The cast of luminaries that first-time filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz assembles in documentary The Automat have one thing in common – extreme adoration for the famed Horn & Hardart eateries, whose soaring ceilings, famed coffee and wholesome vending-machine meals for a nickel dominated the food scene in Philadelphia and NYC through much of last century.
Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Elliot Gould, Colin Powell, Starbucks founder Howard Shultz and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg get kind of emotional recalling the thrill of putting a coin in a slot, opening a glass window and pulling out Salisbury steak, macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach. And dessert. Brooks and Reiner looked downright hungry recalling the coconut cream and chocolate pudding pie. Brooks was such a fan that he wrote and performed a song, “At the Automat,” with a 26-piece orchestra. (“I’ve tasted every kind of brew at every coffee shop. Some were good, and some great, but this one was the top.”)
The Automat phenomenon started in 1902 on Chestnut Street in Philly. Ten years later, its its first NYC location opened in Times Square. It expanded fast, fueled by immigration and women joining the workforce. It was cheap and democratic, all were welcome and everyone came, from fur-clad matrons to construction workers. Tables were communal. Bader Ginsberg recalled happily doing homework there before weekly piano lessons.
Then came a slow decline, hastened by inflation, fast food rivals, a flight to the suburbs, the decline of inner cities, and some bad business decisions by a new crop of executives. The last location, on 42nd and Third Ave., closed in 1991.
Hurwitz, who grew up in LA, said she became interested in the concept and history of cafeterias as a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. She heard of Horn & Hardart (Automat founders Joe Harn and Frank Hardart) and turned her research into a short film project senior year. She had a series of arts-related jobs before moving to New York to work with Italian PR firm Barabino & Partners, keeping the film back-burnered but going. Her Kickstarter campaign got the attention of (Jaws) screenwriter Carl Gottleib, whom she’d once met organizing a film festival. He introduced her to Brooks.
As for Ginsberg and Powell, “I just wrote the two of them letters in the mail. A letter to the U.S. Supreme Court. I did a lot of these. Anyone that I thought would be a good interview that was of the right generation. I didn’t know for a fact that they were customers,” she told Deadline.
The film premiered in Telluride and the Film Forum offered a screen, where it opened last weekend to a hefty $18, 645. It’s added two more locations in LA for a weekend gross $13,665, $4,555 PSA, for a cume of $38,837. Hurwitz’ A Slice Of Pie Productions is self-distributing with the help of Gary Rubin/GRC. “It’s just what made the most sense based on the offers we were receiving to hold onto the film and to maximize it.”
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