The birth of a Queens museum

It was sometime in the middle ‘70s during the City’s economic free fall, that the motion picture and television unions came to see the then Borough President Donald Manes to ask for his support to reopen the old Paramount Studios in Astoria. Except for occasional street shooting, movies and TV shows were made in California.
Attending the meeting were Sam Roberts and Larry Barr of Local 52 and John Maguire, representing the screen actors’ guild. It was all about jobs. Donald was impressed with the possibilities and said “Claire, do something.”
During World War II, the signal corps. used the property for military films and after the war the property was turned over to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). HEW asked the City University to take over and establish educational programs. The City University was suffering economic distress and could not proceed at this time and the valuable stages were being vandalized. HEW rules and regs did not permit profit making ventures. We went to Washington, and with the help of a great guy at the General Services Administration (GSA) transferred the property from HEW to GSA. And we were on our way.
Mario Biaggi, with the help of Geraldine Ferrara, had the studios declared a historic site and under a remote regulation the original five and one-half acres was ceded to the city for $1 and a 99-year-lease. It all sounds easy but it really wasn’t.
Our Board made up of mostly industry unions, Local 52, SAG, DGA and many others were extraordinarily helpful. They raised the first $60,000. Saul Weprin former Speaker of the Assembly, and Kitty Carlyle Hart, former Commissioner of the State Council on the Arts awarded the projects $300,000. And Larry Cormier delivered oil and never sent a bill.
We then repaired the sprinkler system, the plumbing and the boilers. The Board asked Tom Hoving and his wife to join us. We needed his talent and the prestige of his name. Our lawyer David Alter who kept us out of trouble offered expert advice for which we were eternally grateful. The Board selected Larry Barr to manage the studios.
Shortly thereafter, Sidney Lumet moved in with the WIZ, Diana Ross and Lena Horne. The neighborhood prospered. The shoemaker on Steinway did well since the WIZ had so many dancers. Real estate values rose. During the filming former mayor Ed Koch stood in the dark with me and watched Diana Ross dance down the yellow brick road into Ed’s arms and he was smitten.
Our first fundraiser was held on one of the largest sound stages in the world and honored Gloria Swanson. It was a huge success.
Part of the deal with the Feds included an agreement that required part of the property be used for a public purpose and the remainder could be used only for the production of motion pictures, television and industry related uses.
The Board hired Shelly Slovin who proceeded to develop a museum to satisfy the Federal requirement. The American Museum of the Moving Image was born and is a credit to the outstanding work of Shelly, Herb Schlosser, and their board.
The city finally issued a Request For Proposal (RFP) which was awarded to George Kaufman who with his investors, proceeded to do a marvelous rehab of what is now called The Kaufman-Astoria Studios.
I may not be 100 percent accurate since it has been a long time since the inception of this project. But it is essentially what really happened and why today largely because of Kaufman and Silvercup Studios the city has gone from almost nothing to $5 billion in economic activity in the motion picture and television Industry.

Claire Shulman is the former Borough President of Queens

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