If circumstances had been different, Rochelle Slovin might have been a film director. "I grew up in a conventional period," she says. "Had I not been a woman, I would be directing and producing."
As things stand, Slovin is content to be the founding director of Queens, N.Y.-based American Museum of the Moving Image. A preservation house for film- and TV-related artifacts, Moving Image differentiates itself from the Manhattan-based Museum of Television and Radio, which deals exclusively with programming and tape recordings.
When she accepted the post in 1981, the museum had a minuscule budget of $90,000 and an idea. Seven years and $45 million later, Moving Image opened with an archive of more than 90,000 items—most donated—from which a core exhibition was drawn. With a focus on the how and why of television and cinema, the museum is outfitted with a 200-seat auditorium and features experiment television models dating back to the medium's infancy, as well as merchandise from such shows as I Love Lucy
and Welcome Back Kotter, props, and demonstrations of equipment and techniques. In recent years, it has added digital media and has taken to the road with a travelling exhibition.
As a girl, Slovin staged backyard theatricals at her family's South Shore Long Island home. Her enthusiasm for theater gave way to performances at New York's theater-oriented Henry Street Settlement Playhouse. "I loved the world that existed on the stage," she says. "Living in that fantasy space."
At the end of her Henry Street days, Slovin campaigned for 1952 Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. She was 12 years old. "I would say I had an interest even younger than that," she explains. "You hear dinner talk. You see the newspaper. I don't think that is very unusual."
Stevenson got creamed by Dwight Eisenhower, but Slovin's thirst for both acting and activism never slackened, even though her parents openly disapproved of her show-business pursuits.
As the '60s dawned, she returned to New York from Cornell University and joined avant-garde theater company La Mama. Two years later, in 1965, she joined the anti-Vietnam organization Women Strike for Peace and became close to the group's leader, New York activist Bella Abzug.
Married and pregnant with her second son, Slovin quit La Mama in 1967. "I didn't have the ego strength for theater, to face the inevitable rejection of theater."
But she kept her activism bug. She worked on Abzug's 1970 congressional campaign, got a job with the city planning department and went to Columbia University to get a master's degree in business. By 1977, she was back in the arts, as director of the publicly funded New York City Artists Project. Three years later, the program was defunct.
A year later, she was called upon by members of the Astoria Motion Picture and Television Foundation to head the re-opening of the Astoria Studios for feature-film production, a project that she would steer into the American Museum of the Moving Image.
"I think of myself as a non-profit impresario," Slovin says. "It involves politics, urbanism, the arts and my business education. And it's theatrical."
With more than 80,000 annual visitors and an archive that is "bursting at the seams," Slovin does not rule out possible expansion. For the time being, though, growth will happen only in cyberspace. "We are undertaking a major initiative to catalog and make our collection accessible via the Web."
Slovin remains an active supporter of theater and political campaigns. Sons Karl and Eric have fulfilled her childhood dream, becoming, respectively, a film director/producer and Saturday Night Live
writer and comic.