Among the impressive documentaries premiering at Telluride this year, Lisa Hurwitz’s The Automat may have a less momentous subject than some, but it boasts unmistakable charms. Many people reading this review may have no idea what the Automat was. A New York staple for decades, it entranced native New Yorkers and visitors alike. But given that the last Automat closed in 1991, younger viewers may have only the vaguest sense of why these establishments captivated throngs of people.
You put a couple of nickels into a slot, and out came a plate of creamed spinach, an order of mac and cheese, or a piece of lemon meringue pie. It was kind of a mechanized, modern-day cafeteria.
Nourishing doc about a vanished fast food haven.
The first surprising fact that the film reveals is that Automats did not originate in New York. They started in Philadelphia, a brainchild of Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart. Hurwitz’s theory is that the Automat was a primary feature of democracy, bringing all levels of society together to share in a communal experience. The first one opened in 1902, and they thrived during the Depression, when the option of decent quality food at bargain-basement prices touched a nerve.
Hardart died in 1918, and Horn died in 1941, but their families kept the Automats going until eating habits changed and real estate became too expensive in midtown Manhattan. Chains like Burger King and Arby’s moved in, a sad comedown for fans.
Hurwitz scored interviews with some of the surviving family members and Automat workers, but the fun of the film lies with some of the other people interviewed. This doc, a passion project for Hurwitz, has been in the works for more than half a dozen years. The undesignated narrator of the film is Mel Brooks, who recalls the many hours he spent at the Automat. His former writing partner and pal, the late Carl Reiner, also contributes pithy anecdotes.
There are other surprising interviews. The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks about the importance of the place to a working woman without a lot of cash. In fact, Automats were a great equalizer. Single women felt comfortable eating alone there, and there were no racial barriers either. Colin Powell speaks about the outings that he and his family took to the Automat when he was growing up. Another unexpected interview comes from former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who talks about taking inspiration from the Automats in building his coffee chain.
Of course the price of a double latte at Starbucks is a long way from the nickel that it cost to get a cup of coffee at the Automat. A few people speculate that things began to go downhill when the Automat raised the price of that cup of coffee. It was the beginning of the end. The chain hung on a while longer, but an era had ended.
Hurwitz supplements the talking heads with tasty archival footage and sharp graphics. Her film is sleek and unpretentious, but even at 79 minutes, it gets a bit repetitious. And perhaps it overuses its celebrity subjects. This is no more than a minor piece of social history, but it wins us over with humor and a pointed touch of melancholy.