At the start of
World War II, the U. S. Army acquired a defunct motion picture studio at
35th Avenue and 35th Street in Astoria, Long Island City, Queens, New York,
taking over in February 1942. The studio became the Signal Corps
Photographic Center, later Army Pictorial Center, home to filmmakers and
still photographers who
covered the war and who produced countless training films.
The studio was
built in 1919 as Famous Players-Lasky ("Famous Players in Famous
Plays") to take advantage of the availability of talent on nearby
Broadway and in the New York area. It was subsequently converted for
sound pictures. As Paramount's east coast center, it was shuttered in
After serving as the Army's
photographic center, studio and film library for 28 years, the Army Pictorial Center
was ordered closed in 1970. The studio fell into disuse, but was subsequently sold
and renovated as Kaufman Astoria
Studios, now a production center for top filmmakers.
About the name
When it was established in 1942,
the studio was designated by the Army as the Signal Corps Photographic
Center. Later, it was called the Signal Corps Pictorial Center,
and this is the title you see at the end of films like the Big Picture
series. Finally it was called the Army Pictorial Center.
The history of SCPC/APC is told
in the Army's history of World War II. Here's an excerpt from "U. S.
Army in World War II: The Technical Series: The Signal Corps: The Test," at
The Signal Corps own
production facilities expanded rapidly in the first year of war, but for
some months the Army's photographic needs grew even faster. By midyear
1942 the widening scope of responsibilities had raised the Photographic
Division of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer to the organizational
level of a "service," designated the Army Pictorial Service (APS) on 17
Pearl Harbor brought to an
abrupt close the debate over whether or not the Signal Corps should
purchase the Paramount Studio at Astoria, Long Island, which was on the
market. For months, Col. Melvin E. Gillette, commander of the Signal
Corps Training Film Production Laboratory (SCTFPL) at Fort Monmouth, had
argued for the purchase. It would provide an up-to-date plant where all
training film production, processing, and distribution could be
consolidated, leaving the Signal Corps Photographic Laboratory (SCPL) at
Washington free to concentrate on still picture production. On 12
December 1941 the Chief Signal Officer urged that the studio be bought
without delay. By this time Paramount was less eager to sell, fearing to
concentrate all its production on the west coast lest the Japanese
attack that area. After some hesitation the firm consented and the
property was acquired.
In February 1942 the War
Department authorized the Chief Signal Officer to activate the plant as
the Signal Corps Photographic Center (SCPC), an exempted activity under
his control. After alterations had been made to provide
accommodations for troops, the Photographic Ceriter opened in May, with
Colonel Gillette in command. The modest Fort Monmouth Training Film
Production Laboratory moved over to Long Island. The replacement
training center's courses in still photography were transferred also and
consolidated with the motion picture courses of the laboratory to form
the Training Division of the new Signal Corps Photographic Center.
After six months of war the Signal Corps had an up-to-date plant for
producing films and for training photographic technicians.
The cameraman's tool, above: "Motion Picture Field Caption
Sheet," a half-inch thick 4x6-inch booklet of tear-off sheets ...
... that recorded the information for Army filmmakers, for the film library
at the Motion Picture Depository, and for countless documentary producers
What was the Army post known
first as Signal Corps Photographic Center and later as Army Pictorial Center?
The center was a full service
motion picture and still photographic production, distribution and storage
facility with all the capabilities of any movie studio in the world.
It was one of the answers to the military challenges of World War II.
Army planners understood the need
for training and propaganda material on an unprecedented scale.
America had to convert hundreds of thousands of civilians into
combat-ready soldiers and airmen, people from all walks of life, from all
backgrounds and from all levels of education and skill.
Reaching large audiences who represented widely varied levels of
education and literacy meant using motion pictures and still photos.
While it might be – and was -- possible to contract with existing film
companies to produce training films, the Army saw a need to manage its own,
dedicated studio where operations could be fully controlled and where sensitive
or classified material could be prepared and stored with confidence.
It may be difficult for
people today to understand how different the culture was in the early 1940s.
About 90 percent of the population went to the movies at least once a week.
Commercial television was still years away, so movie newsreels and short
subject supplied visual news and information. The Army saw the need to
inform and educate the public about the threat the country faced and what
the country was doing to meet that threat. The Army was also preparing
to train hundreds of thousands of soldiers about a bewildering range of
topics. These were people who were already familiar with the motion
picture as an information source. The way to reach these vast
audiences, of civilians and of GIs, was through the motion picture.
And so, in May 1942, Army
troops entered the former Paramount eastern services studio in Astoria, New
York, and began preparing the place for work.
Some of those G.I.s of 1942 stayed with the studio in peacetime.
Sergeant Joseph J. Lipkowicz was with the SCPC unit when it marched in on
the first day in 1942, and he retired as civilian chief of Camera Branch when it
closed in 1970. Those who were there on that first day remember setting to work
to clean out the place, throwing out old movie props and unneeded equipment to
make way for the Army … which then spent the next three decades collecting its own unique set of
props and equipment.
Signal Corps Photographic Center
became a home for many skilled individuals who served in World War II. Memories of soldiers indicate that a background or talent in
film production or photography could be a ticket to assignment to SCPC.
Personnel who served there ranged from well-known industry names like
Frank Capra and John Huston to countless, uncredited GIs and civilians who
made the place work.
SCPC/APC had all the facilities
of a complete movie studio. The
main stage was the largest sound stage on the east coast, making it possible to
prepare large sets or to construct multiple smaller sets for fast production. There were also smaller stages.
Facilities included offices for writers and producers, a sound mixing
room, screening rooms, animation and special effects departments, laboratory,
library, and all the other elements needed to produce films.
