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Larry David lived there next-door to a man named Kenny Kramer (yes, that Kramer), Alicia Keys was born there, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino were always stopping by to visit pal Jack Warden, and Samuel L. Jackson earned a paycheck as the building’s first security guard.
It didn’t take long for Manhattan Plaza — the massive 1,689-unit federally subsidized apartment complex that opened in June 1977 on a city block between 42nd and 43rd streets at Ninth Avenue — to establish itself as a creative hive filled with actors, singers, musicians, dancers, choreographers and comedians. Other tenants include Terrence Howard; Tennessee Williams; Angela Lansbury; Mickey Rourke; Patrick Dempsey; Tom Fontana; and casting director Mary Jo Slater, the latter of whom teamed with director Alice Elliott and producer Ken Aguado to put it on film.
Miracle on 42nd Street, which premieres at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Feb. 9, tells the inside story of the iconic building courtesy of some of its now-famous residents and narrator Chazz Palminteri. The film, which does not yet have a distribution deal in place, came together with the help of additional producers like Elliott, Cindy Bond, Cindy Cowan, Erika Lockridge, Sheila Maniar, Nancy M. Perkins, Lisa Shreve, Eric Small and Joanne Storkan. Other stars who sat for interviews include Donald Faison, Estelle Parsons and Giancarlo Esposito.
Slater moved into a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with “a beautiful terrace” in 1977 even though everyone in her life thought she was crazy to move to crime-riddled Times Square at that time. “It was nirvana in the middle of hell,” laughs Slater, who lived there until 1986, when she moved to Los Angeles to take a job as vp casting at MGM. “Outside there were crack pipes everywhere, but inside the plaza was heaven.”
Among the amenities were a bubble tennis court, hot tub, supermarket, florist, “fabulous restaurants” and Olympic-sized swimming pool that would freeze over in the winter to become an ice-skating rink. “I was the only casting director in the building so every actor loved me. I worked on One Life to Live during that time so I put many of them on the show so they could get health insurance,” recalls Slater, who moved in as a single mother raising a young son named Christian (yes, that Christian Slater) and she never had to worry about child care. (She laughs: “I never had to pay for a baby sitter.”)
Slater took the subsidy because she couldn’t make ends meet, meaning her rent was $220 a month. “That’s how I managed to live. It wasn’t a handout, it was a hand-up, ” recalls Slater, whose credits include Murder in the First, The Outer Limits, Stargate and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, among dozens of other TV shows and films. “It was a breeding ground for so many artists and the next Alicia Keys will definitely come out of there.”
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