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Lisa Hurwitz - Traveling Back to The Automat

Updated: 6 days ago

Lisa Hurwitz

Traveling Back to The Automat

by Jay S. Jacobs

The automat. It is a world lost in time, but for much of the 20th century, it was a little haven for the people of New York and Philadelphia.

Horn & Hardart restaurants, which were just in those two big cities, nonetheless became legendary for their food, their atmosphere, and their sense of complete inclusion. And for the automat, a marvel of technology which combined vending machine technology with the ability to serve fresh, hot, tasty food. It allowed you to get a hamburger, a bowl of soup, mashed potatoes and the best coffee in the country, all for a nickel each.

For decades and decades Horn & Hardart was the destination for people in New York and Philly. Started in the late 1800s, Horn & Hardart was one of the few companies that thrived through the great depression, because they offered good food in fancy settings, and they were cheap. At the height of their popularity in the 1940s, Horn & Hardart restaurants served 500,000 customers a day.

Not only that, but the chain was also a famously hospitable place to work. Employees were treated like family and become loyal and loving. The restaurants were a melting pot of humanity. Everyone, no matter how rich or poor, no matter what race or religion, no matter what their political or sexual orientation, they all mingled together as equals. As legendary director Mel Brooks says, Horn & Hardart was like a little bit of heaven on Earth.

Of course, eventually time caught up with Horn & Hardart. Starting in the 1960s, rising prices, urban flight and fast-food options led to these palaces of dining to slowly lose their clientele, but the company always tried to keep their lofty standards. By 1991, the last American automat in New York finally closed down, over one hundred years after the Horn & Hardart first opening.

Film director Lisa Hurwitz became fascinated by the saga of Horn & Hardart, leading her to make the documentary The Automat about the phenomenon. We caught up with Hurwitz the night after the film debuted in Philadelphia to discuss her film and the allure of the automat.

Why a movie about automats? Just from looking at your picture I assume you are too young to have experienced Horn & Hardart.

I was really fascinated with my school cafeteria being a place where I could sit wherever I wanted to. I could sit with whomever I wanted to do and just hang out. I thought that concept was really interesting. I was learning about other cafeterias when I came across the automat, which on top of the cafeteria format also had that technology component. Then the fact that people just love it so much. That was really exciting.

Everyone was welcome at Horn & Hardart, no matter their age, sex, race, their affluence or lack thereof, their political or religious views, their sexual orientation, whether they were locals or tourists or immigrants. How do you think that the chain achieved a sort of harmony that the rest of the world in general has usually been unable to reach?

Something about food makes things possible. It was just people felt so comfortable there. They made something really nice for people.

You had a very specific subject. How did you find out about people like Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Colin Powell who had histories with the restaurants?

Well, really it was a guess. I didn't know that they were going to have a connection. I had to ask. I just got so lucky.

Beyond discussing the automats with you, Mel Brooks also wrote a theme song for the film. How did that come about?

I asked him if he would sing a song that I that I would have written. I can't believe he did it. It was collaborative. In the end, I went through 20-some takes of his and I chose all of the exact verses and phrases that I wanted. We assembled the song just like how songs are normally done. It was a real learning experience for me.

From talking with people about their Horn & Hardart experiences, what foods are you most disappointed that you never got to try?

Oh, gosh. Well, I really love macaroni and cheese and spinach. Those are probably the two things I really wish I could have tried. I would have been interested also in the baked beans.

Beyond the food, what else about the Horn & Hardart lifestyle do you most wish that you had a chance to experience?

I think it would have just been such a positive place for me to go to, on even a daily basis. I feel like it really would have completely changed my life.

Beyond their food, Horn & Hardart seemed to have been a model company as far as how they treated their employees. What were you most surprised to find out about their business practices to keep the people working for the company happy and loyal?

You don't usually come across people that just love their employer that much, but that was a trend with them. People stayed working for them for a long time. It was a different time back then. This was so much before my time. Being a different model for a business practice, with different values, that’s definitely interesting for me.

Even though the food was cheap, the actual experience of being at a Horn & Hardart was upscale, from the décor to even basic things like getting dressed up to go out. Obviously, part of that was a sign of the times, but do you feel that to a modern audience the Automat is symbolic of a more civilized era?

It absolutely is. I'm certainly asking myself, “How can we bring back some of these [things]?” Life has gotten to be so complex. There are some things that have been lost. It's really not good. Yes, I believe in progress, but I also believe in people having access to what they need. People interacting with one another. People having places they can go to. I think we should all be stuck together more often. Every time I ride the subway, I feel grateful. Whenever society [is] forced to be on our good behavior. When people just wait in line and take our turn. It's these basic little things that I think we take for granted, but they're so key. I'm not a sociologist, but if I were, I think I would say the automat was an incredibly healthy thing for society. Today we need more things like it. Our society is going to be in trouble if we don't. These basic things about people having their food together. Not taking it to go. Just sitting down next to someone you don't know. It's just these little things. They're so important. I should have had a sociologist in the film. That would have been interesting. I'll go talk to a sociologist.

