New doc revisits the glory of the Automat
by Michael Perlman
Feb 25, 2015 | 5885 views | 1 1 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Lisa Hurwitz
Lisa Hurwitz
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Before the rise of fast-food establishments, there was the Horn & Hardart Automat, which shaped 20th century American dining and culture. Throughout New York and Philadelphia, an average of 800,000 patrons once frequented a total of 180 self-service cafeterias daily.

Film director and producer Lisa Hurwitz plans to release The Automat and capture the glory of an American institution. The first trailer was released on February 10, and is gaining recognition on Kickstarter, Facebook, and YouTube. The Los Angeles native and Seattle resident visited Forest Hills, which played a major role in the Automat's history.

Forest Hills was home to Horn & Hardart Retail Shops on a smaller scale at 71-63 Austin Street and 116-63 Queens Boulevard. Frank Hardart, Jr (1884–1972), the firm’s vice president, resided at 188 Ascan Avenue and 64 Dartmouth Street in Forest Hills Gardens.

Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, Sr. founded the Automat in 1902. Little did they know that the chain would remain in business until 1991, which was marked by the closure of the last Automat at 200 East 42nd Street.

Many New Yorkers retain fond memories of inserting nickels into a slot on a display of compartments, turning a knob, opening a glass door, and enjoying fresh sandwiches, entrées, or pies in an ornate Art Nouveau or streamlined Art Deco ambiance with a signature massive picture window enabling natural light.

Fresh drip-brewed coffee would emerge from the mouth of a crafted lion or dolphin.

Hurwitz referred to the Automat as “a beautiful palace for the people.” The Automat’s quality of food, prices, and inviting design attracted patrons of various economic backgrounds.

“It was a world of its own that facilitated interactions that would be unthinkable today,” she said.

Born in 1990, Hurwitz was too young to step foot inside the Automat, but in 2010, the concept won her heart after encountering the Robert F. Byrnes Collection of Automat Memorabilia at the New York Public Library.

“Not only was the New York portion of its history preserved, but immaculately preserved,” she said. “I needed to act on my fascination. I embraced the experience of eating in a cafeteria at The Evergreen State College, where I loved the variety of food, freshness, home-cooked feeling, and the shared tables.”

Dr. Alec Shuldiner was approached by Hurwitz, who proposed an adaptation of his 2001 dissertation “Trapped Behind the Automat: Technological Systems and the American Restaurant, 1902-1991.” He has since become a member of her production team.

Hurwitz and her team conducted interviews ranging from the founders’ relatives and employees to patrons and preservationists.

“My correspondence with the Horn and Hardart families began in 2013, and we've filmed them and digitized their photos,” she said.

Hurwitz has maintained close contact with Joseph Horn's great-nephew Norris Horn, and Frank Hardart's great-grandchildren’s first cousins Marianne Hardart and Paul Hardart. Norris was once an employee and his father was an executive, whereas Paul's father was a former president and Marianne's father ran the commissary.

Hurwitz also interviewed actors such as Elliott Gould and Nathan Lane, and Edwin Daly, Jr., the son of the company's most influential president.

“I was surprised, since we haven't found anyone whose memory of the company’s history dated as far back as his,” she said.

Hurwitz also sampled some of the Automat’s foods, which she prepared from Marianne Hardart and Lorraine Diehl's book The Automat. That included baked beans, creamed spinach, pumpkin pie, and mac and cheese.

She also visited all former locations in New York City and Philadelphia, where there were remnants of facades. The journey continued with a stop at preservationist Steve Stollman's upstate facility for a look at some salvaged Automat machines.

Hurwitz is not advocating for a reopening of the Automat, but through her film she hopes to reintroduce some key components that are lacking in today’s culture.

“We've replaced talking to one another while eating with texting on our smartphones,” she said.

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Lisa Hurwitz
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February 26, 2015
Thank you Michael for writing this story. You can learn more about the film at www.automatmovie.com