Contributing to Film History
The Army Pictorial Center website was
able to contribute to some pre-Army film history.
Using the aerial view of APC, above,
author John Bengston was able to identify street locations used
by Buster Keaton around the Astoria Studio in 1936.
of APC from the air was sent in by
Ron Hutchinson (HUTCHINSON,
RON, SP5, still photographer, assistant cameraman and
projectionist, January 1961 to January 1963).
Hutchinson also provided a number of APC photos from that
the author of a series of books about Charlie Chaplin, Buster
Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, entitled Silent
Echoes, and Silent Visions,
respectively. His books examine the historical settings
preserved in the background of their classic films, and the
changes wrought by the ensuing decades.
Bengston was able to use the APC aerial shot to identify
Keaton’s street locations.
See Bengston’s research here:
"I had good friends at work," wrote Martha Ruth Ferris, who
worked in Lab Branch during World War II.
"One man taught me insulting Yiddish, another taught me
nice Yiddish. The
supervisor was a veteran and Italian, my favorite was a veteran
and from NC who knew how to get gas coupons and gave me a ride
to work in the last year or so." Read more of her
recollections at Marth Ruth
While not a part of the story of the Army Pictorial Center,
Signal Corps still and motion picture photography was an
important part of Army history and laid the foundation for
establishing this important photographic center in Astoria, New
the advent of online services, many examples of Signal Corps
work can be found. Among those is this topic.
Between the Wars: The Lincoln Highway
The Centennial of the 1919 Army Motor
Train journey from the White House to Lincoln Park in San
Francisco brought some early Signal Corps film work to the
attention of Donald M. Scott. The convoy, to dedicate the
Lincoln Highway, included a Signal Corps movie crew, who filmed
highlights of much of the journey.
IN FOCUS: A
TROVE OF APC HISTORY
Army Pictorial Center's monthly newsletter, In Focus, highlighted
film production, history and daily life in Astoria. Eleanore (Mencik)
Jettmar supplied a stack of In Focus copies from 1959 to 1964. Stories
excerpted from In Focus will appear here, but for now, you can read the PDF
Eleanore finished her service as secretary to the commander, and
she filed away various documents like In Focus for future reference. The
In Focus record fills in some details about APC.
This article appeared in the anniversary issue, In Focus March 1962:
OF MAKING FILMS
FOR ARMY SIGNAL CORPS
Twenty years! The end of March brings to a climax the salute from approximately
700 civilian employees and 300 military personnel to Army Pictorial Center as it
goes into the 20th year of producing training and information films for troops
around the world.
It was 20 years ago that a small detachment of service men came from the
Training Film Production Laboratory (TFPL) at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey, to
Astoria on 1 March to take possession of the old Paramount studios.
Little did this small band of soldiers realize they not only were occupying
buildings extremely rich in history of the fascinating world of entertainment
but taking part in a venture that would be emblazoned in the annals of Army
Early Use Of Films
But this wasn't the beginning of the move by Army technicians entering the
business world of producing motion pictures. It started years before.
During World War I, this branch of service made use of films in training through
social hygiene pictures made by medical units. By 1918 nearly 100 reels of
training films had been acquired by the Signal Corps before the Armistice was
Production slackened and finally ceased until 1928 when the Army again went into
the motion picture field.
Production was disrupted once more with the coming of that age of "talkies."
After 1932 a steady schedule of training films was produced in the Signal Corps
Photographic Laboratory at the War College in Washington, D. C.
This unit later moved to quarters at Ft. Monmouth. Then came the year 1940.
Hundreds of thousands or men were being drafted into service. The film program
expanded so that special arrangements had to be made for its housing.
Paramount's Eastern Service Studios in Astoria came into the picture. After
searching for adequate facilities, the Army closed its option on the purchase of
the Paramount studios -- built at an estimated price or $10 million -- on 27
Although possession of the studios was taken on 1 March, actual work on
extensive alterations to permit the housing of troops and adaptation of the
buildings to Army film production requirements wasn't begun until 22 March. WPA
workers were brought in to help clean up the buildings. Department of Sanitation
trucks from New York City were lined up outside the buildings in the mornings to
carry away unwanted articles.
On 8 May TFPL and the motion picture section of the photographic school moved
from Ft. Monmouth to the studios to be known as the Signal Corps Photographic
Center (SCPC). They were followed on 26 May by the school's still picture
Colonel Melvin E. Gillette became the first Commanding Officer of the studios
where only a few years before Walter Wanger reigned over his Paramount regime.
