodies playing through the decades.
Some might find it ironic that a club that has made a name for itself being as bawdy and unorthodox as any group can be, has given monastic labels to its officers: the Abbot is the head of the organization (Jerry Lewis), the Dean (Freddie Roman) is president and the vice president the Prior (Stewie Stone), not to mention the club’s name itself. Perhaps those early press agents were more visionary than people thought, putting in place an irony of things to come.
While the Friars reputation has preceded itself through laughs garnered at roasts and celebrations of all kinds they have also dedicated their cause to charitable giving. When Frank Sinatra was Abbot he once commented, “Their continuous good work for charity, rather than their great triumphs on the stages of the world, is the true glory of this band of earthly angels known as the Friars.”
The Friars Foundation, established in 1977 to foster the performing arts has raised over $5 million dollars. Their mission is to help small performing arts groups create excellent innovative and affordable programs for the enrichment, education, and enjoyment of diverse audiences and participants. The Foundation also helps prepare the next generation of performers and musical artists through scholarship programs for students studying the performing arts.
For over twenty-five years the Sunshine Committee (which is funded through an annual holiday raffle held at the Monastery) has been providing entertainment and companionship to senior citizens and children’s centers in the New York area. Whether they are sending singers, musicians, comedians or performance artists to brighten up the residents of nursing homes; or providing clowns, magicians and entertainment for disadvantaged children in group homes, the Sunshine Committee is dedicated to enhancing each and every life they touch. Each year, during he holidays they invite 1,500 underprivileged children to a movie screening at a mid-Manhattan theater. After the movie each child receives a “goody bag” filled with toys, hats, scarves, books and a variety of other items guaranteed to make their holidays brighter.
Throughout the Friars century of magic the revolving door of celebrities that have crossed the threshold of their Monasteries has been a timeline of show business history. George M. Cohan, Irving Berln, Al Jolson, Victor Herbert, Oscar Hammerstein, George Jessel, Mayor Jimmy Walker, Jimmy Durante, President Woodrow Wilson, President Calvin Coolidge, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns, Sophie Tucker, Humphrey Bogart, Sammy Davis, Jr., Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Dean Martin, Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas, Johnny Carson, Dr. Henry Kissinger, Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, Phyllis Diller, Redd Foxx, Neil Simon, Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, Red Buttons, Diana Ross, Barbara Walters, Clive Davis, Liza Minnelli, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Rob Reiner, Richard Pryor, Hugh Hefner, Donald Trump, John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Chevy Chase, Drew Carey, Jerry Seinfeld, Matt Lauer, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, along with countless others have all been part of this unique fraternity known as the Friars Club.