Museum of the Moving Image

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 147 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The Jim Henson exhibit features an immense screen-of-screens which shows, continually, every episode of the Muppet Show.

Muppet Exhibit, Museum of the Moving Image, Queens
Every Muppet Show Ever

Each sub-screen is big enough that you can see what is going on individually and in patterns…it converts nostalgia TV into video art. Look, there’s Carol Channing! Look, it’s a very young Steve Martin! I’m not sure anyone after Gen X will get anything out of it, but it mesmerized me.

Museum of the Moving Image, QueensIn reviewing the Bayside Historical Society I noted the brief historical moment when the eastern reaches of Queens might’ve become Hollywood. In our universe, the film industry eventually centered itself in balmy Los Angeles. However, a chunk of it did remain in Queens. The Kaufman Astoria Studios is our answer to the great factories of movie magic out west. And the studio lot is also home to the Museum of the Moving Image.

Museum of the Moving Image, QueensLocated in a fairly unprepossessing building, the museum’s interior isn’t what I expected — very contemporary with a small back garden behind its cafe, airy, with a great staircase that leads up to an open screening area where you can take a break and watch…well, whatever they happen to be showing. The museum also has a ground-floor auditorium which I didn’t see, and a smaller screening room upstairs, the exterior of which is done up to evoke an old style Egyptian revival movie palace. I imagine this place is great for screenings.

Hi-Ho! Kermit The Frog Here…

Kermit, Museum of the Moving Image

The Museum of the Moving Image just opened a new permanent exhibit on the life and work of Jim Henson. It’s…well, it’s just wonderful. I grew up on Sesame Street, and loved the original Muppet Show in all its anachronistic variety show glory. The exhibit examines Henson from his earliest days as a puppeteer, appearing on talk shows and doing surprisingly dark and funny commercials (lots of muppet-on-muppet violence). Then came the Children’s Television Workshop and the rest is history.

It’s a solid exhibit, with lots to see and hear.  Interestingly, some of the screens don’t have external speakers — bring your own headphones (or buy some at the gift shop) if you want all the audio. It also features some clever and fun interactive bits. Build your own muppet!

Skeksis, Museum of the Moving Image

And then there are the characters. Miss Piggy dressed as a bride; Bowie as a goblin king; a Skeksis from the Dark Crystal…some of the odder animation from the early days of Sesame Street, too.  It’s amazing how those rhymes and songs still reside somewhere deep in my childhood psyche.

Overall the exhibit drives home a sense of Henson as maybe the nicest auteur ever, and certainly an unparalleled creative force who made lumps of felt and googly eyes into some of the realest people to ever grace the big or small screen.

Making the Sausage

The Henson exhibit takes up quite a bit of room, but an even larger space is devoted to the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. The hall of Jurassic TVs, Paleozoic film cameras, and Cambrian movie projectors is fascinating — the evolution of all of these technologies from their literally steampunk early days to their modern, sleek forms is fascinating. Much like the dinosaurs evolved into birds, today we all carry all those things in our pockets.

Museum of the Moving Image, Queens
Hall of Ancient TVs. Some had screens as big as a smartphone’s!

Throughout, the museum did a particularly good job with interactive elements. Visitors can make their own flip book or stop-motion animation, and can see and hear the impact of replacing a classic soundtrack with alternative choices. An ADR (automated dialogue replacement — dubbing) booth was hilarious and fun. I fulfilled a lifelong dream I didn’t even know I had by playing Sugar, Marilyn Monroe’s character in “Some Like it Hot.” Which I will no doubt have to speak to my therapist about.

The sections on special effects, movie makeup, and set design are natural crowd-pleasers; I expect nearly everyone who visits will find some film that resonates. For me, a model of the Tyrell Corporation Building from Blade Runner stands out. Incredibly detailed, bedecked with miniature lights, I could just imagine flying over it in a hover-car, wondering if I’d pass the Voight-Kampff Test.

Blade Runner Model, Museum of the Moving Image, Queens
Mr. Tyrell will see you now…

Where Does He Get Such Wonderful Toys?

The Museum of the Moving Image also features an installation on memorabilia and fandom, featuring action figures, dolls, and other items from Star Wars and Star Trek. I owned a lot of the Star Wars toys, though I’m not 100% sure where they are at this point, and somewhat to my consternation neither is my mom. Locating them, assuming they still exist, will be a priority on my next visit. It also boasts a great selection of movie posters, and headshots of the stars galore.

Star Wars Stuff, Museum of the Moving Image
Tauntaun Teapot. I never had one of these as a kid.

General Quarters

Video Games! Museum of the Moving Image, Queens

Finally, a healthy chunk of the third floor of the museum features classic video games of my childhood, lovingly restored in all their quarter-sucking glory. With the willpower of adulthood, I limited myself to one dollar to be smote (smited?) by Donkey Kong and bitten by Centipedes. Thank all the  gods that Ms. Pac Man was out of order the day I visited. There’s a bit of wall-text history of each game — a token (see what I did there?) nod to edification in what is really just a blatant revenue stream from every Gen X’er who visits — and undoubtedly a source of mystification for anyone younger.

I acknowledge it’s kind of funny that old games hold a nostalgic appeal. You wouldn’t see anyone of my generation staring raptly at a VHS tape on a standard def CRT TV, or worse a fuzzy black-and-white set. But there’s something about an 80s coin-op video game…

Night (or Day) at the Museum?

The Museum of the Moving Image is phenomenally well designed and laid out, and tells its story exceedingly well. As you’d expect for a museum to an industry that tells stories for a living. Interactive elements keep things highly engaging (I’ll just reiterate, the ADR booth is well worth waiting on line for). There’s a lot that’s not covered here — the curators of this place only have a finite amount of space. Indeed, my one concern about the place is perhaps the Henson show, fun as it is, crowds out the museum’s ability to tell other stories. But I came away from my visit surprised and exceedingly pleased, both entertained and edified.

Talkin’ Bout My Generation

If you were a kid in the 1970s or 1980s, you absolutely have to visit the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s a shrine to all eras of film and television, but particularly with the video games and the Henson Show, it seems designed to tug most mightily at the heartstrings of Gen X.

Older folks will also derive huge pleasure from visiting. The museum’s exhibits explain the magic of the movies, without diminishing the joy that comes from seeing that magic well executed.

Early Film Projector, Museum of the Moving Image, Queens
Dawn of the Talkies

But I wonder a bit how folks in their teens and 20s might respond to this place. In an era when computers play so much of the role in creating the magic of the movies, and YouTube and Snapchat creates instant celebrities, I’m not sure there’s much beyond idle curiosity about how things worked in “the olden days.”

Whatever generation you’re from, if you have any kind of affection for the Muppets, go ASAP. If you’ve ever been struck by a star (hopefully not in the Sean Penn sense), or moved by a movie, I’m confident you will enjoy this museum.  And finally, while I don’t normally do this, if you are planning a visit, I recommend Tacuba, the taco place across the street, as a great lunch or drink venue.

Kaufman Astoria Studios, Queens

For Reference:

Address 36-01 35th Ave, Queens
Cost  General Admission:  $15
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