34-12 36th St, Astoria, NY 11106
Hollywood has nothing on Kaufman Astoria Studios, which has been a staple in the film and television scenes for nearly a century.
The studio, which opened in 1920, has churned out hundreds of top films throughout its history, from “The Wiz” to “Birdman” to “Men in Black 3.”
These days, Kaufman Astoria Studios is best known for its notable TV shows, like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Sesame Street.”
It’s no wonder that Kaufman Astoria Studios is a designated landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.
amNewYork recently toured the studio with vice president of operations Pete Romano and his rescue dog, Blue. Romano, who has worked at Kaufman Astoria since 1983, offered up a wealth of little-known facts and anecdotes about the historic Queens movie studio. Read on to learn more.
The studio was the original home of Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures has long been based in Hollywood, but it once called Queens home.
Adolph Zukor built the Astoria studio in 1920 for his film company, Famous Players-Lasky, which was renamed Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation in 1927.
Paramount made movies starring the likes of Rudolph Valentino and the Marx Brothers in Queens before the film company moved west and the Army moved in.
The 1929 musical “The Battle of Paris,” pictured above, was filmed at the studio in its early years. Look closely, and you’ll see two actors, leaning against a back wall, smoking cigarettes behind the set.
“There’s probably a PA running around trying to find them,” Romano said. “So nothing’s changed.”
Kaufman Astoria served its country
The Army occupied the studio space — then known as the Signal Corps Photographic Center — from 1942 to 1970.
The military used the space to make propaganda movies and training films, which taught everything from throwing grenades to avoiding foxholes, Romano said.
The Signal Corps Photographic Center also got help from six-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker and former Col. Frank Capra. Romano said that the “It’s a Wonderful Life” director came to the studio during World War II to teach the Army how to set up cameras and frame shots.
This theater can’t be bugged
The Army wrapped Kaufman Astoria’s Zukor Theater in Faraday shielding, which blocks radio frequency interference, to keep the Germans from listening in on the military’s propaganda films, Romano said.
The Signal Corps used the theater to watch the films after they had been edited. Fearing that the Germans would bug the room to “try to beat the propaganda,” the Army installed the shielding to keep the films under wraps, Romano said.
These days, the theater is used for far less secretive purposes. Romano said that it now serves as a holding room for movie and TV extras.
‘Carlito’s Way’ found its extras in the clubs of New York
The 1993 thriller “Carlito’s Way,” filmed at Kaufman Astoria, used unconventional means to cast its extras.
Romano said that the film crew sent vans to Manhattan clubs, where they walked dance floors and asked clubbers if they wanted to be in a movie. They filled the vans with real partygoers and drove them back to Queens, where they served as extras in the “Carlito’s Way” club scene.
The ‘Sesame Street’ set was the site of a wedding
“Sesame Street” was the scene of a real-life romance.
Snuffleupagus puppeteer Marty Robinson and writer Annie Evans married on the set of “Sesame Street” in August 2008, The New York Times reported. Oscar the Grouch was even on hand to heckle the couple as the two exchanged vows.
Here’s another fun “Sesame Street” fact: Romano told amNewYork that it takes two people to operate Snuffleupagus, while a third person fans the two puppeteers to keep them cool.
The water actually works on the ‘Orange Is the New Black’ set
It seems someone is always getting into hot water on the Netflix comedy “Orange Is the New Black.” But did you know that there’s actual hot water on the set of the show? The toilets, showers and sinks featured in the set’s bathroom all work (though Romano said no one uses them).
It’s home to more than 80,000 costumes
There are more than 80,000 donated costumes at the Theatre Development Fund Costume Collection, a nonprofit that lives inside Kaufman Astoria Studios. TDF provides low-cost costume rentals to nonprofit and small theatrical performances nationwide.
The 16,000-square-foot space boasts a variety of costumes, from “a medieval suit of armor to a 1950s poodle skirt to modern cocktail attire — as well as everything in between,” its website says.
It would be easy for a fashion lover to get lost in the aisles of costumes. That’s why Lady Gaga’s manager told Romano not to tell the pop star about the Costume Collection while she was recording at Kaufman Astoria.
“You’ll never see her again!” her manager told Romano.
The studio has the only backlot in NYC
Queens has something that Manhattan doesn’t — the city’s only backlot stage.
The 34,800-square-foot backlot opened in December 2013, and it allows film and TV productions to shoot outdoor scenes without shutting down city streets.
The Astor Room was the original studio’s commissary
The Astor Room at Kaufman Astoria Studios has a rich history that dates back to the ’20s; it was actually Paramount’s commissary.
Romano told amNewYork that the Astor Room has preserved parts of the commissary’s original design, including its terra cotta wall tiles. The Army put sheetrock over the original tiles, but Kaufman Astoria brought in Italian masons to save as many wall tiles as they could.
Now, Astorians and tourists alike can dine in the same room where silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino once ate.
George Kaufman donated land to a school founded by Tony Bennett
Kaufman Astoria Studios is no stranger to top-notch TV and movie stars. But steps away, you’ll find a building packed with Hollywood’s future big names: The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts.
The performing arts high school, founded by the legendary Tony Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto, moved to its Astoria location back in 2009 with the help of Kaufman Astoria Studios’ chairman. George S. Kaufman actually donated the land that the school was built upon.
Kaufman also donated land to the Museum of the Moving Image, which is next door to the studios.
There’s a top dog on site
Kaufman Astoria is a pet-friendly studio, and one of its top dogs is Blue, Romano’s 6-year-old rescue.
Romano told amNewYork that Blue has met more stars than he has; the canine even got to meet Mariah Carey when she was at Kaufman Astoria.
“I go home that night, and my daughter says to me, ‘Did you meet Mariah?'” Romano recalled. “I said, ‘No, but Blue did.'”
It inspired the only arts district in Queens
Kaufman Astoria Studios inspired an arts district, the only one of its kind in Queens.
The area surrounding the studio was declared the Kaufman Arts District in March 2014. It includes the studio, the Museum of the Moving Image, the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts and a nearby movie theater.