It began for the oldest reason there is...
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 created and the impostors were vanquished.
It didn’t take long to find another reason to meet regularly, and after Browne's closed, in new locations. 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.
The group needed a name.
A moniker 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, Friar Tuck from Robin Hood, and the actual Trappist Monks who perfected potent beer recipes between strict vows of silence, this band of brothers began to acquire the reputation for quick-witted, 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 reads, “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 Maurice Chevalier as the guest of honor. It was obscene, unedited, outrageous and sidesplitting. The Friars soon coined another motto: “We only roast the ones we love.”
Like all fraternities...
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. She was followed by the legendary civil rights lawyer, Gloria Allred, the club's first female non-entertainer member.
The Club needed a home.
But not just any home. It had to be special. A stately edifice, centrally located, fit for the kings of comedy and their retinue of jesters. After a lengthy search, they finally settled into their current location 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, critics declared the five-story English Renaissance Tudor 'a daring and clever work.'
The vaulted ceiling of its marble entrance hall immediately establishes a regal tone, as does the detail of carving in the cherry wood walls and the stalwart railings along the multiple spiraling staircases. The Erdmann Residence formally opened as the Friars Club Monastery in November 1957. 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. In 2004, the City of New York officially named East 55th Street, “Friars Way.”
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 club's sometimes joyfully desecrated halls. Especially since its renaming to the Jerry Lewis Monastery in 2014.
Its cadre of members has expanded far beyond the boundaries of entertainment professionals and continues to grow. Some notable Friars, past and present, are listed below:
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.
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.
Oscar Hammerstein, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, Dave Brubeck, 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.
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, Jon Favreau, Joel and Ethan Coen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, David Dinkins, Alfred E. Smith, Jimmy Walker, Abe Beame, John Lindsay, Michael Bloomberg.
Restaurateurs & Food Show Hosts
Bob Lape, Arnold Penner, Frank Pellegrino, Bill Boggs, Drew Nieporent, Padma Lakshmi.