History of Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York

Kaufman Astoria Movie Studios

Photo: Brian Kachejian

Many native New Yorkers are familiar with the Kaufman Astoria Studios. It is located on 36th Street and 34th Avenue in Astoria, Queens. The legendary studio has provided pre-production, post-production and principal filming for hundreds of different television and movie productions for a little more than a century.

The movie studio was built in 1920 by the motion picture company Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. It was originally known as the Astoria Studio. The building was established so that films could be shot in a location that was close to the theater district in Broadway. Between 1920 and 1933, many short films and feature length movies were created at the studio.

More than a hundred silent films were recorded at the studio in the 1920’s. The Astoria Studio was later known as the Paramount Studio. It was the original home of Paramount Studios and the majority of their films for more than a decade were filmed on their back lots and/or sound stages.

British producer Basil Dean made The Return of Sherlock Holmes at the Astoria Studio in 1929, which was the first sound film for the titular character. Actors Tallulah Bankhead and Claudette Colbert recorded their first speaking roles at the studio. The Marx Brothers’ first two movies, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were also filmed there in 1929 and 1930, respectively. The studio’s back lot and sound stages were used in the musical film The Dance of Life in 1929.

Movie production at the Kaufman Astoria was the responsibility of independent producers for a decade after Paramount relocated their studios to California in 1932. Films that were approved and released by many Hollywood companies including Paramount were allowed to be filmed there. All of the films made by legends Gloria Swanson and tango dancer Carlos Gardel were shot at the studio in Queens.

The United States Army Signal Corps’ Army Pictorial Service used the studio to film Army training and other related films from 1942 to 1971. The campus was given to the federal government after being listed as surplus property by the Army in 1970. The studio was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 after being named a national historic district. The property was renamed the Kaufman Astoria Studios after being acquired by real estate developer George S. Kaufman in 1982, shortly after the studios’ title was transferred to the City of New York.

There are seven different sound stages on the Kaufman Astoria property. Carlito’s Way, Goodfellas, The Money Pit, The Bourne Legacy, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Wiz and Hair are some of the major motion pictures that were filmed at the studio. Law & Order, The Cosby Show, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, Orange is the New Black, Nurse Jackie, Spin City, Sesame Street, Judge Judy and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd are just a few of the many television programs that have recorded episodes there.

The studio has continued to expand in recent years. A 34,800 square foot backlot was completed in December 2013. It is the only backlot in the city of New York at this time. A redevelopment project that would take up five city blocks around the studio was announced in 2020. The project will add another quarter million square feet for multimedia productions, as well as 200,000 square feet for restaurants and retail space and 2,700 square feet for residential buildings. The expansion is expected to begin sometime in the year 2023.

Kaufman Astoria Movie Studios

Photo: Brian Kachejian

There is also a recording studio, KAS Music and Sound, on the studio property. Some of their services include archives, content transfer, voiceovers, automated dialogue replacement and mastering and mixing music and spoken word compositions. Alicia Keys, Carly Simon, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Keith Richards, Placido Domingo, ‘N Sync and R.E.M. are some of the many artists who have created works at KAS Music and Sound.

Visitors to the studio will notice the signed pictures of George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers, Milton Berle, Bill Cosby, Diana Ross, Claudette Colbert, Ethel Merman, Jerry Orbach, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, The Marx Brothers, Claudette Colbert and many other actors and musicians who filmed or recorded film or audio projects at the studio over the years. There are currently more than 150,000 feet of production spread across eleven production stages and over 325,000 feet of office space at the studio complex.

The Museum of the Moving Images is on the Kaufman Astoria Studios campus. It’s a unique facility that provides plenty of exhibits and information about motion picture techniques, technology and history. Gamers and cinema buffs can find out about digital artworks, classic and current television and film creations and much more.

Famous singer Tony Bennett founded the Frank Sinatra High School for the Performing Arts, which is also located on the Astoria Studios property, in 2001. The school is part of the New York City Department of Education. Majors are available in film, drama, dance, fine art and instrumental and vocal music. Auditions are required for student admission. Students have performed in theatrical productions of Hairspray, The Secret Garden, Footloose, The King and I, The Phantom of the Opera, RENT, Anything Goes, The Music Man, Carousel and others as part of the Musical Theatre class. Students are allowed to participate as part of productions’ stage crew for the Stage Craft elective. The high school averages over 800 students per year, has a reasonable student to teacher ratio of less than 20 to 1 and has had more than a 90 percent graduation rate with over 90 percent of graduates going on to college in recent years.

Television productions by Apple+TV, Amazon, HBO Max, Netflix and other studios and more film and audio projects are being recorded at the Kaufman Astoria Studios every day. There aren’t too many people in this nation that haven’t watched or listened to a performance that was produced at the studios at least once in their life. The studios will undoubtedly continue to develop more and more unique works of art for audiences to enjoy for many more generations to come.

 

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