The 'Only in New York' Podcast Goes to Museum of the Moving Image

The 'Only in New York' Podcast Goes to Museum of the Moving Image
It’s episode four of Culture Trip’s Only in New York podcast and this time we head out to Queens to explore New York’s most underrated borough and its connections to the movie industry. There is no one better to show us the ropes than Barbara Miller, director of curatorial affairs at the Museum of the Moving Image, who gives us an in-depth tour of one of the city’s most exciting museums.

The Museum of the Moving Image, in Astoria, Queens, is pop-culture heaven for everyone from the cinema-obsessed to casual Netflixers. Curator Barbara Miller pulls back the curtain to show us a world of secrets and movie magic. From video games to Star Wars toys and The Wizard of Oz to the Muppets, this hidden NYC gem delights young and old alike.

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Episode’s Transcript:

Jillian Anthony: This is Only in New York by Culture Trip.

Alex Shebar: Culture Trip is the go-to platform for travel where you can go to get informed plan and book awesome experiences and places you want to stay all over the world. [music]

Barbara Miller: I am Barbara Miller. I am the director of curatorial affairs at Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York. I am a native New Yorker. I’ve lived here all my life. I would, I do not think ever, live anywhere else. New York is known as this busy, bustling metropolis where everyone is on top of each other and people are rude and all those things. The rudeness is not true by the way, right? The busy-ness is true, right? The tall buildings, the sort of density and all that going on. But strangely, I always feel really connected to nature and I feel connected to nature in New York by watching the seasons, by seeing what is, what I can buy at the Green Market in Union Square. Because I can always know, oh, you know, strawberries are around so it is early spring, or, umm, you know, apples – it is early fall. So I’m always rooted by that, and then we are an island. There is water everywhere, so you can always, kind of like, get to a space where there is an expanse around you and kind of like be, just be reminded of the beauty of nature even while you are surrounded by all of the density. I honestly find it moving every single day. I really do. That combination of sort of natural beauty and the beauty of the built environment, right? And the density and the bustling and the mix of people all having to tolerate each other every day, right? That’s Only in New York. [music]

JA: New York City is the greatest city in the world. That is just a fact.

AS: We are New Yorkers and we will fight you on this.

JA: We have got 8m people and 62m visitors a year who love our world-famous entertainment.

AS: So many dining options. You could not get through them in a lifetime.

JA: The breathtaking skyline.

AS: Of course the terrible weather.

JA: The world reviled subway system.

AS: Rats the size of your face.

JA: But it is all worth it because the city surprises you every New York minute.

AS: Okay, want to know the best things to do in each of the city’s five boroughs?

JA: Guess what? You are in the right place.

AS: I am Alex Shebar.

JA: And I am Jillian Anthony. This is Only in New York by Culture Trip. [music]

AS: Let us visit Queens.

AS: Okay. Have you ever flown into New York? Then congrats! You have been to Queens.

JA: [laughter] Yes, very glorious. But if you have never explored Queens outside of JFK or LaGuardia, then you are missing out on one of the most diverse places in the world.

AS: That’s true, right?

JA: Yeah, the neighborhood of Jackson Heights is the most diverse neighborhood in the world and in nearby Flushing, people speak more than 800 languages.

AS: That is incredible because I can probably name you about 25 languages. And then that would be maybe stretching at this point. The diversity of Queens is wonderful and breathtaking and absolutely worth exploring.

JA: Queens is a more residential borough too. It is nice and homey. It has, you know, got a lot of green space.

AS: It is so pretty and there is great food. There is great breweries. It is just so much fun to walk around.

JA: Yes. It is definitely known for its amazing food, huge Greek community, and Astoria.

AS: But seriously, you can find food from, you know, the Philippines, China, Korea, India, Afghanistan, Colombia, Venezuela. It goes on and on, and of course you can find people from those places as well. Maybe it is the next up-and-coming borough. I think, I think it might be, if Brooklyn has happened or is happening right now, I would say Queens is what is coming next.

JA: You better not call it up-and-coming because people at Queens will not like that. And it will change…

AS: It has come. It is here.

JA: And everybody will take it and change it and turn it into an international cool brand.

AS: Oh, I am sorry, Queens. I am sorry for ruining you already [laughter]. And then here is something that we have recently learnt. Jillian, did you know that Queens has a pretty involved history with cinema?

JA: I did not know that at all and I learnt so much when we went to Queens and visited the Museum of the Moving Image.

The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens © Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo | © Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo

AS: Yes, turns out it is all long and complicated and filled with more government propaganda than you think it would be, which is pretty interesting. As Jillian just said, the Museum of the Moving Image is located in the heart of Astoria and filled with all the Star Wars toys, Muppet puppets, classic video games, and famous directors that you can handle.

JA: And it has got this giant screening room by the famous artist Red Grooms.

AS: It is so cool.

JA: And by screening room I mean it is like an entire movie theater in itself all created by Red Grooms. [laughter]

AS: And we had a chance to have a special guided tour that you are about to come along with us right now.

JA: It was super behind the scenes experience and we learned so much and I even got to insert my voice into The Wizard of Oz. [laughter] It was pretty cool!

AS: [laughter] You were the perfect Dorothy.

JA: Thank you.

