Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

New York's Astoria movie studio gets second premiere as a museum

It doesn't look like a spot for a major museum. It's out in Queens, in an industrial area sans boutiques and pricey restaurants. But if Universal Studios can draw nearly 3 million visitors a year to its lots outside Los Angeles, the planners of the Museum of Moving Images in Astoria think they can certainly lure 250,000 to 500,000 television and movie enthusiasts here.

Not long ago the historically rich Astoria studios were just a ''huge site rotting away,'' says Rochelle Slovin, executive director of the Astoria Motion Picture and Television Foundation.

About these ads

Built in 1920, it was here that Adolph Zukor's and Jesse Lasky's Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which later became Paramount Studios, began. More than 100 silent films and 35 talkies were made here between 1920 and 1932. Early superstars - such as Gloria Swanson, Rudolf Valentino, Edward G. Robinson, Claudette Colbert, and the Marx Brothers - worked at the studios.

The complex was taken over by the Army during World War II, and for 30 years was used to make training and propaganda films. In 1971 the Army gave up the site, and for a time the City University of New York considered using it as an educational facility. That plan was rejected, and in 1977 the Astoria Motion Picture and Television Center Foundation was formed by unions, government, and business to help reopen the studio for commercial work.

The plan began to click. Parts of the movie ''Wiz'' were filmed on the main stage at Astoria. In 1980, developer George Kaufman took over commercial operations. Recent films out of the studios include ''The Verdict,'' ''Daniel,'' ''Arthur,'' and ''All That Jazz.''

In negotiations with the federal government to transfer the property to New York City, a stipulation was made that the historic purposes of the site be preserved and that the public have access to educational facilities here. While filmmaking will continue, the museum will be housed in one of the original buildings, which will be renovated into exhibit and storage space, classrooms, an auditorium, screening rooms, and a library and workshop.

Scheduled to open in 1986, the museum will not bejust a collection of movie and television memorabilia, but a serious institution devoted to helping the general public understand the moving picture industry, Ms. Slovin says. It will include scholarly, sociological, and historical context.

''It will be a lot of fun,'' she says. The museum plans to reconstruct sets from recent movies. There will be film series, lectures, and hands-on workshops. Computers that simulate the editing process will let visitors learn what decisions must be made in making shows.

''It is almost a cliche to suggest that movies and television have changed life in the 20th century profoundly,'' Ms. Slovin says. What those changes have meant to American society is at the heart of what the museum will showcase in its exhibits, lectures, films, and workshops.

About these ads

There will be four general themes: artistry, effects on society, technology, and overall costs. In looking at art in the industry, the exhibits will show how a director directs, how a show takes shape, and what sorts of acting styles have evolved throughout the years. In considering society, the museum will examine questions of censorship, political influence, or violence on television. Special effects, lighting, sound, and equipment will provide insights into moviemaking technology. And the economics of the movie and television industry will be drawn into the planning.

''It is, after all, a business,'' Ms. Slovin says. For example, she points out that to finance the development of talkies in the 1920s, the industry brought in businessmen from Wall Street as investors. This helped spur moviemaking into a big business. As a result, the direction of the whole industry was effected.

Will tourists and media buffs go out to Queens to visit the site? A series of film programs - including video and television works, old movies, and vintage cartoons - has already started to draw audiences to Astoria.

The museum will also address the common notion that most filmmaking comes out of Hollywood. Besides the historical beginning of films in New York, Ms. Slovin notes that there is a difference in style between current East Coast and West Coast productions.

In California, she says, sets are bigger. Space in not so much a consideration, and films are slicker and more packaged. In New York, the scale is more lifelike. There is a sort of realistic sloppiness.

Funding for the museum comes from an agreement with the developer, from the city's capital budget, and from private fundraising. Ms. Slovin says the budget through 1988 calls for $11 million to complete the museum. The first stage will be finished in 1986.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.