Hollywood East In Queens

photo: digital image, moving image museum

One of the displays from the 'new movies' section
of the museum.

The Marx Brothers Were Here Too

Astoria, Queens, New York City:- January 2003:- Braving a rigorous trip to Astoria is not as adventurous as it may seem to Manhattanites - who have to cross the East River boundary, maybe by taking the 'R' or 'V'-line subway to Steinway Street - a whole 15-minute slam-bam ride from Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.

But until the Museum of Modern Art moved to Queens temporarily last year, this borough was considered to be somewhat like New York's Poland. A long distance away to the east, somewhat oddball if not slightly exotic, and the subject of one or more failed TV-comedy series.

I should say 'some Manhattanites.' After all, they would have to venture a lot further into Queens to get to the JFK airport for trips to Paris if they wanted to avoid going to Newark in New Jersey.

In fact, it was the inconvenience of a ferry trip to Fort Lee, New Jersey that inspired Adolph Zukor to build the Famous Players-Lasky film studios in 'Long Island City' in the fall of 1919. He was quoted as saying, "Time is money," but he claimed that he was also thinking of the welfare of studio workers - and movie stars - trudging up icy hills to get to work on the Jersey side.

Back in those good old days, the new studio was only a 15-minute taxi ride from the film company's worldphoto: general electric television, 1939 headquarters at 485 Fifth Avenue. At first a whole building was found, but almost as soon a whole city block was found, and the new studio was built on it instead - somewhat better and bigger than originally intended.

The General Electric TV made in 1939 had a very small screen and no color.

Filming across the Hudson in Fort Lee must have been a terrible hardship. Zukor mentions it often in a 1919 interview. During one cold winter the film work was stopped in New Jersey because the studio ran out of coal. There are no known coal mines in Queens, but it can be assumed that studio executives found ample supplies around Fifth Avenue and managed to bring some out by taxi.

The old studios still occupy the same city block, but they are now called the Kaufman Astoria Studios. The American Museum of the Moving Image is located right across the street. And since the two are still in Queens, I only have to ride the subway four stops towards Manhattan - just like in the 'only 15-minute' taxi-ride days.

Besides being the temporary home of 'MoMA Qns' - the Museum of Modern Art - Queens is also the permanent home of the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, the Sculpture Center, the Socrates Sculpture Park, the Museum for African Art, and The Noguchi Museum - as well as the movie museum.

As many readers will know, I have been on the lookout for the film studios in Paris for some years. A lot of movies are made here. At least, you can see Paris in a lot of movies, and it is not rare to see to see films being shot 'on location' around town. But where are the studios?

Plus, Dennis, one of the Daguerrotypistas, is a film fan - especially of the Marx Brothers - and they lived in the Corona section of Queens, probably after debt collectors chased the family out of the Yorkville area of the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Since their house must have been fairly close to the Mets' Shea Stadium, I should mention that Queens is also home to the tennis thing at Forest Hills, another airport thing at Laguardia, several parks which I have never seen, and the world's second largest concentration of Greeks outside of Athens, plus the original Joe's Shanghai in Flushing - if you fancy steamed dumplings.

So, um, anyhow, with a Marx Brothers' film festival featuring 'Duck Soup' about to start at a cinema in Paris, itphoto: museum eyeball has seemed only natural to visit the movie museum across the street from the Lasky studios in Queens. In fact, 'Duck Soup' is the only film in the 'festival' in Paris, so you can see it several times a day. For weeks, or maybe months.

Before I get to the museum, I should also mention that Louis Armstrong lived in Queens for half his life - also in Corona - because it was 'only 15 minutes' from 42nd Street in Manhattan, but without the autograph seekers. His house will be made into a little museum, possibly to open next year. it has only taken Michael Cogswell three years to catalogue the house's contents.

If you are a techno-freak you will enjoy the American Museum of the Moving Image. If you are a movie fan, you might be a little disappointed. But in the entry there is a curvy wall almost full from top to bottom with studio portraits of a lot of very famous movie stars, if you can remember anything about the first half of the last century.

Many of the black and white photos are stunning. A little sign says some studio photographers routinely shot hundreds of portraits per day - it was the only thing they did - but many of the photos are more than hack publicity photos. None of them are in color either.

None of them are of the Marx Brothers. I look at all of them - possibly hundreds - and admire Veronica Lake and other sizzlers, dazzlers, but there is no sign of Chico, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo.

After the wall of the photos of the stars, the Lumière brothers are mentioned and they have a really big photo, and then there are early projectors and almost before you know it, there are early TV sets - both pre-war and from after - and suddenly we are in the Third Millennium with movies made by computers with pixels.

There is a small cinema in the museum. In one of its curious passageways there are cartoon wall-paintingsphoto: cinema, new episode weekly, paris with the Marx brothers in them, but they do not turn up again until the usual museum shop near the exit - and then only as 'accoutrements for fun,' namely as 'Groucho Glasses.'

Somehow 'Paris' even gets into movies in Queens.

The package contains the warning - 'Choking hazard - small parts. Not suitable for children under three years.' On the other side, 'made in China' is printed on the package. I think the moustache may have been modelled on Charlie Chaplin's in the 'Great (Little) Dictator.'

To be fair, many of the museum's exhibits are interactive and children will like being able to have fun with their grubby little 'hands on' some of the whizzy stuff There are also selected screenings of actual movies on weekends, and occasional weeknights.

Outside, Astoria is like a lot of Queens. It has wire-mesh fences around desolate parking lots. The movie studio across the street looked like it is tidy and in good repair. Popping in got a couple of press handouts, but no brochure mentioning any tours.

With the sun going downphoto: subway station, steinway street the temperatures were heading towards below freezing. The breezes were already there. The subway going east in Queens to Woodside stopped near enough to Donovan's Pub.

The subway station that is supposed to be 'only 15 minutes' from Park Avenue.

The hamburger there turned out to be as good as described in a recent New York Times' list of 'Ten Best' hamburger joints. I didn't bother trying any of the '3000 worst' ones. In all other aspects, Donovan's was not like a fake replica of an Irish pub either.

American Museum of the Moving Image, 35th Avenue at 36th Street, Astoria, Queens, New York City. Subway: take lines 'N' or 'W' to Broadway, or line 'V' to Steinway Street. InfoTel.: 718 784 00 77.

Kaufman Astoria Studios, at 34-12 36th Street, Astoria, Queens, New York City. Same subways as above. InfoTel.: 718 392 56 00. If you see Woody Allan around here, you may notice he wears 'Groucho Glasses,' but without the Hitler-like moustache. As for the Web site, you will need 'Flash 5' if you want to see anything. [Within a short time you'll need to add an extra '1' to the beginning of the telephone number. All New York City numbers will be 11 digits soon.]

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