By Bill Parry
Hundreds packed Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan Monday to pay their respects to George Kaufman, the man who took a dilapidated old film studio in Astoria, and turned it into a powerhouse of film and television production and revitalized an entire neighborhood in the process. Kaufman died of heart failure at his home in Palm Beach, Fla., Feb. 20. He was 89.
Kaufman was a Manhattan real estate developer when he acquired the abandoned and vandalized former home of Paramount Pictures in the 1920s before it joined the rest of the motion picture industry in Hollywood. The U.S. Army used the site as a production facility before turning over the 5.5-acre site to the city. They allowed it to decay during the 1970s, which badly affected the neighborhood surrounding the complex. But after its revival, the Kaufman Astoria Studios became an anchor in a growing, vibrant neighborhood that has been proclaimed the Kaufman Arts District, the first arts district in Queens.
“George was so much more than a real estate developer,” Kaufman Astoria Studios President and CEO Hal Rosenbluth said. “He understood deep in his bones the importance of investing in New York’s communities, because they are the very foundation of the city’s greatness. He was a visionary who saw the promise of film and television production work in New York long before it became an integral part of the city’s economy.
The Kaufman Arts District, which spans a 24-block area, is home to seven institutions including the Museum of the Moving Image, the Queens Council on the Arts and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. The district is bounded between 31st and Steinway streets and 34th and 37th avenues, an area that was neglected and rundown until Kaufman bought the underused property at 34-12 36th St., which is now one of the largest film and television production studios on the East Coast.
Angelo Rizzo, the maintenance foreman for Kaufman Astoria Studios, described growing up in the area at a time when the studio was vacant and scary until “Mr. K” came along. Pete Romano, the vice president of operations at Kaufman Astoria Studios, lived a block away as a child and marveled at the changes to the neighborhood when it was designated the Kaufman Arts District in 2014.
“My folks wouldn’t let me cross 35th Avenue,” he said. “It was devastation, nothing but abandoned buildings. Now look at it.”
Alan and Stuart Suna, the principals of nearby Silvercup Studios, paid tribute to their friend and competitor.
“George Kaufman had an unprecedented vision for Queens as a center for the film and television industry, but the realities that followed exceeded everyone’s expectations,” they said in a statement. “He was a good friend and colleague in business, working with us collegially for 35 years to improve the film and television industry through governmental outreach and enhancing and supporting the local community. He will be missed, but his legacy, including the Kaufman Arts District he founded, will live on for a very long time.”
City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), who helped create the Kaufman Arts District in the same neighborhood where he grew up, attended Monday’s funeral service.
“George Kaufman saw something that no one else could see and that’s the very definition of a visionary,” he said. “He saw a future where it wasn’t just the revival of a film and television studio but the revival of an entire section of Astoria. That’s what he did.”
Kaufman is survived by his wife, Mariana, and a daughter, Cynthia.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr