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An Autobiography: Chapter 35, Plaza Hotel, New York City

We flew to New York on January 6, 1976, the day before the moving van was to arrive on Roosevelt Island, and on the plane we discussed where we should spend our first night. We had often walked by the Plaza Hotel and remembered the hilarious play and film by Neil Simon, The Plaza Suite, and agreed that would be the perfect place to start our New York adventure.

The Plaza Hotel opened its doors on October 1, 1907, amid a flurry of impressive reports describing it as the greatest hotel in the world. Located at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, this luxury hotel was constructed in the most fashionable residential section of New York City. It was once said, “Nothing unimportant ever happens at the Plaza.”

Designated a New York City Landmark in 1969, the Plaza is listed on the Register of Historic Places and the only New York City hotel to be designated as a National Historic Landmark.

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The Plaza Hotel 

Kings, presidents, ambassadors, stars of stage, screen and sports, as well as business executives and travelers from all parts of the world have gathered and stayed at the Plaza. The Plaza was so well known that Ernest Hemingway once advised F. Scott Fitzgerald to give his liver to Princeton and his heart to the Plaza.

Although the Plaza appeared fleetingly in earlier films, this Manhattan luxury hotel’s true movie debut was in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic North by Northwest – the first time a crew, director and cast assembled on site to make a picture. The Plaza has provided the location for other motion pictures, too, such as The Way We Were, The Great Gatsby, Barefoot in the Park and Funny Girl. 

One of the Plaza’s most famous residents is the ever elusive and capricious Eloise. Introduced to the public in Kay Thompson’s Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grown Ups, Eloise’s mischief and antics have delighted readers and visitors to the Plaza since its publication in 1955. Georgianna, an author of children’s books, was familiar with Eloise and told Heather about her.

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Eloise was the alter ego of Kay Thompson, who used the voice of Eloise to entertain her friends. Ms. Thompson, an author, composer, actress and singer, lived at the Plaza. She appeared in the film Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.

The first book Thompson and her illustrator, Hilary Knight, produced was published in November 1955 by Simon and Schuster. Kay Thompson’s Eloise was a huge success. Soon, Thompson began receiving phone calls from girls saying, “Please may I speak to Eloise?” Children began visiting the Plaza asking for Eloise. The Plaza staff would reply, “I’m sorry, you just missed her. But if you run into Eloise, please tell her we found her missing shoes.” A pair of Mary Jane shoes was kept on hand to demonstrate Eloise’s continuous presence.

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Kay Thompson mimicking Eloise. 

Over the last 50 years, the mystic of Eloise has only increased. Eloise’s charm and wit have enticed new readers whose parents also adore the precocious child. Guests are still able to rent tricycles from the Plaza boutique to ride through Central Park. In 2010, the spectacular Eloise Suite, designed by fashion designer Betsey Johnson, was launched. Located on the 18th floor, the suite is exquisitely decorated in pink and black, with custom designed bedding and furnishings.

The “Eloise at The Plaza Shop” opened in 2010 on the Plaza’s Concourse Level. The whimsical setting brings out the Eloise in adults and children alike. Visitors can try on the latest Eloise styles in the fashion room and enjoy Eloise movie clips or stories in the reading room. Family and friends are invited to celebrate birthday parties and other occasions in the Tea Room. 

The Plaza absolutely loves Eloise. Whether she is riding her bike in Central Park, taking Weenie and Skipperdee for a walk down Fifth Avenue, or off to Paris, Eloise’s fanciful spirit is infused throughout the Plaza.

The next morning we said goodbye to Eloise, and when we were crossing the Queensboro Bridge in our taxi, Georgianna and Heather got their first glimpse of our new home.

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The complex we were in was called Island House, and in the following few days, several people on our floor stopped by to welcome us. Mary came from the Roosevelt Island office with gifts and invited us to come by the office so we could get better acquainted.

Within a few days, Heather was enrolled with the Joffrey Ballet in Manhattan, and from there went to the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. The Artistic Director there, George Balanchine, was regarded as the foremost contemporary choreographer in the world of ballet. Heather came home one day very excited because Balanchine had spoken to her in the elevator!

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George Balanchine 

As time went on, Heather got discouraged because of her height of 4 feet, 11 inches. Most of the New York City ballet dancers were at least 5 feet, 5 inches tall. Heather was a beautiful dancer, and I told her she could be a great dancer regardless of her height, saying, “Great composers will be writing ballets for you.” She continued with the company, but Georgianna and I were concerned.

Mary and her associate, Ruth, were in charge of all the activities on the island, and when I told them about my background in publishing, and particularly when they heard that Georgianna was a theatre director and that we had a great love for the theatre, Mary told us about Goldwater Hospital at the southern end of the island, which had a nice theatre. She said there wasn’t anyone on the island who had directing/producing experience. 

A couple days later, Georgianna and I had a meeting at Goldwater Hospital, and from the tip of the island, we looked over at the United Nations building. At the hospital we were shown the auditorium with approximately 300 seats, and we were very impressed with the stage area and lighting. We met with one of the directors of the hospital and told them of our tentative plans to form a theatre group, and we got their blessing to use the auditorium as long as patients could attend at no cost.

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We met again with Mary and told her about the Goldwater facility, and she mentioned Donna Landay, who had talked about theatre on the island. We met with Donna in her apartment a couple days later. She loved theatre and had done some acting, and the more we talked about forming The Roosevelt Island Players, the more excited she got.

Donna said she knew several people who would work with us, and she said she would set up a meeting with everyone she could find who had an interest. That meeting was set toward the end of January, and it was definitely a meeting of the arts world. There was a wonderful mix of people, including African Americans and Jews, and the conversation was something like you might expect at the famed Algonguin Round Table.

We discussed plans for a first production as soon as possible, and Georgianna and I left the meeting as the producer and director. Up to that time, we had produced various productions and major festivals, but this was the first time we had a 300-seat auditorium. We had a built-in potential audience with the population on Roosevelt Island, and we had hopes of bringing people to the Island from Queens and Manhattan.

Taking into consideration the number of actors required and the overall appeal, Georgianna made a list of possible plays. She settled on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, the tale of ten people invited to an isolated place only to find that an unseen person is killing them one by one.

Ten Little Indians is Christie’s best selling novel with more than 100 million sold to date. There have been memorable film versions and television productions, and the play is presented constantly throughout the country by community theatre.

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A wonderful cast was assembled after several auditions, and play dates of May 7 and 8, 1976, were scheduled. We got a write-up in both The New York Times and the New York Post! 

Don’t miss next chapter: Ten Little Indians