AS: I think you have just nailed it. So from The Muppets, 2001, from The Exorcist to Mrs Doubtfire, come with us on this adventure in a film lover’s dream location.

JA: Hello! [laughter]

AS: Perfect! Perfect impression! You nailed it! [music]

AS: We are very excited to have you here. What is the museum? Tell us all about it.

BM: Museum of the Moving Image is in Astoria Queens, and it is a museum dedicated to exploring the art, history, technology of the moving image in all its forms. So television, film, digital media, video games. We have a very, very broad sort of subject and we explore it in myriad ways, and it is sort of an amazing resource for the local community, for the New York community and for visitors from all over the world.

AS: It is really interesting because some people, and myself would not be included, but some people would say that pop culture is kind of low-brow but you guys do it in this incredibly high-brow, very intellectual kind of way. Can you talk about mixing those two sort of forms?

BM: Sure. I think film has been recognized as an art form really since, let us say, the, the, you know, the 30s, it sort of, you know, got its feet and people started paying serious attention to it. And I think what we try and do is, we show many, many films in our beautiful theater. But we are not a film collection, right? We have a material culture collection. So what we do, in addition to screening films and to showing beautiful moving image artworks, is we really get into the creative process behind what it takes to create the moving image.

And you know, we are kind of in that middle ground between popular culture and really sort of taking on this, you know, one of the premier forms of art in in our world. I think no one would really argue that film and, and certainly TV nowadays and uhh forms of media art are you know sincere artistic expressions and we really look at how those things are made. We present them and then take seriously the creative process that goes into making them real.

There is always a lot to talk about. And you know, one thing we also try and do in addition to presenting moving image artworks and films and explorations of the creative process is to really understand the fans’ relationship with the moving image. So, you know popular culture, you know, you could sort of deride it if you want to, but it is a sort of a major force in our society. So in addition to sort of embracing what that is and acknowledging and sort of celebrating it, we are also looking at it as a, as a subject.

JA: I find it so strange to deride popular culture, because it’s from growing up, what you watch and see all over the world. Especially, you know, American films, it affects how you see yourself and how you, how you, how you think about what you want your life to look like, and romance.

BM: Exactly.

JA: What romance is, what success is and what beauty is – it affects every part of who we are.

AS: Shapes every dinner-party conversation we have ever had.

JA: Exactly. Right.

BM: Well, we all have deeply personal relationships to the stories and the characters that surround us that come to us via screenings. Right? I think none of us are really exempt from having some relationship to those stories and characters and that is definitely within the purview of Museum of the Moving Image. Really, sort of look at that and take that very seriously. You know, the people that are, you know, creating those relationships with the screen and also the makers behind it or how how all that gets done.

JA: How does that iconography of – you know, we are very obsessed with these actors and these filmmakers and these characters – how does that play into the museum and what do you display there? [laughter]

BM: Just over two years ago, we opened an ongoing exhibition exploring the work of Jim Henson.

AS: Oh we have got questions about The Muppets, for sure. [laughter]

BM: And it is, you know, we do not to like say permanent because what is permanent? It is an ongoing exhibition. It is you know, it is not going to end. A traveling version of it is going around the country at the moment. It really brings together your favorite puppets and the sketches that sort of gave rise to the, you know, design of the puppets and scripts and you know, like an enormous amount of material that, sort of, that really gives you insight into how Jim Henson and his incredible team of builders and performers and writers brought those characters and stories to life.

But you know, we did not want to not acknowledge the incredible fan base that participates still in those stories and characters. And so to answer your question about how we sort of acknowledged the relationship that fans have with the, you know, the things that they love, there are fan letters in that exhibition and it may seem strange because you know, you are paying homage to this, you know, amazing filmmaker, creators, the person who brought you Kermit the Frog and you know, all those things. But so what are these fan letters doing in that exhibition? But it really, really, I think speaks to why those uhmm those characters and stories have lasted as long as they have and that was really, a really important story for us to tell. [music]

JA: We hope you are loving the Only in New York podcast as much as we are. Head to theculturetrip.com/onlyinnewyork to find every episode on our website. That is theculturetrip.com/onlyinnewyork. We would not want you to miss a single episode as we explore the five boroughs of New York City. So please make sure you subscribe and follow us along on this journey. And while you are there, we would love to hear what you think about the podcast. Leave us a review and five stars is a great way to show the love!

Tomoko Kawamoto: The exhibition we are in right now is called Behind the Screen and we the museum considers it, this is our core exhibition. So it takes visitors through how moving images are made how they are marketed and how they are exhibited and there are about 1,400 objects from our collection on view here. The collection itself has over a 130,000 objects, but most of it cannot be shown at this at one time and this exhibition has a lot of interactive experiences and I guess you are gonna-

The Behind the Screen Exhibit celebrates the work of the many technicians working behind the scenes © Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo | © Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo

AS: Let us see em all.

TK: Try em out.

AS: Jillian, what your favorite movie?

JA: For many years I would have said Zoolander. [laughter]

JA: But I actually, I feel like it is probably Forrest Gump.

AS: I feel like that is, like, I think if you pick the opposite spectrums of films you would have Zoolander on one side.

JA: Well my, my other favorite is The Departed so it’s really, really opposite.

