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A moving experience in Queens


QUEENS, N.Y. --- Who knew that television dates back all the way to the 19th century? That Orson Welles could sketch nearly as well as he could direct? That movie merchandising didn't begin with "Star Wars," but goes as far back as the silent cinema?

Such surprising nuggets of entertainment trivia are among the manifold delights of a 12-year-old museum hidden away in a Queens neighborhood.

Even in a city known for cultural institutions, the American Museum of the Moving Image is a singular delight. It stands as a repository for all things having to do with moving pictures -- and as a tribute to the men and women who worked to produce those images.

Among the museum's 85,000-item collection are zoetropes, old-time spinning machines that create the illusion of movement by letting the eye see images only for split seconds at a time; hand-cranked movie cameras, the kinds once used to film Tom Mix, Buster Keaton and Clara Bow; and mechanical televisions, in which light passing through rotating discs begat crude images. There are massive Technicolor movie cameras, TV sets that look as if they belong in a '50s sci-fi flick, primitive boom microphones, makeup kits, and a photo gallery of film and TV stars.

Visitors can even visit sets from "Seinfeld" and make like they're ordering a big salad.

"Our mission is to educate the public about the art and history and technique of movies, television and digital media," says Rochelle Slovin, the museum's founding director. "It does this through maintaining the largest collection in the United States of materials relating to film and television. That includes costumes, scenery, cameras, projectors, even the licensed merchandise.

"And it combines motion pictures and television, rather than separating them, as some museums do."

The collection even includes the country's largest collection of arcade games -- including Pong, a simple contest involving a moving ball and two player-controlled "paddles" that was the height of video-game technology back in the 1970s.

"Digital media is a main topic of ours," says Slovin. "That's why we named the museum as we did. We understood there was going to be more to the moving image than just movies and television. That with the computer, the television set, the theater experience, we were going to diverge into many, many things."

For those craving a more hands-on experience, the AMMI (its logo substitutes a human eye for its final letter) includes all manner of interactive exhibits. Visitors can star in their own flip book, animate a crab attacking an elephant, try dubbing their own voice for Groucho's in a scene from the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup," even try on John Travolta's wardrobe from "Saturday Night Fever," thanks to the magic of holographic technology.

Of course the school groups that visit the museum regularly love all that stuff -- what kid can resist making his own cartoon? But in the afternoons, after the last school bus has departed, there are plenty of adults discovering how hard it is to match Groucho's wisecracking cadence.

A building with a history

The museum has the added benefit of being housed in a building that itself played a key role in the history of the moving image. Located at the corner of 35th Avenue and 36th Street in Astoria, the building was part of the Famous Players-Lasky Studios, established in 1920 by film pioneers Jessie Lasky and Adolph Zukor.

Such legends of the silent screen as Rudolph Valentino and Louise Brooks starred in movies filmed at the Astoria studios; the large number of actors working across the river in Manhattan ensured a steady stream of talent.

When the talkies arrived in 1927, the fortuitousness of its location allowed actors with stage-trained voices -- like those plying their trade on Broadway -- to practically write their own contracts. In 1929, the Marx Brothers made their first movie, "The Cocoanuts," at what by then had become Paramount's Astoria studios.

Soon, however, almost all movie production was taking place in Hollywood. The U.S. Army moved into the studios in 1940, and remained there through the early 1970s. A raft of propaganda films, including the famous "Why We Fight" series, were made at Astoria.

Jack Lemmon made his film debut in an Army film made here.

After the Army left, the federal General Services Administration took over, but it found little use for the buildings. Eventually New York City came in, with an eye toward re-establishing the facility as a viable motion picture studio.

In 1978, director Sidney Lumet filmed "The Wiz" there, and film production was officially back in Queens. In the 1980s, the TV series "Cosby" was filmed at what is now called the Kaufman-Astoria Studios, and "Sesame Street" still is.

The museum has been operating out of the studio's old office building since 1988 (the museum and the studio have been separate operations since 1982). Some 40,000 visitors stroll through its three floors of exhibits annually. Thousands more attend its film festivals -- this afternoon, for example, John Ford's "The Searchers" is being screened, followed by Robert Frank's "Pull My Daisy," featuring beat poets Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

The work behind the screen

But for Slovin, the real magic of the Museum of the Moving Image lies not in the movies it plays or the studio building it preserves. She prefers to talk about the thousands of items donated to the museum by artists and craftsmen whose lives were spent telling stories through film and video. Most of the museum's cameras, for example, were donated by the men and women who spent their adult lives using them.

"Those items come to us from people who love their work and know that we will preserve their material," she says. "We strive to tell the story of the world of work behind the screen."

Among her favorite exhibits, Slovin says, is correspondence to and from Orson Welles donated by Maurice Seiderman, who headed the makeup department at RKO during the making of Welles' classic film "Citizen Kane." He would continue helping Welles with his makeup, often guided by the director's own sketches.

"You get a real behind-the-scenes insight into this man's genius," Slovin says of Welles. "And the tremendous surprise is how beautifully he draws."

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