Documentary gets nostalgic for iconic restaurant chain Automat

Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg sing the praises of the old New York Automat

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As a child, I couldn’t understand why my mother had a passion for Automat, a kind of self-service cafeteria in New York.

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For me, inserting coins into a slot to unlock food displayed behind a window conjures up visions of macabre vending machine coffee or cellophane baked goods.

But for my mother, who spent several years raising four young children more than an hour from Manhattan, where my father worked, the Automat represented a rare day off, where she could visit the art museum and eat a meal she hadn’t cooked herself.

“It was a New York thing,” she said, recalling how she imagined herself as an aspiring writer living in the Big Apple as she sat in the bustling restaurant.

Turns out mom isn’t the only person with fond memories of the Automat.

Colin Powell holds a photo of himself at the Automat circa 1943. Photo courtesy A slice of Producti Pie

Comic book whiz Mel Brooks, late actor Carl Reiner, late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz and late U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell are among the luminaries who sing the praises of the former restaurant chain Horn & Hardart in the documentary L’Automate, screening Monday at 7 p.m. at the Cinéma du Parc.

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Brooks, 95, even wrote and performed a theme song for the movie, “At the Automat.”

What about the old restaurant chain, founded in Philadelphia in 1902, which transports old customers to lyrical heights?

“It was such an egalitarian place,” filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz said in an interview from New York.

Automat director Lisa Hurwitz.
Automat director Lisa Hurwitz. Photo by Kristina Bumphrey /StarPix

“It was part of the fabric of everyday life in New York and Philadelphia,” added Hurwitz, who will be in Montreal to participate in a Q&A with the audience after Monday’s screening.

Inspired by mechanized restaurants in Germany, Horn & Hardart, which boasted art deco interiors with marble countertops, became the largest restaurant chain in the United States during its heyday, even though it operated only in those two cities.

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For a nickel in the 1950s, you could get a great cup of coffee with a dolphin-shaped spout.

A few extra coins produced hot dishes ranging from Salisbury steak to mac and cheese.

Unseen attendants guarded the wall of brass and glass compartments filled with piping hot plates of food.

At 32, Hurwitz is too young to have dined at Automat, whose last restaurant closed in 1991. The fledgling filmmaker hatched the project while a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia. , in Washington State, where the cafeteria has become his second home.

“It made me think of cafeterias,” said Hurwitz, who researched the subject at the library, where she came across a doctoral dissertation on Horn & Hardart by tech historian Alec Shuldiner, who appears in the film and is a co-producer.

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While working as a projectionist and film festival director at a local historic cinema, Hurwitz met Jaws screenwriter Carl Gottlieb.

Gottlieb then spotted Hurwitz’s Kickstarter campaign for the documentary and contacted it to say that the Automat had been an important place for him.

“I’m having dinner with my friend Mel Brooks tonight,” he told her. “Do you mind if I tell him about your project?”

Mel Brooks drinks coffee at the Automat in the early 1950s.
Mel Brooks drinks coffee at the Automat in the early 1950s. Photo by Carl Reiner /Courtesy of A Slice of Pie Productions

“I was so lucky he liked the Automat,” Hurwitz said of Brooks, creator of hilarious films including The Producers and Blazing Saddles.

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, a Brooklyn native, explains in the film how the iconic restaurant shaped his business vision.

Ginsburg and Powell shared their love of the Automat after Hurwitz contacted them by letter hoping they would remember it.

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She didn’t expect the wave of critical acclaim that greeted The Automat, which sparked a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 8.5 out of 10 on IMDB and 3½ stars on RogerEbert.com.

“The thrill of ‘The Automat’…is its blending of social and intellectual history with its anecdotal history…its portrayal of a largely lost aesthetic of everyday life,” wrote the New Yorker.

“I was just hoping to play at film festivals,” she said of the film, which, in addition to Monday’s screening, will be screened at Cinéma du Parc from Friday.

IN BRIEF: The Automaton will be screened Monday at 7 p.m. at the Cinéma du Parc, 3575, avenue du Parc. A question period will follow. It will also be screened from Friday. For information and tickets, visit cinemaduparc.com or call 514-281-1900.

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