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The Astoria Studio:

From Paramount to KAS

The Astoria Studio has been at the heart of filmmaking in New York City since 1920, with a fascinating history integral to the origin of Museum of the Moving Image. A New York City landmark, the Astoria Studio, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020, is the country’s first motion picture studio to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, cited for its architectural significance and its extensive role in the history of American cinema.

Known affectionately as “The Big House” by three generations of filmmakers because of its monumental main stage, the Astoria Studio was opened by Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount) in 1920 as its East Coast production center. Such stars as Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, and W. C. Fields brought glamour to its stages in the silent film era. The Marx Brothers and Claudette Colbert made their first talking pictures there after the Studio’s transition to sound. Over the decades, the Studio complex expanded steadily into the residential streets adjacent to its main building, eventually covering more than five acres. With Paramount’s departure in 1932, the Studio became a rental facility until the U.S. Army purchased it in 1942, turning the site into a center for military motion picture production and distribution for the next 30 years. After falling into disrepair in the early 1970s, a unique public/private partnership transformed the ailing studio complex, leading to the establishment of Kaufman Astoria Studios and to the founding of Museum of the Moving Image. Since its revival, the Studio has thrived, providing stages for such films as The Age of Innocence, Scent of a Woman, The Bourne Ultimatum, and The Irishman, and a home for the production of such television shows as Orange Is the New Black, The Affair, and Sesame Street.

Using film stills, behind-the-scenes photographs, oral histories, posters, and other artifacts from MoMI’s permanent collection, this MoMI story explores five eras of the Studio’s history, shining a light on the filmmakers, actors, and craftspeople who worked in front of the camera and behind the scenes at the Astoria Studio. Read the history of the studio below to better understand how this storied complex in Queens has remained a vital site of filmmaking from the silent era through the digital streaming revolution.

Paramount: The Silent Years (1920–1927)

In 1920, Famous Players-Lasky (later known as Paramount) combined its four film laboratories and five stages across New York and New Jersey into a single studio complex in the residential neighborhood of Astoria. Its convenient location a few blocks from the elevated subway line (opened in 1917) meant that the hundreds of daily workers needed to operate the studio had easy access to cheap and dependable public transportation, while stars and executives enjoyed a short drive over the Queensboro Bridge. 

Construction on the Astoria Studio began in May 1919 at Pierce Street and Sixth Avenue, now known as 35th Avenue and 35th Street. It was a two-million-dollar project that would eventually balloon to two-and-a-half (adjusting for inflation, $2 million in 1920 would be $12,890,000 in 2020). Though the Studio’s official opening was announced for December 1920, nine features and a handful of shorts had already been shot by the end of November. In June 1921, Paramount temporarily closed the Studio for cost-cutting measures during a postwar economic depression. 

Production resumed in Astoria one year later, and between June 1922 and spring 1927, 103 films were produced at the Studio—forty percent of Paramount’s output during that period. Though tensions had steadily risen between the Studio’s West and East Coast factions, shooting in New York provided temporary solace for such stars as Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, temporary Hollywood expats who loved the cultural life New York had to offer.

Eastern Service Studios, Inc. (1933–1941)

After Paramount left in 1932, Western Electric’s ERPI (Electrical Research Products, Inc.) began operating the Astoria Studio as a rental facility. With the goal of marginalizing their chief rival, RCA, ERPI offered independent producers financing in exchange for a commitment to work on sound stages outfitted with Western Electric systems. This investment plan helped to bring Paul Robeson to the screen in The Emperor Jones (1933); allowed noted Hollywood screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur the opportunity to direct; and provided work for actors, writers, and producers who embraced the chance to work outside of the Hollywood studio system. Throughout the 1930s the Astoria Studio stages were busy with a mix of slapstick comedies, newsreels, musical shorts known as “soundies,” corporate films, documentaries, and Spanish-language musicals.