AS: Okay. So yeah. I love a good horror film and so we have got some really creepy uhh props over here. Which are making me all [inaudible]

JA: Why is this so big?

AS: So this is a giant Freddy Krueger sweater where I imagine if I had to guess, oh wait hold on, we can see why it is so big. Because there is a giant Freddy, ‘cos, ahh, okay. So here is a little video and Freddy Krueger is literally being birthed out of his own sweater, you know, truly horrifying kind of way and so there is the giant sweater with all his faces right next to it. So if you want nightmares, this is the spot to be. [laughter]

JA: But. But why is it so big? [laughter]

AS: I imagine you needed real people to come out of this sweater.

JA: She knows.

AS: Oh you can tell?

TK: Exactly!

AS: Aha! [laughter]

TK: Yeah, these are these are like the like the souls who are trapped inside him. And so in order to create that effect, they actually had to create, built like knit an oversized sweater and have real people actors performing inside it.

JA: Yeah and in the video, I mean I have never seen this movie, but there are heads bursting out of chests. And yeah now I understand.

AS: You tell me have never seen a Nightmare on Elm Street Four: the Dream Master?

JA: Sadly, no.

AS: It is a classic! I feel like everyone, you are the only one of all our listeners who has not seen Nightmare on Elm Street Four: The Dream Master from 1988. [laughter]

AS: Umm All right. So we have got other cool creepy wonderful things. We have got a thing from Black Swan. What is this? What is this? Is this Natalie Portman’s head that I am looking at here?

TK: Yes, that is Natalie Portman’s head. So this, this was a…

AS: Does she know you have her head? Does she want it back?

TK: You know, I am not sure. Maybe she knows but…

JA: That is a dad joke, Alex. [laughter]

TK: A lot of the objects that are on view here are donated by the craftspeople who worked on the film. So this is Mike Marino made this or him and his studio.

AS: What?!

TK: And this is from a scene where Natalie Portman tore her character’s neck, just stretches it, swan-like. And so this is actually a practical effect. It is like a little hydraulic pump, that makes her, her head or her neck stretch up.

JA: Cool.

AS: See when they created this, you feel like they could have done that in CGI, but the fact that they created it for real is wonderful. That just harkens back to a beautiful old age of cinema making and that is why that movie won the Oscar. Did it win the Oscar?

JA: No idea.

AS: That is why she won the Oscar. Well either she won it or it won it. But there was an Oscar won and I’m gonna say it’s because of techniques like that.

JA: Oh freaky.

AS: No, I just saw Annabelle and they had a doll like this in a glass cage. So are you worried about possessions and evil. Not this doll. Like its own creepy doll but it was it basically looked like this doll and glass cage waiting to do evil. So…

TK: People are definitely freaked out.

AS: Yeah, no, it is terrifying! Look at this thing. Tell us about this doll.

TK: Ahh well this was once again donated to us by the make-up artist Dick Smith. And in order to create that famous scene where Linda Blair’s character, Regan, her head turns around 360 degrees. Obviously the actor cannot do that. So they created a life-size doll, a mechanical doll that, that spins her head around.

JA: Yeah. I mean, you know, I intellectually understand that people cannot turn their heads 360 but I never thought about how they did that. [laughter]

AS: Yeah. I just assumed, the devil. That is just…

JA: I just believed. [laughter]

AS: All right, so here we have some BladeRunner stuff actually. This is the Tyrell Skyscraper, that is cool. See it is so interesting coz when you see a movie and you see the buildings you just assume they are buildings, but of course nobody is gonna create a real building for a film like this.

JA: Oh, wow.

AS: This is a, a still pretty big model of the Tyrell skyscraper, but obviously unless you are the Derek Zoolander school for kids who cannot do things and your school for ants you are just not getting in here. [laughter]

JA: It needs to be at least three times bigger than this.

AS: Three times? [laughter]

AS: All right, so we have a hall of TVs here. Is this what we are looking at?

TK: Television sets and projectors.

AS: Look at this!

JA: A bunch of TVs and projectors dating back from, let us see, 1931?

AS: There are screens here that are literally smaller than my phone right now, uhh which blows my mind.

JA: And uhh isn’t that interesting because they started small and got huge…

AS: Now they are small again.

JA: And now they are small again.

AS: Now, I watch all my Netflix on the same size screen. Technology is cyclical.

JA: That the screens themselves are small by the way, but the sets are gigantic. As big as dressers.

AS: They’re tiny little screens built into these monster cabinet.

JA: Yeah. This one looks just like a washing machine. It has got a round screen.

AS: A couple of knobs.

JA: Very cute. This one kind of like, I feel like my grandparents had that sort of thing at some point.

AS: My dog thinks the washing machine is a TV screen so you know. [laughter]

AS: This museum is the best museum. [music]

A hallway of television sets dating back to the early 20th century © Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo | © Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo

BM: You know, if you come to the museum in our core exhibition behind the screen. It is mostly material from our collection and you will get a really good sense of the breadth of what we have. So you will see projectors dating from the late 1800s when cinema was emerging. Cameras, televisions, costumes, design material of all kinds, licensed merchandise that speaks to that fan relationship.

AS: [laughter] Star Wars action figures.

BM: Star Wars action figures. Exactly!

