January 26, 1998 12:00 PM

AS THE YELLOW TAXI THREADED its way up New York City’s Bowery on a cold Saturday afternoon in 1968, the privileged little girl inside, headed for a marionette show and dressed in her velvet party dress and shiny patent leather shoes, peered out the window at something she had never seen before: a shabbily dressed man sleeping on a sidewalk grate. “Who are those men?” she asked out loud.

“Lawyers and doctors, just like your father,” her mother answered evenly. “Only they’ve fallen on hard times.”

That simple observation had a remarkable and enduring effect on young Mara Manus. Nearly three decades later, after nine years as a successful Hollywood film executive, Manus traded in her six-figure salary, personal trainer and regular visits to luxury spas for a simple pine desk in a modest office. There she now serves as executive director of Chrysalis, a private nonprofit organization founded in 1984 on Los Angeles’s Skid Row and dedicated to helping find permanent jobs for the poor and homeless. “I thought about my father and about those homeless guys, and I never forgot it,” says Manus, 37, reflecting on that childhood moment of enlightenment. “Now, when I see a person who has fallen on hard times, I see someone who has potential and can be something better.”

In Manus’s three years as director, Chrysalis has opened branch offices in Santa Monica and Hollywood, tripled its annual budget to $3.2 million, enlarged its staff from 19 to 40 and expanded job placements—in fields ranging from accounting to welding—from 400 to 1,100 a year. Under her watchful gaze, the organization counsels clients and offers daily classes on such topics as résumé writing and computer skills. “We’re there for people who the world is not there for anymore,” says Manus. “Our being there for them allows them to regain strength so they can be there for themselves.”

One such person is Art Valencia, 42, a recovered drug addict, who became homeless in 1991 after losing his job as a GTE lineman technician. He now has a full-time job at an L.A. law firm and this spring will complete a paralegal degree. “If it wasn’t for Mara and Chrysalis, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” says Valencia. “I finally have a purpose and got back my self-esteem. Chrysalis changed my life completely.”

As it did Manus’s. The eldest of three daughters born to Justin Manus, a New York City entertainment attorney, and his wife, Janet, a literary agent, Manus attributes her altruistic bent to lessons learned at her parents’ knees. “I told my children that we’re all our brother’s keeper, and taught them that we should help people personally,” says Janet. “Mara in her own quiet way absorbed that and made it part of her responsibility.”

After graduating with a communications degree from Stanford in 1981, Manus first landed a job with B-moviemeister Roger Corman. By age 26, she was a vice president of production at Universal Studios; and six years later, as senior VP of production at Trans Pacific Films, she helped develop To Die For. But eventually, says Manus, filmdom’s glamor began to pale. She remembers running into an old friend from an equally privileged background who told her about his job at an agency providing low-income housing. “I was so touched by the passion he put into his work,” she recalls. “I suddenly realized that I should be moved to tears by my work too.”

Then, in May of 1993, Manus took a bad fall while horseback riding on the beach in Malibu, smashing a vertebra and narrowly avoiding paralysis. The six months she spent recuperating in a body cast at the home of her longtime friend, former Columbia Pictures president Lisa Henson, gave her leisure to think about her life. “It was a pivotal time,” recalls Henson, 37. “You could tell Mara’s work wasn’t satisfying her on a deep level. Ultimately it was necessary to make a clean break with the movie industry.”

Not long after getting back on her feet, Manus began mentoring school kids in L.A. In 1994 a friend first introduced her to Chrysalis. “I stepped off the bus where I’d never been before in my life, and it was so dramatic,” says Manus. “The area is so poor. And then I saw this organization that’s actually making sense.”

Today, Manus, who is single and lives in a rented one-bedroom house in Pacific Palisades, has no regrets about leaving the movie business for a modest salary and pared-down lifestyle. “It’s enormously satisfying to be a woman running a business—and one that accomplishes as much as this one does,” she says. “No money could ever buy that.”

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE

ULRICA WIHLBORG in Santa Monica

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