What do Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner and the former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz have in common? They all fondly recall eating at an Automat — that beloved institution of D.I.Y. dining that lasted from 1902 to 1991 in New York and Philadelphia. Lisa Hurwitz’s detailed documentary, “The Automat” (in theaters), toasts Horn & Hardart’s storied chain of restaurants, where comfort-food dishes perched in coin-operated glass boxes lining the walls. Sort of like a mailroom, but with delicious pie and soup instead of bills.
The bustling Automats merged marble-and-brass style and a come-one-come-all philosophy. Horn & Hardart’s last Automat (on 42nd Street and Third Avenue) closed in 1991, after a decline hastened by fast food joints, real estate trends and changing habits. The film, Hurwitz’s debut feature, teems with historical detail and varied interviews (including all of the above fans plus Mel Brooks, in a movie-length swoon).
I spoke with Hurwitz about her self-distributed film, which was nearly 10 years in the making. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Why does the Automat hold a special place in many people’s hearts? Do you have any personal connection?
Zilch. I grew up in Los Angeles, my mom is from the Midwest, my dad is from L.A. When our families emigrated to America, we did not settle in New York. So I became interested from stumbling upon it in the library. Eventually I made a short film in a nonfiction media class, a profile about Steve Stollman, the Automat collector. I didn’t really start hearing people’s personal stories until I started making the [feature] film and talking to people in New York and Pennsylvania.
For people who are younger and remember going to the Automat one or two times, it was this incredible experience, going as a kid. For a lot of kids, that was the first time they got to choose what they wanted. Their parents would give them coins, and they could do what they wish. But for older people, I think the nostalgia is connected to the loved ones they went there with, people who are no longer with them. They think about their grandparents, their parents. It was like a second home.
The superfan Mel Brooks sings a tribute to the Automat, with a 26-piece orchestra. How did that come about?
When I was directing this film festival in Olympia, Washington, we had a 3-D 35-millimeter presentation of “Jaws 3-D.” We had one of the screenwriters, Carl Gottlieb, who is part of that Mel Brooks circle. Carl and I became Facebook friends after his visit in Olympia, so he saw my Kickstarter campaign pop up in his newsfeed. He sent me a message saying, “I’m having dinner with Mel Brooks tonight. Do you mind if I mention your project?” He used his Mel Brooks card for me! I was really appreciative.
Mel took a liking to me and the project, and he asked what else he could do to help. I asked him if he would sing a song. I would have it written for him, so all he had to do was go to the recording studio and perform it. He said, yeah, sure, and maybe even you and me, we can write something together, think up some ideas. A few weeks later he called me back and said, you know, Lisa, I’ve been doing some writing, and I got something. “Listen to this!” He starts singing to me on the phone, and it’s the beginnings of the song. Then a few weeks later, he’s got more. So he wrote the whole song. It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me! Mel thinks I’m nutty in the nicest way possible, but he believes in the project. And I wanted the music to match the era. I wanted it to feel like an old Hollywood movie.
Does the Automat represent an American ideal in some ways, with its democratic approach?
It really does. And it’s a window onto America over 100 years. It was such an important place for immigrants. As people came into New York, the Automat became part of their American story. It played a role in the Americanization process, because it was an incredible environment: it had incredible food, it was cheap, you didn’t need to speak English, you could stay there a while. You could get freebie fare like ketchup soup, lemonade, water. And a place to stay warm. I think the Automat represents people coming together in the literal and metaphorical senses.
What surprised you most in learning about the Automat?
The big moment was when I found out about Howard Schultz. The creator of what has become the new Automat — ugh, I know people will hate me for saying that. But the way you see a Starbucks on every other block, that’s the way it was with Automats in New York! So to hear from Howard about how he’s never stopped thinking about the Automat when he’s thinking about how to grow Starbucks, I’m just drooling at this point. He could be serving shoes on a plate for all I care, but the point is that one of the most successful food entrepreneurs in the world is saying that. And it was easy to go about getting connected to him because at the time I lived in Seattle, which is kind of like a small Jewish town.
If I had to choose one thing that the Automat was about, it’s about people sitting together and taking their time. It’s not only Starbucks — there’s a gazillion cafes out there. I just think it’s really healthy for society, for people, for us to be stuck with each other and to share a table with one another.
What would you get if you could go to an Automat now?
Macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, mashed potatoes. I would try all the pies. And I would for sure need to try that coconut custard pie that Mel and Carl were both talking about!