Known for its rowdy roasts and legendary members like Johnny Carson, Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra, the Friars Club, at 57 East 55th between Park and Madison avenues, is a place steeped in history and raucous laughter. The Friars Club was founded in 1904 by a group of eleven press agents, but over the past 115 years, its roster of members has expanded to include actors, musicians, business icons, and most famously, comedians.
Untapped Cities visited the clubhouse in 2019, or monastery as it’s called, which is housed inside a landmarked, early 20th-century mansion, and explored its fanciful rooms and hidden passageways with former Clubhouse Manager Anthony Trombetta, the youngest manager the club has ever had. Today, after a few rough years of stalled renovations, financial troubles, and intermittent closures, the building is up for sale. On our visit, Trombetta revealed to us some of the club’s most notorious anecdotes, its architectural gems, and plans for the club’s future.
1. The Friars Club Invented the Comedy Roast
“We only roast the ones we love” is one of the Friars Club’s most important mottos. The signature event of the club for decades has been its no-holds-barred roasts where celebrities are affectionately cut down to size with witty and playfully scathing jokes told by friends. Though outlandish dinners where guests of honor were teased began in the early 1900s, the first official roast took place in 1949 with Maurice Chevalier as the guest of honor. At that time the events turned into exclusive affairs that only male members could attend. Even waitstaff were told to leave the room.
The roastee gets to pick their roastmaster for the evening of barbs. Inside the George Burns Room (which is supposedly haunted, more on this later!), you will find portraits of some of the roastees and their roastmasters commissioned in the 1990s. Hanging in large frames around the room you see Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams, and Kelsey Grammar and David Hyde Pierce, along with other notable honorees. Some of the celebrities to have received the honor of being roasted include comedy legends like Milton Berle, Johnny Carson, Jerry Lewis, Richard Pryor, and Billy Crystal, as well as other celebrities such as Bruce Willis, Hugh Hefner, Quentin Tarantino, Betty White, and Terry Bradshaw.