2016-07-20 / Features

Local Express

Hal Rosenbluth

Having worked at Kaufman Astoria Studios (34-12 36th St., Astoria) for over 30 years, Hal Rosenbluth now proudly serves as the President and CEO of the company, overseeing what major expansions and programs to better aid the studios. He played major roles in creating the studio’s— and New York City’s—only backlot, as well as building multiple stages and even expanding the K/A/S Lighting company.

After graduating from the University of Florida as a marketing and advertising major, Rosenbluth ventured to New York, where he worked in the field briefly until he met George Kaufman and started working with him on creating the studios.

Rosenbluth continues to give back to the Queens community, serves on the board of several organizations, including the Board of Directors of Long Island City Partnership, the Queens Council of the Arts, and Exploring the Arts.

QG: How did you make the leap from advertising to working with George Kaufman?


Hal Rosenbluth with a portrait of his dear departed dog, Burger. 
Photo Catherina Gioino Hal Rosenbluth with a portrait of his dear departed dog, Burger. Photo Catherina Gioino HR: I majored in advertising at the University of Florida, and where do you go when you major in advertising? I came to New York and I met George Kaufman. George is an amazing man who likes to mentor young people and bring them along—it establishes a loyalty for him and kind of a learning-together process. And he was just getting the RFP for these studios. I came in about nine months. So George said if you’re interested in the studio, I just got this. I took the chance to come here and work for George, and obviously it was one of the better moves I’ve made.

QG: What was the transition from advertising to movie studios and real estate like?

HR: It was an interesting time because we really needed to understand and learn the business – the real estate part he knew, but it was the studio part that was a learning process we had to deal with. And so I came in late 1980, and we started construction in October 1982. It took two years to finish the actual deal with the city, and two years to return the property from the federal government, and we’re able to break ground in October. What is now the museum was a foundation and the foundation was running the place. One of the first movies we made a deal with was “The Cotton Club.” So we started the full services facility with “The Cotton Club.”

QG: Prior to George Kaufman’s development of the studios, the facilities were owned by the Army, up until the 1970s. After they left the property abandoned, 35th Avenue was like a ghost town. How did you and George transform the avenue to what it is today?

HR: When we got here there was nothing. Part of it was from discussions with George, like “How do we use the stages as an anchor, in order to reinvigorate this neighborhood?” Back then, parents didn’t want their kids to come south of Broadway because the army, who held this from 1940 to 1970 employing thousands of people, spending tons of money in the area, go away. The army leaves, leaves the property to the city which was going through bankruptcy in 1970, and so the building sat vacant. And they were vandalized. So parents didn’t let their kids come south of Broadway because in a parent’s mind, nothing good happens in an abandoned building, and in a kid’s mind, only fun happens in abandoned buildings. So it created this real disconnect in the community, and one of the goals I had when I got here was not only to invigorate the neighborhood, but how to reconnect the buildings with the neighborhood. And “How do I make this part, 35th Avenue, part of the neighborhood structure as a whole?” That was really one of the goals.

QG: Were you worried about seeming too aggressive, as if you were trying to take over the whole neighborhood?

HR: One of the exciting parts of coming to work here was not only in real estate development, to build stages and redevelop the area and urge productions to come here, but in the back of the mind of everything was to accomplish those goals of reinvigorating the neighborhood and making the connection with the neighborhood and art. And so it was pretty challenging to put ourselves up to try to make that happen. So that took a lot of money, time, and effort. We knew we didn’t want to be the 800-pound gorilla. That’s how people viewed our organization: the big bad giant from Manhattan was going to eat us all up. That really wasn’t the goal at all, but it was to strategically purchase some properties and bring others in on the development because there’s no way you can do the whole thing on your own. That’s really how the whole process took place and for me, I’m extremely proud that we’re the first Kaufman productions to come here. When I stand on the avenue, I look left and right remembering how it was.

QG: How exactly did you get this whole avenue to change in the first place?

HR: To create this concept and to do things that we don’t normally do, it’s like the Yiddish word, tumul, meaning chaos, activity. To create tumul, in our mind, we asked “How do you get a movie theater? How do you get a restaurant to come out here?” During those times, the only franchise restaurants out here were Burger King, KFC, and McDonalds. Chains like Pizzeria Uno weren’t common to this neck of the woods. So to get them to come, and to get the theater chain to come, started to create that tumul. Their success allowed another landlord across the street to bring Applebees and Panera Bread in, which then allowed us to bring Starbucks in. Starbucks finally brought credibility to the neighborhood. People thought to come to the avenue for coffee. It’s an interesting real estate idea, but to hear it come from the outside in those terms, “You now brought credibility to the avenue,” it kind of gave it the idea that it was happening.

QG: Years later, this area is now home to Queens’ only arts district, the Kaufman Arts District. How did that transform, from creating tumul to becoming known as an art scene?

HR: The arts aspect of it is because it is the arts aspect of it. We have the Queens Council of the Arts on the campus, we have Astoria Performing Arts Center on the campus, we have the Theater Development Fund on the campus, we have motion pictures made here, we have television series made here, we have the Museum of the Moving Image here – this is an arts area. Jimmy Van Bramer in the City Council bestowed upon us the designation of Kaufman Arts District as the first arts district in the borough and we are working hard in that direction. It’s sort of a work in progress, making people really know it as the arts district and get more creative. What we believe the studio has done is make it a draw for people to move into the neighborhood and we see that on an ongoing basis. So that’s how we view it, as a compilation of things, with business and restaurants wanting to be a part of things. And bringing more music and trying to bring in the Queens music scene here in Astoria. It’s a work in progress because it’s a subtle growth in the neighborhood from the residential side of life.

What people didn’t understand about George as a developer, when Tony Bennett called and said, “I have an idea,” the idea was he wanted to build a school of the arts. And he wanted it in Astoria since he was from Astoria, and for it to belong to the studio. George said “I agree” and told me to get it done. Not, “how much money can we get for the property,” but “get it done” because in his mind it fit the puzzle piece. It fit in the puzzle that he was trying to do at Kaufman Astoria. So these are the pieces of the puzzle that helped create what you have here. And we weren’t here to be that 800- pound gorilla, we weren’t here to control what others do. It continued to grow this neighborhood into something special.

This column was originated in July 2013 by Nicollette Barsamian.

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