AS: Those are adorable!

BM: All of these things sort of like taken as a whole, that really sort of tells a comprehensive picture of the moving image. So if you come and you see behind the screen, which you should cos it is a really fun place to go, you will learn a lot and you will have a lot of fun. You get a sense of the breadth of the collection, but you are really only seeing a small portion of it at any one time.

JA: What are.. what are some of the most popular artefacts on display?

BM: Well, I guess it depends on on what you are there for. Of course, everyone loves to come see the Jim Henson exhibition because they wanna see Kermit up close and Elmo and Big Bird and Miss Piggy and all their favorites. But you know in behind the screen it kind of depends in a way on on your age and and what you are a fan of and it really it operates on so many levels so that you you know, depending on what your exposure has been to film and television and the level at which you are a fan and your age and kind of where you come from? Culturally, you are gonna have a, a slightly different experience based on how you relate to that material.

BM: So, you know, if you are a film nerd, you are you are gonna look at our still working uhh vitaphone projection system from you know, 1927, which is what audiences first saw talking movies on. [music]

AS: Getting the itch to travel? Plan your next getaway with Culture Trip. Use the Culture Trip app to find the places you like. Save them to a wish list and add as you go. You are just a few clicks away from adventure. [music]

JA: I am gonna star in The Wizard of Oz right now.

Machine: Select the scene.

JA: Oh yeah, definitely her.

Machine: You will now record your first line. [laughter]

Machine: Say the line along with your character. [beep] [beep] [beep]

JA: Toto? I have a feeling we are not in Kansas any more.

Machine: Rehearse your second line.

JA: [laughter]

Machine: [beep] [beep] [beep]

JA: We must be over the rainbow! [laughter]

Machine: You will now record your second line.

AS: That enthusiasm please.

JA: We must be over the rainbow!

Machine: Now watch the scene with your voice on the soundtrack.

AS: And now, we watch this. [music]

JA: Toto I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore. [laughter]

AS: Jillian is nailing it. Just the most perfect Dorothy that ever has been. Watch your back, Judy Garland.

JA: We must be over the rainbow!

AS: [laughter] Nailed it!

JA: That was fun! [music]

AS: So in 2013, CNN traveler called you the coolest Museum ever.

BM: They are so smart. [laughter]

AS: I think they are. Do you feel that title still applies today? Why do they give it and does it still apply?

BM: Oh, we are definitely, definitely [laughter] a really cool place to go. I think so. You know, I mean, I uhmm you know what is cool. I do not know. I mean, we have-

AS: Yeah, I think you can learn that at your museum.

BM: Yeah. We have a beautiful building. I mean you walk in and you just feel like you are sort of transported in a way and I think what is so great about that is you know, it sort of, you know, it is one kind of a neighborhood and you know, there is a particular energy around the neighborhood where we are. But you kind of do not really expect the interior with the museum to be what it is when you walk in the door. So I think I think even just the initial impression that we give it is kind of amazing. Like you walk in and you are like, “Wow like, I am really excited to be here.”

AS: This is where I belong.

BM: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know and it is this it is this sort of, you know, it is this very very special place. But you definitely feel like it is for you. Do you know what I mean? You are not put off by it and it is funny. Before I started working at the museum I had been there, you know many times and the sort of reputation of the museum even before people had to talk about it in ways that were complimentary to me because I work there. That there is just a level of accessibility and an interest.

BM: It is like it is like taking the things that you kind of know about but then allowing you to go deeper into it. And that I find to be like one of the really key parts of our mission and something I am really excited to be able to share with our visitors.

AS: That is great!

JA: And it is the crossover between I mean The Muppets, Star Wars, video games. I mean we, people.

BM: Yeah.

AS: You are just checking out my childhood.

JA: Yeah, but also maybe but adults and kids love all of those things. It just keeps going on over different generations when you know, these The Muppets, Star Wars or you know, those franchises continue on and they create new fans.

JA: So we are now at the Jim Henson exhibition and this is a really popular one. I have been told, you know, we, Barbara told us that this is one of the most popular exhibitions and-

AS: Semi-permanent. Uhh I think it was an originally a temporary exhibition. It just became so popular that it became semi-permanent or was it always the plan to kind of have this forever?

BM: We started out by taking like a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian that was here for three, four months, something like that. And it was so, so popular and through the process of presenting that we became friends with the Henson family and with you know, the Jim Henson company, and we started talking about, “Wow would it not be great if there was a permanent gallery devoted to Jim Henson?” And five years later, here it is.

Jim Henson’s puppet, Miss Piggy, on display the Museum of the Moving Image © dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo | © dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

AS: Here it is. It is wonderful. I love the background music as you are telling that story, I feel like this very Muppets-esque, horns and and wackiness going on. That was the perfect set of soundtrack to you telling that story. [laughter]

JA: All right. Let us check it out.

AS: All right, let us go inside. Jillian, who is the best Muppet?

JA: Uhmm I, I can, I have never watched “The Muppets” that much.

AS: What are you talking about?

JA: I have to say, uhmm.

AS: Did you have a childhood?

JA: But, yes!

AS: Did you live in a sad little box somewhere?

JA: But I do think, I have always thought uhmm Beaker is very funny.

AS: That is a good one.

