What do Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz have in common? They all fondly recall dining at Automat – the beloved DIY dining institution that lasted from 1902 to 1991 in New York and Philadelphia. Lisa Hurwitz’s detailed documentary, “The Automat” (In the theater), toasting Horn & Hardart’s restaurant chain, where comfort foods are housed in coin-operated glass cases lining the walls. Like a post office, but with delicious cakes and soups instead of bills.
The bustling Automats have combined marble and brass styles and an all-inclusive philosophy. Horn & Hardart’s last Automat store (on 42nd Street and 3rd Avenue) closed in 1991, following a rapid decline due to fast food chains, real estate trends and changing habits. The film, Hurwitz’s debut, is chock full of historical detail and varied interviews (including all of the fans above plus Mel Brooks, in one mind-bogglingly long film).
I spoke with Hurwitz about her spontaneous film, almost 10 years in the making. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Why does Automat hold a special place in so many people’s hearts? Do you have any personal connections?
Zilch. I grew up in Los Angeles, my mother is from the Midwest, my father is from LA When our family immigrated to America, we did not settle in New York. So I got interested from stumbling across it in the library. Finally, I made a short film in a nonfiction media class, a biography about Steve Stollman, Automator collector. I didn’t really start listening to people’s personal stories until I started [feature] filmed and talked to people in New York and Pennsylvania.
For those who are younger and remember going to Automat once or twice, it was an incredible experience, as a kid. For many kids, it’s the first time they get to choose what they want. Their parents will give them coins, and they can do what they want. But for older people, I think nostalgia is connected to the loved ones they went with who are no longer with them. They think about their grandparents, their parents. It is like a second home.
Crazy fan Mel Brooks sings in tribute to Automat, with an orchestra of 26. How come on?
When I was directing this festival in Olympia, Washington, we had a presentation of the 35mm 3-D “Jaws 3-D” film. We had one of the screenwriters, Carl Gottlieb, be part of that Mel Brooks circle. Carl and I became friends on Facebook after his visit to Olympia, so he saw my Kickstarter campaign pop up in his news feed. He sent me a text, “I’m having dinner with Mel Brooks tonight. Do you mind if I mention your project? “He used his Mel Brooks card on me! I really appreciate it.
Mel liked me and the project, and he asked what else he could do to help. I asked him if he would sing a song. I was going to write it for him, so all he had to do was go to the recording studio and perform it. He said, yes, sure, and maybe you and I, we can write something together, come up with some ideas. A few weeks later, he called me back and said, you know, Lisa, I’m writing some articles, and I have something. “Listen!” He started singing to me on the phone and that was the beginning of the song. Then a few weeks later, he had more. So he wrote the whole song. It’s the best thing anyone has ever done for me! Mel thinks I’m attractive in the best possible way, but he believes in the project. And I wanted music that was right for the times. I want it to feel like an old Hollywood movie.
Does the Automat represent American ideals in some ways, given its democratic approach?
It really does. And that’s a window into America over 100 years. It’s an important place for immigrants. When people arrived in New York, the Automat became part of their American story. It played an important role in Americanization, because it is an amazing environment: it has incredible food, it’s cheap, you don’t have to speak English, you can stay there for a while. time. You can get free fare like ketchup soup, lemonade, water. And a place to stay warm. I think Automat represents people coming together literally and metaphorically.
What surprised you the most when you learned about Automat?
The big moment was when I learned about Howard Schultz. The creator of what became the new Automat – ugh, I know people will hate me for saying that. But the way you see a Starbucks in every other block, that’s what you used to do with Automats in New York! So to hear Howard talk about how he doesn’t stop thinking about Automat when he thinks about how to develop Starbucks, I’m just salivating at this point. He can serve shoes on a plate for all I care, but the bottom line is that one of the most successful culinary entrepreneurs in the world is saying it. And it was easy to connect with him because at the time I lived in Seattle, which was like a little Jewish town.
If I had to choose one thing Automat is all about, it’s getting people together and taking their time. It’s not just Starbucks – there are millions of coffee shops out there. I just think it’s really healthy for society, for people, for us to stick together and sit at the table together.
What would you get if you could go to an Automat now?
Macaroni and cheese, whipped spinach, mashed potatoes. I will try all the cakes. And I definitely need to try the coconut custard tart that both Mel and Carl are talking about!
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/18/movies/automat-movie-interview.html ‘The Automat,’ Homemade Dinner Place