By Bill Parry
The old Astor Room, the speakeasy-era restaurant at the base of the Kaufman Astoria Studios, reopened last weekend and was renamed in honor of George Kaufman, the visionary who revitalized the studio and its surrounding neighborhood beginning in 1982.
Kaufman died last month of heart failure at age 89.
The restaurant had been closed since January for renovations to its interior, including new flooring, seating and artwork celebrating the studio’s history. George’s at Kaufman Astoria Studios, located at 35-11 35th Ave., occupies the same basement space that had been the commissary for Paramount Pictures in the 1920s before that studio moved to Hollywood. During that era, the commissary was frequented by such Paramount stars as the Marx Brothers, Rudolph Valentino, and Gloria Swanson.
“This is a very fitting tribute, as it was George’s idea to renovate this space and turn it into a public-facing venue of the studio where people can experience movie history,” Kaufman Astoria Studios President and CEO Hal Rosenbluth said. “Just as it was his vision to bring movie-making back to New York and make the studio a vital part of this community, he saw this restaurant as a way to bring people in this community together to enjoy great food, drinks and music in a very special, historic place. He would be very proud to know that the restaurant will bear his name.”
Rudolph Valentino, one of the first cinema “sex symbols” during the Silent Era, was known as the “Latin Lover” and shot numerous films on what is now Stage E at Kaufman Astoria Studios. A photo of Valentino eating at the studio commissary, along with his co-stars in full costume during the filming of “Monsiuer Beaucaire” in 1924, hangs in George’s, where the original tilework that still adorns the walls can be seen.
“Folklore tells us that Valentino really enjoyed entertaining, having fun and introducing people to his native cuisine,” George’s General Manager John Nikach said. “The six-foot spaghetti was something of a conversation starter at parties. It was a challenge to see who was able to twirl the spaghetti and keep one strand entirely intact.”
Valentino lived in Bayside in what became for many years Caffe on the Green, a Parks Department catering hall concession on the Cross Island Parkway.
Valentino’s Pasta is featured in the restaurant’s revamped menu, as is New England Clam Chowder, a favorite of Grouch Marx. The Marx Brothers shot their first film, “Cocoanuts,” at the studio in 1929. Up until that point they were known as vaudeville performers. They were appearing in their play “Animal Crackers” on Broadway while shooting “Cocoanuts” during the day. Fittingly, the clam chowder is served with animal crackers.
George’s will continue to feature a regular schedule of live jazz, cabaret and other entertainment, as well as access to the renovated Zukor Theater, a 73-seat screening room once used by Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, which can be rented for private events.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr