Character Study: A Lifetime Spent Wandering Through Celluloid History


The studio, which opened in 1920, was the original home of Paramount Pictures, a place where stars like Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, Gloria Swanson, the Gish sisters and Tallulah Bankhead once roamed.

The Army later took over the filmmaking studio, but Kaufman rebounded under different ownership in the 1980s, and since then, Mr. Romano — whether pulling weeds or negotiating contracts — has enjoyed a front-row seat on celluloid history.

While he is no film student, he can tell you, for instance, how extras were recruited for the nightclub scenes in the 1993 film “Carlito’s Way.”

“They’d send white vans out to clubs in Manhattan at 4 in the morning and bring people back to the set at Kaufman,” he recalled, adding that today television series are often shot on the studio’s spacious stages.

The mammoth E stage has 26,000 square feet and dates back to 1921, he said. The Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields once worked there, Mr. Romano said, walking past carpenters as they built a wooden cellblock for “Orange Is the New Black.”

He passed through G stage, currently a police precinct house for “Shades of Blue,” starring Jennifer Lopez, and then onto J stage, where “Sesame Street” has been filming since 1992.

The shows longtime sets have been tweaked over the years, he said. For example, Oscar the Grouch had to be persuaded to adapt to recycling, in accordance with changing sensibilities.

“Everything’s a focus group these days,” he said, walking beneath Mr. Snuffleupagus, suspended overhead.

Although he has met numerous stars while maintaining and running the East Coast’s most illustrious back lot, “I have never asked for one autograph,” he said.

Not even from Al Pacino, who stayed in character and in isolation while shooting the 2003 mini-series “Angels in America,” said Mr. Romano, who was rewarded with the glass-topped table from his dressing room for helping the actor.

Another prop, a painting of Reggie Jackson from “Arthur,” hangs in Mr. Romano’s office.

As a teenager, he and his uncle dressed as German storm troopers, working as extras in Woody Allen’s “Zelig.”

“My uncle fought in the Battle of the Bulge, so when they told us to say ‘Sieg Heil,’ he said, ‘No way I’m doing this,’ and walked off,” recalled Mr. Romano, who lives with his wife, Christine, and their son and daughter.

He entered a recording studio where Lady Gaga recorded duets with Tony Bennett, another Astoria native.

Mr. Bennett sang at the wedding of Mr. Romano’s parents, who ran a soda shop in Astoria. Young Tony would practice singing along with the jukebox, Mr. Romano said.

As for Lady Gaga, Mr. Romano was asked not to tell her about the 80,000 costumes kept by the Theater Development Fund Costume Collection in the basement.

“Her manager said, ‘If she gets in there, I’ll never get her out,’” he recalled, and walked through the Astor Room, a restaurant opened in recent years inside the studio’s original commissary, where stars like Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino once ate.

Mr. Romano recently extended the dining outdoors, into the restored main entrance alcove where Adolph Zukor used to pull up in his limousine.

“I figured, I’ve been sweeping this space since I was a kid, so why not?” he said. Then he said hello to his daughter, Alex, who waits tables there, along with his son, Sean.

Mr. Romano walked into the tiny Zukor Theater, just below Adolph Zukor’s old offices. He opened the studio in 1920 and used the cozy screening room to watch the daily rushes.

Mr. Romano keeps a popcorn maker there, and occasionally slips in with his family to watch movies.

When the Army took over the studio to make training and propaganda films, from 1942 to 1970, officials installed metal Faraday shielding “to block radio frequencies so the Germans couldn’t bug the room,” Mr. Romano said. He had the theater renovated recently but kept the Faraday panels, not to preserve family secrecy, but for the same reason he preserves other remnants of Kaufman Astoria’s century in celluloid.

“I figure, you know, it’s history,” he said, and headed off into the studios with Blue.

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