JA: And I do think The Chef with his real human arms is very funny.

AS: Which we are gonna see. We are gonna see all about that. See as a as a drummer I always was partial to Animal. Yes, he was they captured the spirit of the drummer very quickly.

JA: yes. Oh yeah. A beast.

AS: A beast! [laughter]. Uhmm so we got Kermit here as you walk in.

JA: He is so cute.

AS: This is so cool. Okay. So what is this, this is a picture of Jim Henson with like a headband and then Kermit and I am seeing a picture of them together and it is super sweet and touching talk to me about what this is going on right here.

BM: Okay. So that is on the set of “The Muppet Movie” and uhmm this headband that you see, he is wearing a headband with a microphone attached to it in the in the photo. We actually have the headband with a microphone as part of the exhibit here and that was one of his innovations kind of he was really an innovator when it came to performing puppets for the screen. So, you know whenever they are performing. They are also looking at a monitor and seeing how they are, like, how the character is interacting with the screen. And so the voices are being recorded with the microphone and then they are also looking at a monitor and seeing you know, oh how is Kermit looking like which way is he is he looking and interacting with the other characters?

JA: I like how the headband is uhmm colorful and kind of hippyish. Yeah.

AS: It does have a little flower child thing going on there. My brother can do a really good Kermit the Frog impression and I cannot like, “hi-ho”, like, that is close! That is about it. [laughter]

Producer: Hi-ho, Kermit The Frog here.

AS: Wait, wait. Hold on. That was our producer.

JA: My God! Do that again.

AS: We need that. That has to be captured. Let us hear that again.

Producer: Hi-ho Kermit The Frog here.

AS: That is perfect.

JA: That is really good!

AS: Have you been practicing that? Because I feel like-

JA: I will not do. I will not even try my Muppets voices, they are not good enough. So-

JA: So may stories.

AS: Do you any good, great stories of just like people randomly walk around the movie being like Oh my God, you know ex-director was totally wowed by this exhibition.

BM: Well, I have to say, you know for me one of the one of the amazing experiences was we had Frank Oz come to the museum for a program. Frank Oz who is an amazing director and he is famous for being the Puppeteer and uhmm for Miss Piggy and uhmm so many other.

AS: And Yoda.

BM: Yoda, exactly. So many characters that we know and love uhmm and was was was probably Jim Henson’s closest collaborator and we had opened our ongoing Jim Henson exhibition and we had had a lot of his, a lot of Jim’s collaborators come through and his family members and we felt like, you know, we really hoped we have gotten it right and people were generally happy but Frank Oz has not seen it yet. And you know, it is definitely to walk through that Jim Henson exhibition is to walk through Jim Henson’s sort of creative life, but it, a lot of it was Frank Oz’s life as well. Because Frank joined Jim’s company when he was nineteen.

Yoda puppet at Museum of the Moving Image © Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo | © Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo

AS and JA: Wow.

BM: Worked with him all, you know, all the way through. When Frank Oz came to the museum to do a program with us, which he has done several times in our theater. I was able to walk him through the exhibition and I was really nervous.

AS: Sure. [laughter]

BM: Because you know, he is not one to sugarcoat the way he feels as he should, he speaks his mind. Uhmm-

AS: He is in a lot of those photos, too. Like, he reflected back seeing himself often.

BM: Exactly. Exactly. So uhmm I really, was nervous about whether we had sort of gotten it right and really honored the work that they had all done together because that was for me that what was really behind it, was wanting to honor the, the, the work that they had all done collectively and if we had not gotten that right, it would have really not felt good. [laughter] As you know, regardless of how happy the fans were to see the puppets that they loved if we were not getting it right on that level it would not have been good. But, so I was able to walk Frank Oz through the exhibition. And uhmm of course I did not have to like tell him what all the things were because… [laughter]. He was there!

AS: He can probably tell you at that point.

BM: And he was really moved and really happy.

AS: Awww.

JA: Wow.

BM: So that, that was definitely sort of an important day.

JA: Yeah, that must have felt so good.

BM: Yeah. [music]

BM: What Jim Henson contributed were, were the puppet characters and initially he did not really want to be involved because he always thought of his characters, his Muppets, as not for children. They were for adults or you know for people of all ages and he was afraid he would forever be associated with children’s television which you know was not the case because the Muppet, “The Muppet Show” came out later, uhmm but you know his contribution to this to “Sesame Street” is uhmm is is so Central to the legacy of that program.

AS: Like this original concept for Big Bird over here, which looks more like kind of an ostrich, like a stretched-out yellow ostrich that actually a bird if that we look at here. But I also like that he specifically designed it that there is like a human drawing next to it and his hand way stretched up high in the beak. So you have to keep the hand up high to actually work the mic. Am I, am I doing that wrong? [laughter]

AS: It is fascinating. To think about how to do puppetry that you would not think that somebody would be inside Big Bird like that. Controlling the mouth, you know, with their hand all the way up there. But apparently that is how you do it.

JA: Is that how it is how it works inside? And okay, so whoever is Big Bird has like an extremely strong right hand.

AS: Yeah and a good wing span.

JA: Yeah.

BM: That would be Caroll Spinney. Of for many years it was Caroll Spinney and if you walk over here, you can see the harness wore while he was performing Big Bird. And the, the fascinating thing is, you know how I mentioned the monitors.