This original band of officers and enlisted men witnessed a complete facelifting
of the Paramount facilities which had stood in comparative idleness for quite
some time after the company moved its headquarters to Hollywood.
This progress was also seen by 60 civilians still working at the Center who came
here in 1942.
Studios previously used to produce such firsts as a big feature musical --
"Coconuts" starring the Marx Brothers – and a full-length sound picture -- "The
Letter" with Jeanne Eagles – changed appearances for Army purposes.
The areas where the Post Exchange and TV Maintenance are now located were made
into living quarters Ior the servicemen. The wooden buildings behind the present
cafeteria were constructed for barracks (original plans for a four story brick
building were discarded).
Military personnel were also housed in hotels throughout the city.
The orderly room was located where TV studio's control room is now.
The present post cafeteria was then a mess hall. A troop recreation area was
installed in the spaces now occupied by TV Operations and Intelligence Office.
Dressing rooms previously used by such famous personalities as Walter Huston,
Maurice Chevalier, Billy Burke, Gertrude Lawrence, Char les Ruggles, Rudolf
Valentino, Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, Tallulah Bankhead, Preston Foster, Richard
Dix, William Powell, Gloria Swanson, Frederick March, Gary Cooper, Claudette
Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Lionel Barrymore and many more were converted into
working areas for the deluge of employees to come.
The acquisition from Paramount included just the studio areas located in
Buildings One and Two. Other buildings were later leased or purchased as the
demand for them grew.
Building 13 was used by a civilian firm as an aeronautical school to teach Air
Force recruits before being purchased for use by the Center.
The photography school was conducted a few blocks away on Broadway. An obstacle
course was built elsewhere in Long Island City to train cameramen for combat
duties. Animation was housed in Manhattan on the top floors of a 13-story
building at 32nd Street close to Lexington Avenue. Film was stored in a building
on Crescent Street in Astoria.
The smaller buildings on 35th Street opposite the rear gate of Buildings One and
Two were leased to house the Motor Pool until the APO building at 48th Street
and Northern Boulevard was made available by the Army.
The present barracks in Building 24 were constructed by Army engineers in 1953.
Before that time the space had been used as a parking lot.
There are 12 men employed here today who came to the Center in 1942 as military
personnel. They tell of the times when they had to fallout in the mornings for
reveille on 36th Street—also for inspections and drill. They remember marching
up and down this street early in the morning shouting cadence.
On days when weather was bad such drills would be held on the main stage.
Autograph hounds would line up outside the rear gate during the early years of
the Center hoping for a chance to see their favorite movie idols who were
stationed here as service men.
Many Hollywood personalities, including actors, technicians and directors were
at SCPC in 1942 and 1943.
Formal dedication ceremonies of the Center were held 22 September 1942, with
such dignitaries as New York City's Mayor F. H. La Guardia and Major General
Dawson Olmstead, Chief Signal Officer on hand with Col. Gillette for speeches.
The occasion, with liberal coverage by the nation's press, was described as not
only being "an important one for the military services, but it was a historical
occasion for the cinema industry, recognizing, as it did, the part that visual
education plays in our modern, mechanized streamlined Army."
The ceremonies were broadcast by radio station WJZ~ the Blue Network's 50,000
-watt outlet in New York, and picked up by 140 stations on a coast-to-coast
SCPC had a two-fold mission during the war: To produce training and educational
films which would help to teach men soldiering quickly and to teach
photographers the art of making combat pictures. Personnel reached an
approximate strength of 3,000 during the war.
With today's personnel force around one-third the size it was then, a year's
production program and the selection of film subjects is not a hit-or-miss
affair, but a well-considered, well-planned decision based on the training needs
of the Army's various agencies, weighed and evaluated in reference to the needs
of the entire Army.
After the final decision has been made, scripts are written, casting done,
stages set, and film shot, developed, edited and synchronized with sound. The
job couldn't be called completed until distribution of these training and
information films is made through a network of film libraries throughout the
The Army has been rewarded not only by speeding up training of its soldiers but
has been honored by numerous organizations for films produced at the Center .
