By Elias Savada.
The Automat shouldn’t be looked at as a eulogy [1902-1991], but as a celebration of its long and mostly successful life.”
“The food was delicious…the price was right.” So says the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in Lisa Hurwitz’s affectionate look at the lost era of the culinary emporium that was the Horn & Hardart Automat, those iconic art deco cathedrals that made its budget conscious customers feel like royalty. As a native New Yorker, of course I have very fond memories of eating as the one near Grand Central Station. When I visited my dad in the garment district and took the New Haven Railroad into the city, I loved stopping in this glorious beacon of wood and Carrara marble, with its shining metallic rows of cubbyhole dispensers on the walls, offering meals for nickels and some of the finest cakes and warm pies a youngster could savor. Turning the chrome-rimmed knobs after plunking in a few coins was like a legitimate slot machine everyone could win. Secretary of State Colin Powell was a fan of the creamed spinach (1 nickel) and the baked macaroni and cheese (2). For lots of folks, myself included, the baked beans were the best.
And boy did they make a great cup of joe, perfectly delivered from ornate dolphin head dispensers.
There’s lots of bygone affection and more than a few laughs as the film unfolds, thanks to an on-and-off commentary from Mel Brooks and some recollections from his late partner Carl Reiner. Yeah, they liked the automat because it was cheap.
Hurwitz, ventures into her first feature with a skillful grasp of her subject and an easygoing delivery. She spent 8 years interviewing her subjects and doing her research (even I did some copyright searches for her). After its premiere at last year’s Telluride Film Festival, and a host of other festival screenings since, it’s slowly getting out into theaters for your viewing pleasure, beginning with an engagement at New York City’s Film Forum on February 18th. It’s a quick, savory 79-minute bite.
From its humble beginnings in Philadelphia in 1902, it had a great run until a number of factors conspired to its downfall. For most of its near 90-year run, it was a haven to the common folk and a common outpost to heavenly celebrities. Peppered with vintage footage, photographs, clips from a host of the movies and television shows that used the restaurants as backdrops, and a lovely array of talking heads (descendants, former executives, their kin, historians, and fans), The Automat is a cinematic treat.
One of those people who knows too much about H&H is historian Alec Shuldiner, one of the film’s producers. He spouts out some lovely anecdotes and unusual facts. Did you know that in 1941 Philadelphia the popularity of Horn & Hardart (its automats and its talk home “Less Work for Mother” retail shops) was so immense it was feeding 10% of the city’s inhabitants? Another gem who shines throughout the film is John W. Romas, an engineer with the company for 40 years. It inspired many, including Starbucks founder Howard Schultz.
In the 1950s, the Chock Full of Nuts chain was selling its coffee for the same nickel as the Automat. When the latter was forced to double its price, Nuts kept it at 5¢ (by watering it down). Hurwitz found a lovely old television commercial that elevates the gallows humor about the H&H coffee to mournful tones. Three executives pace about a wood-paneled board room, moaning that Horn & Hardart’s customers are hurting the bottom line, because its coffee is too ridiculously expensive. One of the men is so despondent he takes what appears to be an even more bizarre step toward a nearby window. The somber voice-over artist intones, “It’s so good, we lose money on it.” In the post-WWII inflationary times, that price hike was like a stake through the heart. Newspapers claimed it was a “black day for coffee drinkers.” Demographics were changing as the 1960s arrived, and patrons began disappearing. After the company’s chief executive died unexpectedly, the chain lost its bearings, and its grandeur. The end was nigh. A very sad decades-long final chapter to a proud, well-respected business.
The Automat shouldn’t be looked at as a eulogy [1902-1991], but as a celebration of its long and mostly successful life. It was a welcomed stop for many Philadelphians and New Yorkers, and quite popular among tourists. Comedian Brooks, like most of the people in the film, was deeply affected by the wonderful memories it evoked for him. So much that he offers up the fully orchestrated tune At the Automat (arranged and produced by Hummie Mann, who also composed the film’s excellent score), waxing poetic about the coffee, as the end credits roll.
A story very well told, quite orderly in its presentation, and a heartfelt ode to its unique offerings and the folks who admired them. Whether you had the opportunity to visit an Automat, or not, you’ll grow nostalgic watching the film. Just do get upset when you mosey on up to the concession stand and plunk down a few bucks for a lukewarm beverage that pretends to be coffee. The real refreshment awaits you on screen, as you warm up with the love letter that is The Automat.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).