AS: Oh, yeah.

JA: Yes.

BM: He has a tiny monitor strapped to his chest so he can see what he’s doing and that monitor kind of shows him like what you know what the camera is filming so he can adjust his performance to the camera.

AS: That is crazy.

JA: Because inside of Big Bird you can’t see. I do not think so.

AS: I do not see any eye holes built in there.

JA: So if your hand is up there controlling the beak, well who is controlling the two hands?

BM: So he had one hand in one of Big Bird’s hands, but then the other hand was actually kind of like uhmm harnessed. So it would, if you look at Big Bird, one of the arms does not really move around as much.

AS: Crazy!

JA: So interesting!

AS: Things you learn at the Museum of the Moving Image.

JA: And look at these sickening boots that I would wear today. [laughter]

AS: Who wore these, these epic, epic sixties-seventies boots?

JA: Yeah I need to know. They are these huge, platform shoes.

BM: These were worn by Fran Brill, who performed Prairie Dawn.

JA: Can you say that one more time?

BM: So these platform boots were worn by Fran Brill who performed Prairie Dawn as well as some other characters and you know, she needed to match the height of the other puppet performers who were largely men and therefore she had these. What is that? Four or five inch platform, platform boots.

JA: You, I mean, I am like, you would literally, I would wear these boots. You will see, you will see them on the streets of New York like they are amazing.

AS: If these Boots go missing-

JA: I took em. [laughter]

AS: You know, you know who you will be calling. And these are the letters from fans that Barbara was talking about.

JA: Oh, yeah.

AS: They are adorable.

AS: “I am in third grade and I want you to know I like to watch your TV show The Muppets and Sesame Street. Why do you not have them out for a longer time? I wish you would. I wish you would send me a picture of Big Bird. I think I will still be watching your show when I am a grandpa. Yours truly, Jeff from Columbus, Ohio.”

AS: That is super cute. All right. So these two Old Gentleman are my favorites.

JA: Oh, yeah.

AS: Favorites because they are cranky. Do you know every Muppet voice? Coz it is wonderful!

JA: Do it again!

Producer: Ahahahahaha. Never mind.

AS: Statler and Waldorf of course, obviously. Ahh they are always so grumpy and they have fun insults – they are my favorite people.

JA: I remember them very particularly from, what is the name, The Muppet Christmas Christmas Carol.

AS: Yes! The Muppet Christmas Christmas Carol.

JA: That was uhh, yeah. And they were the two old ghosts and clicking and clacking and with their chains and my dad and I always would all whenever we watch The Muppets he would always like these guys are the best.

AS: See what I like about the Muppets is that these guys obviously not animated all. They are sitting on a little red block. They are just hanging out in a glass case and yet they are still unbelievably expressive. These people, these two look grumpy.

JA: They are talking shit. [laughter]

AS: Yeah, I feel, like, insulted just looking at them and they are not doing anything but sitting there and I still feel like we might be in for a fight here.

JA: [laughter]

Producer: They belong in New York.

AS: Yeah.

BM: May I add to that?

AS: Yes, please.

BM: So they are sitting here and they are forever looking at all episodes of The Muppet Show.

AS: Oh, is that why they are grumpy?

BM: I think so. [laughter]

Jim Henson’s Muppets are celebrated in style © Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo | © Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo

AS: Okay I can see that. It would make anybody grumpy. [laughter]

BM: Yeah, this is every episode of The Muppet Show.

AS: That is amazing!

JA: Oh, wow! There is a wall of every single Muppet Show ever playing. Ahh lots of Gonzos!

AS: Some here in the corner. We have some props from of course the greatest band in the world, Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, uhhh truly wonderful.

AS: See there is some Animal stuff. Got some costumes got some fake hair.

JA: Oh, yeah, Janis.

AS: Janis is my mom’s favorite.

JA: She is cool.

AS: My mom’s favorite Muppet. Yeah, look at these early sketches. They are so good. To capture the weirdness of Muppets, you should try to sketch them with pen because then it just becomes even more strange.

AS: And you have all the hands. Here we are. Okay. So now you have to tell that story again. So we have got a giant one would almost say life-size, Swedish Chef puppet here. It is about it is about my size. Uhmm with some really creepy human-looking hands. So let us talk about that.

BM: So the Swedish Chef is a character that Jim Henson performed together with Frank Oz and since The Chef was always in the kitchen doing stuff the hands are actually real human hands. And those are Frank Oz’s hands. When we knew were going to put this puppet on, on view here as part of the exhibition. We needed we needed hands and we actually got Frank Oz to cast his hands. So now you know, what his hands look like.

AS: Frank Oz, if you are listening, I am sorry I called your hands creepy.

JA: I mean-

AS: I mean, I am not taking it back there. They are human hands on a Muppet but I still apologize. Frank Oz you are, you are an American treasure. [music]

JA: We would love to hear your thoughts about the podcast. Find us @culturetrip on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook and tell us your thoughts.