. Among the top honors were three "Oscars" awarded by the Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences. “Seeds of Destiny" in 1946 and "Towards
Independence" in 1948 were termed as the most outstanding documentary short
"Prelude To War" in 1942 also won an "Oscar" for its "outstanding achievement.
The film "Operation Blue Jay" was nominated for another "Oscar" in 1953 as the
best documentary short subject.
Among other honors are these top awards: The U. S. Camera Achievement Award in
1942 in recognition of outstanding achievement in photography; National
Headliner's Club Award for "best newsreel reporting” in 1944; National Committee
on Films for Safety accorded highest honors in the general safety field for
non-theatrical films produced or released in 1950 for "Once Too Often" and again
in 1953 for "On Post Safety”; Venice International Exhibition of Cinematographic
Art first prize for natural science film "Rodent Control" in 1951 and "Schistosomiasis"
in 1948; Freedom's' Foundation Award for the film "Voices of the People" in
1949, "Communism" in 1950 and "International Communism" in 1953.
Talents and professional skills of Hollywood celebrities stationed at SCPC as
military personnel during its early years were put to good use in many of the
films produced here.
Among these personalities were William Saroyan, John Huston, Frank Capra,
William Holden, Carl Laemm1e, Jr., Jesse Lasky, Jr., and Harry Warner, Jr.
Another important phase of production at the Center is the work done by
Television Division. Although a comparatively new-comer to the Army, television
has left a definite mark.
Television came to the Center on 13 July 1951, with the assignment here of a
mobile TV unit. This was detached to Fort Monmouth until adequate facilities and
manpower could be attained. Originally this unit was equipped with four
bus-type vans. After a few trips to the field, the vans were termed impractical
and were converted to tractor-trailers in 1953.
Kinescope recording equipment was authorized shortly thereafter when Washington
was convinced that such facilities would be advantageous in that filmed programs
could be shown over and over again.
TV Studios Added
This new equipment was anything but idle in its infancy at the Center. Personnel
would hardly get a chance to take a quick look at the installation before they
would leave with the field unit once more.
During this time television was proving to military leaders its significance to
Perhaps the year 1954 was the one of greatest expansion for the TV Division.
Other mobile units were added and a complete, modern studio was installed where
the troops slept before Building 24 was constructed.
During 1954 both CBS and NBC television networks used the facilities, equipment
and personnel in the studios here for coast-to-coast hook-ups. One of these
shows won NBC and the Army Signal Corps the coveted "Peabody Award" for its
In 1956 the first television cameraman's class was started. This successful
course was conducted for two years and discontinued because it was felt the
supply of cameramen was sufficient.
Color Unit Received
Through the years TV cameras manned by Center crews have been trained on many
important events, including: parachute jumps of tactical exercises with a
portable camera; launching of missiles; Armed Forces Day celebrations; national
defense exercises; and the presidential inauguration ceremonies of both Dwight
D. Eisenhower in 1957 and John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Another first in the Army was achieved in November 1958 when APC received a
mobile color television unit—among the first in the entire TV industry.
History repeated itself again in the month of the Center's 20th anniversary when
yet another color van was delivered.
Advancement continues today in the TV studios and field units as more and more
technical knowledge in telecasting is continually strived for.
A history of the Center couldn't be complete without the mention of another new
phase of pictorial science—photo instrumentation.
Such a mission was assigned to APC in 1959. Photo instrumentation involves the
application of photography to scientific or engineering purposes. It is the
recording on photographic film and other light or radiation sensitive materials
of phenomena under scientific observation, which later can be analyzed and
This division of the all-important work day after day here also continues to be
analyzed and the stress is on constant improvement of services.
Indeed, as history was once made here by commercial film makers, it will
continue to be made by the Army as production continues at a high rate of speed.
There are approximately 300 to 350 projects in some phase of production per
fiscal year with over 600 reels completed a year and film processed at the rate
of four to five million feet per month.
Headlines, stories and photos that previously
appeared on this home page may have moved to Yesterday's Headlines, where you
can still find helpful links.
A FOXHOLE ON WHEELS
OTHER PHOTO UNITS: 497TH SIGNAL COMPANY
Army demonstrated drones for reconnaisance
Book editor seeks rights to
Film industry in WWII: Producer needs film, stills
Fred Harris remembers
Television photographers and sound men
Norton S. Parker
Cameraman Bernard J.
TV host detained
Cameras for atomic tests
(Updated September 3, 2018.)