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Terrence Howard is one of the performers singing the praises of Manhattan Plaza in Miracle on 42nd Street)

Terrence Howard is one of the performers singing the praises of Manhattan Plaza in Miracle on 42nd Street

MIRACLE ON 42ND STREET (Alice Elliott, 2017)
SVA Theatre
333 West 23rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Saturday, November 11, $19, 1:30
Festival runs November 9-16 (various passes $75-$750)

If you’ve been watching The Deuce on HBO, you have a pretty good idea of what the Times Square area was like in the 1970s, a haven for drugs, prostitution, massage parlors, and pornography. A few blocks west was the dangerous area known as Hell’s Kitchen, which had a history of gang violence and other troubles. But in the mid-1970s, Richard Ravitch and HRH Construction began building Manhattan Plaza, two commercial skyscrapers, more than forty floors each, a project aiming to revitalize the neighborhood by bringing in upwardly mobile people. But the recession, urban blight, and the lack of interest in moving into the area stopped the building in its tracks until someone — it is still argued exactly who — came up with the idea to transform Manhattan Plaza into an arts community, offering low-income housing to qualified performers working in the Theater District, Times Square, and other parts of the city. Oscar-nominated producer, cowriter, and director Alice Elliott recounts the story of Manhattan Plaza in Miracle on 42nd Street, which is having its world premiere November 11 at the DOC NYC film festival. Situated between Forty-Second and Forty-Third Streets and Ninth and Tenth Avenues, Manhattan Plaza has been home to a vast array of artists, from Tennessee Williams and Dexter Gordon to James Earl Jones and Mickey Rourke; seventy percent of the rooms are allocated for artists on a limited income, with fifteen percent for the elderly and the disabled and fifteen percent for neighborhood residents. Elliott speaks with such actors, musicians, and comedians as Larry David, Alicia Keys, Giancarlo Esposito, Angela Lansbury, Donald Faison, Estelle Parsons, Terrence Howard, and Kenny Kramer, all of whom lived in Manhattan Plaza, as well as Samuel L. Jackson, who worked the night shift there as a security guard. (Two of the producers, Mary Jo Slater and Nancy McLeod Perkins, were also longtime Manhattan Plaza residents.)

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They all speak fondly of the welcoming atmosphere that helped them hone their crafts. “For as much as I could have a sense of community, there was a sense of community at Manhattan Plaza,” notes David, who lived across the hall from Kramer; their relationship formed the basis for the Seinfeld characters George Costanza, Jerry Seinfeld, and Cosmo Kramer. “That building raised me,” Faison says. Lansbury calls it a “wonderful sociological experiment.” And Howard adds, “That place nurtured my dreams.” Meanwhile, the behind-the scenes development of the project and history of the location are recalled in interviews with longtime director of operations Richard Hunnings, Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld, former assistant NYPD chief Mickey Schwartz, operations director Rodney Kirk, former NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, 42nd St. Development Corp. founder Fred Papert, and builder Irving Fischer, who proudly says, “This wasn’t just a place to live; it was a community. . . . Manhattan Plaza revitalized the center of the city.” The interviews, some of which were conducted more than five years ago, are intercut with archival footage of New York City streets and Mayors John Lindsay and Abe Beame, along with clips from a 1978 Manhattan Plaza talent night in which David and Kramer both performed. Elliott (The Collector of Bedford Street. Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy) cowrote the film with Joal Ryan and Steve Ryfle; unfortunately, narrator Chazz Palminteri never finds the proper rhythm of the text, regularly emphasizing the wrong words. The sixty-eight-minute film also shows how the idea spread to other cities, where arts-based housing helped rebuild neighborhoods, but in today’s financial climate, it’s hard to imagine any more Manhattan Plaza–like projects popping up in the city. Miracle on 42nd Street is screening November 11 at 1:30 at the SVA Theatre and will be followed by a Q&A with Elliott, Parsons, Palminteri, and Kramer. In addition, the film will be preceded by Lucy Walker’s five-minute short, Oh, What a Beautiful Symphony (A City Symphony).

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