Saturday, January 28, 2023

Stubs - The Automat


The Automat (2021) Starring Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elliott Gould, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner, Howard Schultz. Directed by Lisa Hurwitz. Written by  Michael Levine. Produced by  Lisa Hurwitz. USA Run Time: 79 minutes. Color. Documentary.

In 1902, Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart founded the first automat in the United States in Philadelphia. An automat, for those who might not know, are fast food restaurants wherein food and drink were served via vending machines. Inspired by Max Sielaff's AUTOMAT Restaurants in Berlin, Horn and Hardart would open their first in Philadelphia before opening one in New York City in 1912. At their height there would be in excess of 100 restaurants, as well as a popular chain of retail outlets.

Footage, not from the film, showing life at the Automat.

At first, items like coffee cost only a nickel. A patron would put a nickel in a slot, turn a handle and a door would open offering them everything from sandwiches to macaroni and cheese to pie. These restaurants became the center of their neighborhoods, providing a space where no one was refused service and patrons were encouraged to share tables. The rich and the poor were counted as their customers attracted by the prices and the quality of the food.

The automats got their start at the same period of time when man and machine were coming to terms with each other and inventive gadgets caught the fascination of the public. Automats provided an example of how machines could be used to serve man and pointed towards the future.

Happy with her own experience with the cafeteria at her college, Lisa Hurwitz read about others and came across the story of the Horn and Hardart’s Automats and decided to make a documentary about them. It was quite an undertaking for someone who had never done a film before. However, she was helped out significantly when a mutual friend introduced her to writer/director/actor Mel Brooks, who has buckets of happy memories about his experiences growing up in New York and going to the Automat.

Mel Brooks is the center of the film.

Brooks is sort of the center of the film, as he reminiscences and his enthusiasm for the project seem to take over the film. This is not a bad thing. Brooks, even though his films might be hit or miss, always seems to be a good interview, full of funny and interesting stories.

Carl Reiner has fond memories about the pie at the Automat.

Through Brooks, Hurwitz met Carl Reiner, his cohort from his Show of Shows days and his partner on the 2000-Year-Old Man act, and the creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Reiner, though not featured like Brooks, was also enthusiastic about the Automat.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell was a child, going to the Automat was a real treat.

Hurwitz also interviewed the likes of actor Elliott Gould, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the former mayor of Philadelphia W. Wilson Goode, all of whom have nothing but fond memories of their times at the Automats in their cities.

Mel Brooks' song “At the Automat” ends the film.

The New Orleans-style coffee was so good that Brooks would compose and record a song “At the Automat” literally singing its praises. Introducing that coffee was one of the reasons Hardart came to Philadelphia and worked with Horn.

Hurwitz also conducts interviews with Lorraine B. Diehl and Marianne Hardart, the authors of The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart's Masterpiece (2002); John W. Romas, the VP of Engineering, H&H; Norris Horn, Great Nephew of H&H Founder; Lisa Keller, New York City Historian; Edwin K. Daly Jr., Son of President of H&H; Paul Hardart, the Great Grandson of H&H Founder; and Alec Shuldiner, an Automat Historian, all of whom add context to the rise and fall of the restaurant chain. We do learn that one thing the founders did was support their workers, including setting up funds to help employees in financial straits and throwing elaborate parties to celebrate the holidays. There came a time when the workers refused to unionize because of how well they were being treated.

There is a bit of unforced irony in that one of the fans of the Automat and one of the interviewees was Howard Schultz, the Executive Chairman of Starbucks. He prided himself on bringing some of the Automat experience to Starbucks. Considering the high price coffee is a far cry from the nickel brew the Automat earned its reputation on and the unionization of some of the workers, it is hard to imagine that he’s actually done that as successfully as he thinks he has.

Director and producer of The Automat, Lisa Hurwitz.

There is a trick to making the history of a now defunct food chain a fun experience while still being informative. In her first time out, Lisa Hurwitz has managed that feat. She is helped by interesting people who have fond memories and inside information, but she deserves much of the credit, as it is her project. I hope that she can find another topic as interesting for her next film, especially if she does another documentary.

If you’re like me and have only heard about the Automats and never had the opportunity to visit one, The Automat maybe as close as you’ll ever get. The first-hand accounts will make you wish you could go back in time and visit it at least once.

1 comment:

  1. Overlapped with automats a little but never made big use of them. They filled a need; I wish there were one at work.