THE ARMY YEARS (1942–1970)

Through the 1930s and into the 1940s, Hollywood studios had become increasingly disinterested in making films in New York. The onset of World War II exacerbated the decline of commercial filmmaking on the East Coast, and production on the Astoria stages all but ground to a halt. While the entertainment industry was at least temporarily stalled by the outbreak of war, the U.S. Army, which recognized the value of film as a training and communication tool, was gearing up for production. The cavernous space of the Astoria Studio was perfect for what the U.S. Army Signal Corps needed: a full production center for making training and safety films, as well as entertainments for American soldiers and propaganda films for the American public. By 1945, 2100 men and women were employed at the Signal Corps Photographic Center (SCPC) making movies; during World War II, it was the most prolific movie studio in the U.S. The Army era, which continued in Astoria until 1970, would prove influential on New York filmmaking in general, as many trained there would become professional filmmakers in the coming years, and the methods learned would have an impact on style, skill, and technique in mainstream cinema.

THE SEVENTIES NEW YORK REVIVAL (1976–1979)

New York was on the verge of bankruptcy in the seventies, with neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs feeling the socioeconomic crisis. The Astoria Studio, which the Army left at the beginning of the decade, had become little more than a shell, but by the mid-seventies, union leaders and city officials were instrumental in working with Queens Borough President Donald Manes and Deputy Borough President Claire Shulman reviving the community and helping to restore the building. In 1977, they helped found the Astoria Motion Picture and Television Center Foundation, and in 1978 the Foundation successfully campaigned to designate the original Studio building a National Landmark. The Astoria Studio complex would be added to the National Register of Historic Places before the decade was up. As part of the major revival period, the New York State Council on the Arts helped support the restoration of the main soundstage, and several major film productions were shot there, which demonstrated the viability of the Astoria Studio, and set the stage for the major redevelopment of the site by George S. Kaufman, leading to a dramatic and exciting new era for the Studio.

 

ENTER KAUFMAN ASTORIA STUDIOS (1980–2009)

In 1980, the City of New York awarded the management of the studio site to developer George S. Kaufman. Kaufman, the Studio’s chairman, and Hal Rosenbluth, its president, expanded and modernized the facility—known as Kaufman Astoria Studios since 1982—ushering in a new era of feature film, television, and audio production. Operating independently as a commercial enterprise, with an emphasis on versatility and service, KAS would quickly become a hub for East Coast studio film production as well as an anchor for the rejuvenation of the neighborhood. 

At the same time, the Astoria Motion Picture and Television Center Foundation reorganized as the American Museum of the Moving Image, with Rochelle Slovin as its founding director, opening to the public in 1988 in what had once been Army Pictorial Center Building #13. Renamed Museum of the Moving Image in 2005, it houses a permanent collection that includes significant holdings from every era of the Studio’s history. Motion pictures filmed at the Studio have been directed by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jodie Foster, Woody Allen, Ron Howard, and Mike Nichols. Television production simultaneously became a mainstay of KAS, including such high-profile programs as NBC’s The Cosby Show; PBS’s Sesame Street, which began its residency at Kaufman in 1993; and Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, starring Edie Falco. Kaufman and Rosenbluth’s complete revitalization of the Studio proves that an historic landmark can live on, continue to change, evolve, and grow with rapidly changing times.

THE MODERN ERA (2010–present)

In 2010, Kaufman opened Stage K, a 40,000-square-foot stage located across the street from the original building. A studio backlot opened in 2013 and a new building housing two additional soundstages opened in 2019, bringing the Studio’s total to twelve stages. Today, Kaufman Astoria Studios is one of the preeminent production facilities in the country. The Studio has remained home for New York entertainment, including popular shows on streaming giants like Netflix (Orange Is the New Black) and Apple (Dickinson), as well as instant classic contemporary movies like Birdman and The Irishman. Alongside Museum of the Moving Image next door, and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, founded by Tony Bennett, directly across the street, Kaufman Astoria Studios is a continued reminder that western Queens remains a motion picture capital of the world.