Local NewsDocumentary takes fond look at ‘The Automat’ of yesterday

Documentary takes fond look at ‘The Automat’ of yesterday

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Mel Brooks drinking coffee photographed by Carl Reiner while the two were writers for "Your Show of Shows," c. 1950-1954 in The Automat. Photo courtesy of A Slice of Pie ProductionsMel Brooks drinking coffee photographed by Carl Reiner while the two were writers for “Your Show of Shows,” c. 1950-1954 in The Automat. Photo courtesy of A Slice of Pie Productions

“The Automat”

Not Rated. At the Coolidge Corner Theater.

Grade: B+

Another journey into the past, “The Automat” returns us to the days when Horn & Hardart’s “automats” ruled Philadelphia and New York City. The brainchild of Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, and one of the inspirations for Starbucks, automats were vending machine-like, early 20th century self-service eateries, where you chose what you wanted by looking inside a small window, inserting your money in a slot, usually a nickel or two, and you got a consistently fine product.

Just listen to Mel Brooks and his late writing colleague Carl Reiner wax rhapsodic on the subject of the pies they ate as young men — apple, strawberry rhubarb, chocolate pudding — writing for “Your Show of Shows” in 1950s-era New York City. The 5-cent coffee, which spurted from Italian-style, dolphin-shaped spouts, was French press brew a la New Orleans. The restaurants were big and small Machine Age/Art Deco temples with marble floors, high ceilings and brass and chrome fittings. One of the most famous Horn & Hardart automats was on 3rd Ave. and 42nd St. in New York City. An enormous central commissary would make most of the food and deliver it by truck all over the city.

In opening scenes of “The Automat,” we see remaining parts of automat glass-windowed walls, lying forlornly on the floor of an abandoned house. An elderly man, a former Horn & Hardart manager, who closed the last remaining automat, recalls taking the parts there in 1991.

First-time filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz interviews Brooks in opening scenes (95-year-old Brooks also sings “At the Automat,” a song written and composed by him, at the end). Among the others interviewed in the film are the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who notes how automats were full of Americans from all walks of life. Colin Powell notes that as a boy in the South Bronx he felt welcome at the automat. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has a photo of an automat on his office wall. Elliott Gould recalls going to the automat in New York City when he was child actor on a show sponsored by Horn & Hardart. For decades, Horn & Hardart was “America’s most successful restaurant chain.” Immigrants and single women working in big cities felt at home at the automat.

But things started going south when families moved to the suburbs at the end of World War II, and the automats were forced to raise the cost of the coffee to 10 cents. Competition from “fast food” chains drew more business away. Homeless people started using the big city automats, where people had been allowed to relax and congregate, as places to stay warm in the winters.

The owners of Horn & Hardart were known to be kind and generous to their workers, helping those in financial trouble, and throwing parties for their workers. Still, I wished Hurwitz had delved a bit deeper into the repercussions of the automat workers’ choice not to form a union. Horn & Hardart inspired the Irving Berlin song “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee.” It was featured in such films as “Thirty Day Princess” (1934) and episodes of “The Flintstones” and “Bugs Bunny.” Bob Hope, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Gleason, Abbott and Costello and, of course, Jack Benny could be found in an automat. A Horn & Hardart eatery is the setting of “Automat,” a 1927 Edward Hopper painting.

Notably, no one utters the word McDonalds, another restaurant chain specializing in delivering food to the customer as soon as it is ordered. In one of many period stills Hurwitz unearthed in her research, we see a theater next to a vintage automat, showing Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” in its original 1946 run. It was a wonderful life for the automat, too.

(“The Automat” contains no objectionable material.)

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