New York City is full of landlord-tenant horror stories. But for sheer heart stopping twists and turns — with a surprisingly happy ending — Nancy Opel (currently co-starring in Honeymoon in Vegas at the Nederlander Theatre) has just about every other story beat.
It all started in 2001, when Opel and her daughter, Jillian Steward, found almost everything they wanted in a space just off Times Square.
"I love living in the Theater District," Opel says. "And to find this kind of space — two bedrooms — in this neighborhood is practically unheard of."
The rooms were quite small and the kitchen was just a wall unit. That was sort of a hardship because Opel loves to cook and bake. But the rent was only $750 a month and so they made do.
Then everything changed with the first heart-stopping event. The landlord abandoned the property and left the tenants to fend for themselves. Dreading what might happen next, Opel watched while the city stepped in and seized the building.
That's when her apartment life took an amazing turn for the better.
"The building became part of a Housing Development Fund Corporation program," Opel says. (The program doesn't exist anymore.) "The city took over the property and said they would give it to the tenants to run a tenants' association. If we ran the building in the black for two or three years, the city would turn it into a co-op."
And, once the building was turned into a co-op in 2003, the tenants bought their apartments for literally just pennies. Here was another heart stopper: Opel got her two bedroom for the princely sum of $250.00.
But, if that wasn't miraculous enough, Opel's situation was about to get even better.
The studio just above hers became available. "They offered it to anyone who could just break through and make it into one apartment," Opel says. "My daughter and I were the only people who wanted it. So that's how I happened to get a duplex."
The studio wasn't quite the giveaway the first apartment was, but it was still an incredible buy. "When we decided we'd take the second space," she says, "they said you're going to have to put it together and that's going to cost money. So we refinanced the whole thing. Even though we had never lived in the new configuration (the duplex), they refinanced it in terms of how it would be if it were two apartments. So we got a $100,000 budget to do the renovations, and the cost of the studio was another $185,000. That meant we got the duplex for $285,000. It was an unbelievably good deal!"
Now — in a total of 1,070 square feet — she has a living room with a dining area, a good-sized kitchen (it had originally been a bedroom), a reconfigured bedroom and bath on the first floor and another bedroom and bathroom on the second floor.
"I have a real kitchen with real counter tops," Opel says. "I love not having to juggle for Thanksgiving. I have two ovens, and plenty of room to bake and roast all at the same time. And plenty of room to roll out pie crusts and all that stuff. It's an amazing thing to be able to have that much space. I never, ever dreamed all this was possible."
Once all that was settled. Opel got busy furnishing the now spacious apartment. "I'm kind of a handy person," she says. First she painted the entire space, ceilings and all, herself. Then she made her own slipcovers, curtains, decorative throw pillows, a cabinet and an entertainment center from a home decorating kit (and painted them, too), and even wired her daughter's chandelier.
"My daughter asked me if I knew how to do it," Opel says with a smile. "I said, 'No, but how hard can it be?' People can do a lot of stuff. They just have to be willing to do it."
Next she filled up her space with special treasures: a theatre mask she found in Korea when she went there for The Toxic Avenger, a Cartier crystal egg paperweight she bought for her mom when she was just 16 years old, beautifully framed photos she took herself, a portrait of Opel by Liz Larsen that looks like a Lautrec poster, a tiny pottery pumpkin from her Cinderella days and more.
While she was putting all that together, Opel was also busy working in show after show. To name just a few: Urinetown (she was nominated for a Tony). Fiddler on the Roof, Memphis, Cinderella and now Honeymoon in Vegas. "Well, that's lucky me, isn't it?" she says. "I went from playing a wicked stepmother in Cinderella to a wicked mother in Honeymoon in Vegas. I know, I seem so terrible.
"But I've been blessed this year. Blessed with some of the nicest people I've worked with in my whole career. We really have just about the best company in the world. "And I have a couple of surprises in the show that I enjoy tremendously," she continued. "In one scene, I stand about seven feet tall. And my entrance…! I can't talk about that. But I will say that early in the morning after the first preview a friend who was on the road sent me a message. He said, 'I hear you have the most amazing entrance on Broadway.' It must be pretty amazing if it made it all the way out to the road by nine o'clock the next morning!
"So I just couldn't be happier," she added. "One of my dreams came true with this apartment. I love my neighborhood. I love my home. I love everything in my home. Back when I was a kid, I never imagined all this would ever happen to me."
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