It was a one-stop shop for film production.
The film and photographic
library, the Army Motion Picture Depository, stored and distributed films
produced by and for the Army. The
library served as a single, central source for Army film.
It held raw footage and combat film from around the world and,
ultimately, from across three decades. It
was the place where Army units could request training films.
It was also the source where filmmakers, including civilian producers,
could come to find documentary footage of Army operations.
Distribution and control was simplified by concentrating on this single
The laboratory provided on-site
processing, so handling, security, screening of daily footage was simplified.
Soldier and civilian workers made
SCPC/APC their home base while traveling around the world to cover Army
activities. Combat cameramen
shipped their footage to Astoria. People
rotated in and out of the studio, going off to other assignments or to temporary
duty, and then returning. Temporary
duty – TDY – became a way of life as crews were shipped to Army camps and
combat theaters to cover events and to shoot footage for Army productions.
Those frequent travels remained a hallmark of life at the center.
The studio always featured a mix
of military and civilian personnel. The
post was commanded by an Army colonel. During
World War II, many of the talented filmmakers were experienced civilians who
volunteered or had been drafted for military duty.
Famous names of the era received officer’s commissions, like Lt. Col.
Capra. Others served at lower
ranks, like Pvt. William Saroyan.
Troop Command supplied barracks
for the soldiers. Former soldiers
recall memories of SCPC troop units marching the city streets of Queens …
after all, this was the Army. Bemused
city residents would watch as soldiers blocked traffic at intersections to let
the marching troops pass.
Many others who worked there
lived in the New York area, and many of those who started as G.I.s and stayed as
civilians remained as residents in the region.
The Army gained the same benefit
from the studio’s location that former owner Paramount (and subsequent owner
Kaufman Astoria Studios) enjoyed. New
York offered a wealth of talent for film. Not
only were actors readily available from the stage-film-radio-television scene of
the city, but producers, directors, writers, cameramen, sound operators, and
other skilled crew members were on call.
The studio developed a dedicated
staff of operational personnel who handled the less glamorous but necessary work
needed to make films, such as lab technicians, film librarians, artists,
printers, shipping clerks, and on and on.
Films produced at the center met
a wide range of needs. In the
beginning, production was done in 35mm – mainly black and white, of course.
Combat and field coverage – often shot with Eyemo and Filmo cameras –
included both 35mm and 16mm footage. Distribution
was often on 16mm film for showing in field conditions but also on 35mm for
presentation in theaters. Later,
color film became a staple, and field production began to rely on 16mm color
negative, although 35mm remained the preferred stock for stage productions.
While often recognized for
training films that taught soldiers everything from personal hygiene to
camouflage, the center produced, distributed and archived just about every kind
of film, including the extensive archive of combat footage.
In addition to training troops, films were made to influence civilian
populations both at home and abroad. Franks
Capra’s “Why We Fight” series gave American citizens understanding of
World War II. In the Cold War era,
“The Big Picture” told stories of history and current events to a national
television audience. Training films
used skilled actors, convincing sets and dramatic scripts to visualize the
lessons being taught. The results
were films that made a lasting impression on their G.I. audiences, illustrated
by the many requests the studio received over the years from commanders who
sought obsolete and long-retired titles that were so memorable from their own
Using its studio capabilities,
the Army mounted everything from elaborate musical scenes to mundane office
sets. On the main stage, you might find a field commander’s World
War II tent or a Civil War battlefield.
Combat coverage spanned three
wars – World War II, Korea and Vietnam – with photographers and crews from
the center travelling to all of the fighting fronts.
During World War II, when air power was still the Army Air Force, combat
camera crews brought back film of the air war as well as ground combat.
While soldiers all around loaded and fired weapons, SCPC cameramen in
those same foxholes would be changing film and capturing some of the most
enduring pictures in history.
The center was well equipped and
made a point of keeping up with, and sometimes setting the trend for, new
Sound Branch converted from
optical film to magnetic tape to mix sound tracks when the new technology became
available. And that department
pioneered the use of music-and-effects, or M&E, tracks, where the mix of
sound tracks without dialogue or narration was recorded separately to allow
revision of the voice track if needed.
Special Effects, the mechanical
and physical effects department, included such capabilities as rear projection,
state of the art for that era. And
that department pioneered the use of linked-focus cameras on copy stands, to
shoot camera moves of flat art, an essential tool for a studio that used a lot
of maps, titles and photos in its films.
Animation could produce fully
animated films. When the Army
closed the studio, the Animation Department was still using an animation stand
that had been built by soldier John Oxberry, whose Oxberry brand became the
Camera Branch stocked an
extensive set of cameras, lenses, dollies, cranes and related equipment,
including an assortment of then-industry-standard Mitchell 35mm cameras such as
the studio standard BNC model. In later years, the center kept up with an industry trend and
added Arriflex models.
The studio also collected a
surprising variety of antique equipment, items that were props, relics of early
days or tools needed for a special job. For
example, Sound Branch retained a disc recorder capable of playing the soundtrack
records from Vitaphone days. Camera
Branch held an extensive array of hand-cranked cameras – such as 35mm
Universals, Pathes and others – from the silent film era.
The films of APC/SCPC were
quality productions, winning many awards over the years, including two Academy
of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards – Oscars – and several other
APC/SCPC was a unique,
single-purpose facility that served the Army and the nation well, in time of
wartime need and peacetime opportunity, to train soldiers and to inform
civilians. It’s output of
training and information films made a significant contribution to the speed of
America’s response to world war after Pearl Harbor.
The studio was the ultimate weapon in a war of mobilization and training,
of information and ideas.