BM: Museum of the Moving Image is where it is not by accident. If that is a sentence that makes sense. Museum of the Moving Image is in a building that is part of the historic Astoria Studio complex, right? So the quick history is that in 1920 Paramount Pictures opened up a major Studio complex in you know in Astoria, which was then known just as Long Island City that housed sound stage and you know, all the departments that sort of worked it was its major East Coast facility for Paramount, Paramount Pictures. And it ran that studio into the early 1930s. And then that studio became a rental facility and other you know, like independent films were made there. If you could think of independent films in the nineteen thirties and Industrial films.

BM: And then in the 1940s, the army with the outbreak of World War II bought the studio and turned it into the, the busiest motion picture studio in the world creating thousands of training films and training combat cameraman to go out and collect, you know footage from all of the war fronts and all the footage was then sent back to the studio site to keep for storage. So, so the Astoria Studio complex was this really, really serve essential site for film making really from nineteen twenty through that history through the Army years and the Army run it till nineteen seventy. So it was this bustling hub in Queens. A sort of invisible history. In Queens, it was this sort of amazing-

AS: All those classic news on the March sort of segments came from there?

BM: Some of them, did yeah.

AS: Fascinating!

BM: Yeah, exactly. So in nineteen seventy, the Army left and the fight the, the site fell into sort of a disrepair and a group of local politicians and the Unions, you know, the site had employed a lot of cinematographers and others who serve worked in, in, in the film production industry, got together. Civic leaders got together and to try and revive the site to just kind of bring it back to functional use because really it was this sort of amazing… It was the biggest, at the time it was the biggest uhmm sound stage on the East Coast, right. The original building. And so that effort was led by something called the Astoria Motion Picture and Television Center Foundation and the outcome of the foundation’s work was to bring on a developer who was George Kaufman to restore the film studio to a sort of commercial use.

BM: Right? So George Kaufman came on and developed it into Kaufman Astoria Studios. And then uhmm the other outcome of that Foundation was to set aside one part of that complex to create sort of public programming and that could have been anything. Okay, right. It could have been a small theater to show films. It could have been a room, you know to have local New York, you know movie posters. It could have been anything but the founding director of Museum of the Moving Image, Rochelle Slovin, thought much bigger and said we want this building right, across from the original building that was built in 1920 and we are going to turn it into a world-class Museum about the moving image. Not just Queens not just New York, but the moving image in general we are going to tell that story. In and this was this 1981, where you know, New York was really not sort of, you know, the thriving Metropolis it is. It had with been in this real fallow period and it was a real struggle I think to sort of make that come together and people had to be convinced because the community back then was really not what you would see today. And you know, I mean if you come there today, you would not even recognize it. If you were there in the in the in the seventies. It has really really transformed the local community. It is now part of what is called The Kaufman Arts District and um there is many things going on. So we have a we have sort of we with Kaufman Astoria Studios, we have sort of a shared parentage in away but we are separate entities now. So we both share that history of being part of the Astoria Studio complex.

JA: I just wanna go back quickly so that it was a basically like a marketing studio for the military or no?

BM: No. It was a major Motion Picture Studio. They filmed training films there. They edited really well-known things like the Frank Capra series “Why We Fight” which was this big sort of propaganda effort to get the American public on board. Thousands of training films that went out that were that were used in in all the theaters of War to train soldiers and how to do things from loading a weapon to you know escaping capture and, and all these things.

JA: Interesting.

BM: No, it was it was a hugely busy film studio for, for the Army through the years of World War Two and then through the Korean War and into, into Vietnam and the Army only close it down in the 1970s. So it was this this tremendously busy site and since then, Kaufman has expanded it. So it sort of started in this one building through the Army years and then after Calvin took over they have been surf steadily expanding around us. So it is really exciting to see them thrive the way they have.

Kaufman Studios, the biggest US film studio outside Hollywood, is next door © Philip Scalia / Alamy Stock Photo | © Philip Scalia / Alamy Stock Photo

AS: Very cool. Yeah, I think this is a good sort of segue to talk about, you know, you have talked about some of the, the lasting legacy it had in Astoria and places like that talk about your sort of impact on Queens because that is kind of why we are here is to talk about what makes you the go-to destination for the borough we think you are. Uhh, sell us on it.

BM: Yeah, you know, we always used to be like the best kept secret, you know, because Queens was sort of like a little off the radar, you know, Brooklyn was in its ascendancy as the cool younger brother to Manhattan, you know, and now Brooklyn is sort of like enshrined as almost like, oh Brooklyn is like so, you know last decade and Queens has you know, has stopped. Queens has stopped being the secret that it had been for so long and I think we were always as cool as we are now, but less people were sort of aware of it. You know, I think that there was a lot of investment and a lot of foresight by the local Queens, you know political infrastructure that really saw us and Kaufman Astoria Studios as like anchors of that, that community and that has really paid off because we are absolutely a draw for the local community, we are a draw for people from all over New York and all over the world that come specifically to see us so, you know, we really… We pride ourselves on being a destination for, for local and for, for people from all over.

AS: Yeah, so if somebody has never been to the museum before why would you tell them to come?

