Lisa Hurwitz’s fascination with cafeterias dates back to her student days at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. “I was a newcomer to that kind of restaurant, and I loved The Greenery, the college’s cafeteria,” explained the filmmaker, now 32. “So I went to the school library and started doing research on cafeteria history, just for my own interest.”
A niche subject? Maybe, but for Hurwitz a delicious one. And it led to “The Automat,” her engaging, critically touted documentary film about the unique eatery that served bottomless cups of coffee, and plates of food from windowed cubicles.
Hurwitz isn’t alone in her affection for America’s legendary coin-operated, self-service cafeteria chain. Her documentary — which will have local screenings in Seattle, as part of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, Olympia and Port Townsend — opens with Hollywood director and Broadway showman Mel Brooks waxing rhapsodic about trips to the automat as a Brooklyn youth.
“You could put a nickel in and take out a piece of lemon meringue pie,” Brooks reminisces, about a treat his cash-strapped family could afford.
“The Automat” also is garnished with fond reminiscences from such New York natives as the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late former Secretary of State Colin Powell, actor Elliott Gould and Starbucks’ Brooklyn-born chairman emeritus Howard Schultz.
So how did first-time filmmaker Hurwitz snag on-camera interviews with those luminaries, for a low-budget movie about a long-defunct restaurant chain? (The last automat closed in 1991.)
It was a matter of luck, but mostly pluck. The eight-year endeavor began with intensive research, Hurwitz noted by phone from Colorado, where “The Automat” was being screened at the Boulder International Film Festival. “It was a joyful process, unearthing such incredible stuff.”
Though the first “automatic” restaurant appeared in Germany in the 1890s, Hurwitz traced the American phenom to Philadelphia restaurateurs Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, who opened their first automat in that city in 1902.
A decade later, thanks to the success of the original branch and others in Philly, they opened a spacious automat in the heart of New York’s Times Square and kept expanding — to more than 40 outlets in New York City alone.
Strong Horn & Hardart drip coffee with free refills, and fresh, low-cost food served from a wall of vending windows with pay slots, were big attractions. But so was the chain’s art deco décor, which (unlike most utilitarian fast-food outlets today) seemed elegant, with balconies, marble tables and floors, and ornate brass fixtures. The clientele was rich and poor, multiracial and multicultural. Women dining solo were welcome, as were non-English-speaking immigrants. “It had that beautiful diversity that didn’t exist in the rest of the country,” the Harlem-bred Powell reflects on-screen. And Ginsburg, of Brooklyn, recalls stopping by an automat en route to piano lessons and parking herself at a table with a book.
During the Great Depression, an automat was a warm haven where you could sit all day sipping coffee for a nickel. During World War II, Horn and Hardart provided food shipped to U.S. troops.
Hurwitz’s brisk 79-minute film employs techniques popularized by Ken Burns documentaries, mixing historical photos and footage; interviews with historians and Horn and Hardart descendants; and archival clips from movies, TV shows and cartoons featuring the automat.
But Hurwitz’s biggest coup, after raising backing from a Kickstarter campaign and private donors, was scoring those prestigious talking heads. “The star power was sort of accidental. Back when I worked at the Olympia Film Festival, I recruited Elliott Gould to be a spokesperson for our big digital upgrade campaign. He went to the automat as a kid, and was the film’s first celebrity.”
At the Olympia Film Society, where Hurwitz was a staffer from 2016 to 2018, she met a screenwriter who connected her with movie director Carl Reiner. Reiner agreed to an interview, and introduced her to his friend, comedy partner and fellow automat devotee Brooks.
Brooks was so enthusiastic he’s not only in the film, but wrote and recorded a theme song for it. “We’re still in touch,” Hurwitz said. “I was on the phone with Mel the other night, he was giving me business advice. We’re texting, and his personal assistant reads him the reviews every day.”
Hurwitz had no connections to Powell and Ginsburg; she just wrote them letters. (“I played them off each other to secure their involvement.”) She found Powell in person “a total charmer and diplomat.” And Ginsburg “was elegant, soft-spoken, graceful.”
And Schultz? “Getting him was a multipronged approach,” she said, through Judy Neuman, former head of the Stroum Jewish Community Center, and Pamela Lavitt, director of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival and Hurwitz’s former boss when she had a stint working at SJCC. “Howard was so gracious. We filmed him at the original Starbucks in Pike Place Market.”
He participated, Schultz commented by email, because “visiting the Automat as a young boy absolutely inspired me to think differently through many years of developing Starbucks … I think as many people came for the magic as they did for the food.”
Hurwitz is pleased that her movie has rekindled some of that magic. “Somehow it is like a time capsule of the way the world used to be,” said the Los Angeles-raised, now New York-based filmmaker, who plans to make a romantic comedy next. “I think people are really drawn to the nostalgia, which is very comforting right now. I feel proud that the film tells you a lot more than just the history of the automat.”
Correction: Lisa Hurwitz worked at the Olympia Film Society in 2016-2018, not the Stroum Jewish Community Center as previously stated.