Image: Museum of the Moving Image
Peter Aaron/Esto  /  Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, reopened last month after a three-year, $67 million upgrade.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/25/2011 4:08:15 PM ET 2011-02-25T21:08:15

What do Natalie Portman, Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman have in common?

The two Academy Award-winning actors and the actress many expect will win her own golden statuette this Sunday night, for her performance in “Black Swan,” all have objects used in major roles on display in the newly renovated Museum of the Moving Image.

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Reopened last month after a three-year, $67 million upgrade, the museum — located in Astoria, Queens, a 20-minute subway ride from midtown Manhattan — is the only museum in the United States dedicated to all types of screen culture: movies, TV and video games.

Double its previous size, the museum can now more fully display highlights from its collection of over 130,000 objects, which include a bust of Nina Sayers — Portman’s character in “Black Swan” — used in a strangling scene; a device worn by Brando to create the jowls of his character, Don Vito Corleone, in “The Godfather;” and various materials and appliances used to age Jack Crabb, Hoffman’s character in “Little Big Man,” from 17 to 121.

Museum's history
The museum’s movie roots date back to 1920, when Adolph Zukor opened Astoria Studio here. In those days, New York was the center of the fledgling film industry, and Astoria, some say, the “Mecca of the silent era.” Over 100 silent films were produced here, featuring stars like Rudolf Valentino, Gloria Swanson and W. C. Fields; so eventually were talkies. After Zukor moved his company, Paramount Pictures, to California, the U.S. Signal Corps occupied the studio during World War II, the Korean War and early years of the Cold War. It then fell into disuse until 1977, when a nonprofit foundation reopened its big stage to produce Sidney Lumet’s “The Wiz.”

The museum debuted in one of the studio’s abandoned buildings in 1988; the revamped museum now occupies close to 100,000 square feet, almost twice as much space as before.

Its relocated and redesigned entrance — a portal of mirrored and transparent glass with the museum’s name in hot-pink letters three-and-a-half-feet high — is the first screen visitors encounter.

Right inside the new lobby is the second, a 50-foot-long wall coated with screen paint, used as a panorama for projected video. Currently on display is “City Glow,” a video by Chiho Aoshima, a Japanese pop artist.

Also new on the ground floor is a café, serving soups, chili, salads, snacks and sandwiches for kids, and a greatly expanded education center that has a new, 68-seat screening room.

Main attraction
But the main attraction is the new, 267-seat theater, entered via a pair of softly glowing, blue tunnels that lead up from the lobby.

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“Film-going is an imaginary voyage; entering the theater is not unlike entering an alien’s spaceship,” says Thomas Leeser, the Brooklyn-based, German-born architect who designed the museum’s new home.

Thus, Leeser created a wraparound ceiling and walls for the theater made of over 1,100 cobalt-blue, fabric panels; these are meant to alter the viewer’s depth perception and encourage a sensation of being suspended in space. Projection equipment for every format from 16 to 70 mm and high-definition, digital CD, is available here, as is a mini-orchestra pit for musical accompaniment for silent films.

The museum runs a year-round series of programs, for visitors of all ages, many of which will take place in this new theater. Later this month and in March, these programs include screenings of films on “fantastic voyages,” like “20,000 Leagues under the Sea,” “Forbidden Planet,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and, of course, “Fantastic Voyage”; screenings of two Oliver Stone films and a conversation with the director on March 13; and a program March 10 with the comedians Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara, television stars of the 1970s who are now making a Web series, and whose son is actor Ben Stiller.

Other movie museums

The museum’s second and third floors contain its core exhibition, “Behind the Screen,” which has been reconceived and upgraded. Every monitor and audio-visual projection is new, existing interactive experiences have been redesigned, and new materials and experiences added.

Interactive exhibits
Computer-based, interactive experiences let visitors record their own movements in a sequence of still photos that can be printed out and made into a flip-book; create their own stop-motion animations to save and e-mail; record their voices over film dialogue; choose sound effects to add to images of movies and TV shows; and add music to movie scenes. Other exhibits feature clips from early films like “The Great Train Robbery,” “The Jazz Singer,” and “Nanook of the North,” and a TV control room that illustrates how a director literally called the shots for the broadcast of an actual baseball game between the New York Mets and San Diego Padres.

Some 1,400 objects from the museum’s collection are on display in “Behind the Screen,” in exhibits showcasing technical apparatus, such as vintage cameras, projectors, television sets and editing equipment, and production materials like scripts, storyboards, costumes (including Bill Cosby’s sweaters from “The Cosby Show”) and make-up (including make-up worn by the four stars of “Sex and the City”). There are marketing and promotional materials; licensed merchandise ranging from an “Our Gang” coloring book and pencil box, to a “Star Wars” wristwatch and toothbrush; plus a wing dedicated to video games, like Space Invaders, Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, where visitors can play. And there are two previously commissioned artworks: the fantastical, 35-seat “Tut’s Fever,” an homage to the movie palaces of yore by Red Grooms and Lysiane Luong, where short films are screened, and “TV Lounge,” by Jim Isermann, a pseudo-1960s living room with a monitor showing clips of important moments in TV history.

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Guided tours of these exhibits are offered on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, while live demonstrations of professional crafts and equipment are conducted daily. There are also family film programs every Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s a great place for inter-generational visits,” says Rochelle Slovin, the museum’s founding director.

Adds chief curator David Schwartz, “People of all ages find something they can latch onto, animation, flip-books. Film buffs love seeing cameras, costumes, the lunchbox collection in the licensed merchandise. Everybody finds something they can remember from the past.”

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