Automats are still popular in some parts of the world. Do you think that automats could ever have a revival here?

I wish it could come back. But the world has just changed so much.

In the latter years, a lot of the things that had been working about the chain started to come apart. I’m older than you and even I just experienced the tail end of the chain. The last time I was in a Horn & Hardart, which I think was like the fall or winter of 1984, the restaurant I was in didn’t even have the automat system. Do you think that time and changing demographics just caught up with the chain?

Yes. There's that expression, all good things must come to an end. I'd love to believe that that's not true, but as I get older, I feel this in life. Losing things. Losing friends. Losing pets. Time doesn't stand still. There are some things that are just out of our control. It's just part of this natural cycle of life. Life and death. It's not limited to just things with the heartbeat. In my life, I've seen restaurants that I've liked go out of business. It's hard. But I think restaurants in particular, it’s a hard industry. I don't know the percentage of the failure rate, but restaurants go out of business a lot. They're very high-risk operations. People will try out a restaurant concept and see if it works. If it doesn't work, they'll close it. It's very fluid. The trends, they're just changing so quickly. Dining, whatever is in or out, it’s like fashion. That's hard to have to keep up with. Maybe the lesson learned is we shouldn't be so trendy when it comes to food. Food could be something more a little more like timeless and universal.

What was it like exploring that pretty much abandoned warehouse full of the automat supplies?

My heart really sank when I got in there. I wasn't expecting it to be in that condition. That was actually our first day of shooting. It set the tone. I had maybe this peppier documentary in my mind. In the end, it turned out being a pretty peppy documentary, but there were iterations of this film that were darker. The question changed after I went into that barn from, “Let’s spotlight the automat,” to then being like, “What happened? Why did it disappear?” That became a driving question throughout the project and the film – to understand why it went away. It's not a simple answer, why it went away. It was just to understand time passing and the world changing. These are kind of philosophical. We have a lot of facts in the documentary, and we try to explain things, but this overarching theme of the film is that the automat is a place that's full of emotions. It's this inexplicable thing, even. It was just this incredible thing. I close the editorial chapter of the film, but I think that my own thoughts about the automat, they'll probably evolve over time. As I get older, I really hope that I come across… it's not easy to find a sense of community like the automat. I hope that in my life that I'm going to find some automats of my own where I can claim them like the customers of the automats claimed it. I have to believe that there's automats all over the place. They're just with different names and packaged in different ways.

Another thing that made the movie a bit sad was that three of the legends that you were able to talk with – Carl Reiner, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Colin Powell – have all passed away in the last couple of years. What was it like to get to speak with those special people about their love of the automat?

It's hard to explain but even though it’s cool to meet a celebrity when we’re doing one of these shoots it's high pressure. You've got an expensive film crew that's on the clock and you've got a limited amount of time. I was working. My focus was to conduct an amazing interview and get every possible question I could. Just try to really anticipate whatever I was going to need and try to get it. Definitely, I always felt a huge relief after one of these interviews was in the can. Because it's too good to be true that going to get that kind of an interview, and then you get it. Of course, I have I have these great memories now from meeting these people and it's on film. I'll never forget going to Carl Reiner’s house. While my crew was setting up downstairs in his living room, he invited me upstairs to his to his office to hang out with him and we looked at pictures. It's just all these little things.

Alex Shuldiner, your co producer and the guy who originally wrote the dissertation which got you interested in automats, I was reading he lives in The Netherlands, and they still have automats there. Have you ever been able to get out to one with him? Or somewhere else in the world.

He lives in the Bay Area. He has from time to time lived in Denmark. I've never seen the Dutch automats in person. I'm doing so much traveling right now for the film that I'm embarrassed to say my desire to travel has decreased. I just want to be home. One day when things calm down, and maybe I get my interest in traveling back, I definitely would be interested in going to The Netherlands.

You have done Q&As for the screenings of The Automat, both at the Philadelphia Film Festival and yesterday at the Ritz Five in Philadelphia. How have those gone?

It was amazing. It was such a huge turnout. I can't believe it because it only got confirmed and announced like a week ago. That was just so cool, how many people showed up.

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: March 13, 2022.

Photos courtesy of A Slice of Pie Productions. All rights reserved.

Photo of Lisa Hurwitz © 2021 Lucien Knuteson. Courtesy of A Slice of Pie Productions. All rights reserved.

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