BM: Well, come to Museum of the Moving Image for lots of reasons. Come and see a film in our beautiful theater. Come and be inspired by the kind of stories we have about the creative process behind some of the best-known things, you know, best-known films and characters and stories that come to you via screens and be engaged in your own creativity. There is interactive experiences that let you sort of have a hands-on participation and things that you know behind the scenes kind of processes that are really fun to do and you get to learn a lot. There is lots of artifacts to see. Sort of first hand that you would not ordinarily ever have a chance to be able to see. So, there are so many reasons, there is something for everybody to see there. It really is sort of like a gateway drug to museums in a way. [laughter]

BM: Like, like if you if you go there and you come, you come-

AS: A museum addiction, it is crippling.

BM: You come to Museum of the moving image and it is your first Museum your, that you have ever gone to it or maybe the first Museum you have ever liked. It sort of, you know, sows the seeds for a general museum love.

AS: Sure.

BM: A love of museums, but also obviously of film, of television of all forms of, of the moving image. [music]

AS: Julian what else do you love to do in Queens?

JA: I have been to a lot of Mets games. Citi Field Stadium has much much better food than Yankee Stadium. That is just the truth like the amount of food we ate was disgusting. There was-

AS: What else do you do in a baseball game, watch baseball?

JA: Yeah. I mean, not me. [laughter] But I am trying to think of the actual, I am trying think of the brand of pizza. Like they have all the brand name foods at that stadium and it is delicious.

AS: I cannot go to Queens without hitting up Benfaremo. I think I am pronouncing that name correctly. Although maybe not because you rarely hear it. It is more commonly known as the Lemon Ice King of Corona one of the best frozen treats in the entire world and a reason to go to Queens all by itself.

JA: I have never heard of that and never had one.

AS: It is so good. It is the perfect treat. I do not care if it is summer or it is 10 degrees below in winter, still, still eat it. It will make you happy.

JA: I also really like this little comedy place. It is called QED Astoria.

AS: See, I have not heard of this.

JA: A lot of my friends have performed there. I have actually done a reading there as well for when I was part of a show a few years ago. But yeah, there are shows every night of the week. Check it out.

AS: What was what what, what did you read? What did you do?

JA: I think I told an embarrassing story.

AS: That is good.

JA: I was part of some show and I told an embarrassing dating story of some kind.

AS: [laughter] I feel like you have a few of those.

JA: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I will tell you later.

AS: Like a full book. Queens has lots to do. There is a plethora of breweries. You can head to the Rockaway Beach and the US Open is played there. So if you are a tennis fan, uhh find yourself in Queens.

JA: Another thing I have never done.

AS: Oh no! More New York experiences for Jillian.

JA: [laughter] I gotta get out there. I, I you know, I really feel like I do a lot in New York and yet-

AS: And every time we sit down you are like, well, I have not done this and that. Is it not that the plight of every New Yorker where we just like I have done everything and in fact, I have done absolutely nothing. [laughter]

AS: Well, here is what Barbara said that she loves to do in Queens.

BM: Oh my God, the perfect and Queens. Well, you know what the other day, I took a ferry from where I live in Manhattan to Astoria, and then I biked from where the ferry let me off to the museum. It took nine minutes.

JA: Oh nice!

AS: That is awesome!

BM: So take the ferry, ferries are amazing. That is like a new thing in New York, the ferries. It is like fantastic! Perfect day, take up you know, take a ferry around, somehow wind up in Astoria. Astoria, even before the museum became sort of big news in, in Queens, Astoria has always been known for its amazing restaurants initially. It has always, you know, for many, many generations now, it has had a Greek community and it was known for its Greek restaurants. But now there is like so many, now it is Queens is the most diverse urban area in the world. Right? And the, the food offerings definitely reflect that so there is amazing food to have so nearby. So come and have lunch then come to the museum stay for a bunch of hours and then go have dinner because there, the food opportunities are amazing.

BM: Go to Socrates Sculpture Park where you will be able to sit outside and, and walk around and go to the Noguchi Museum, PS1 is also right near us. It is like a real hub for, for enjoying everything New York has to offer but it is lower to the ground so you see more of the sky and, um, and you know, I think it really is the true the true New York experience. So, you know, if you are a visitor to New York, right? You may land in Times Square and it is fine to look around coz you have got to see it, but do not linger too long, right? Come to where the New Yorkers go and to where you really need to go. [laughter] Queens is not like just some borough that you need to sort of check off your list. It really is where things are happening.

AS: Get out of Manhattan.

BM: Yeah.

AS: Go to Queens.

BM: Yeah. Well Manhattan is great too. I would say, spend a little-

AS: [laughter] Spend a little bit time there.

BM: I am from Queens by the way. Spend a lot of time in New York, coz there is so much to do.

JA: If you want more of the best things to do in Queens, head to theculturetrip.com. We have got an amazing guide to eating your way along the seven train as well as a guide to what to buy if you have got twenty bucks to spend at the Queen’s Night Market.

AS: I am Alex and I am now craving more lemon ice.

JA: I am Jillian and I am pledging to go to Queens more.

AS: I think that is a good plan. See you next time on “Only In New York” from Culture Trip created for the curious.

AS and JA: Happy Travels!

AS: The Culture Trip podcast is presented by culture trip. Copyright two thousand twenty. Produced by Mouth Media Network. Read more about New York at the theculturetrip.com and follow us on Instagram and Facebook @culturetrip. Thanks for listening and happy travels. [music]

Woman: This is Mouth Media Network amplify and connect.