The Automat always seemed like a made-up thing to me. I would see it in Warner Brothers cartoons, and it would pop up in movies, but I just couldn’t make a real world connection with it. It just seemed so awesome. These gorgeous art deco rooms were filled with walls of tiny cabinets that you slipped a coin into and could grab a meal, or a cup of coffee for a nickel. Honestly, there is something magical about this idea, and it just struck me as too unlikely to have ever existed; from a customer service angle alone.
But they were a thing.
They are a treasured part of American history, with deep roots in both New York and Philadelphia, and now almost all but forgotten. They conjure up images of men in fedoras, women in slouch hats. Images of sweeping elegant architectural design, and gleaming surfaces to suggest the hope of the future.
Lisa Hurwitz captures and rekindles those images and their eventual tumble in her engaging documentary The Automat. There’s some commentary by familiar faces. Commentary also come from the families who were involved in the automat. (They’re more commonly known to some as Horn and Hardarts). We slip easily between the pages of history. And we discover these amazing facilities that saw in the 20th century, and closed its last establishment in 1991.
The Automat not only serves as a piece of nostalgia for those who remember them or serves as a forgotten piece of the past for others of us. The film takes us through the automat’s evolution. It tells us it secrets. It also shows the way it served in its beginning as a template for an idealized picture of American society.
Before there was a Starbucks or fast food joint on every corner, there was the scene to be seen at the local automat. There was the environment, the accessibility of, the variety of food. We also see the mixing pot of cultures that defined the earlier days of the 20th century.
For a brief gleaming moment, the automat shone as a beacon of wonder and possibility before it became covered in the grease and cooking oils of progress; urban sprawl, highways, cheaper food production. Now, it lives on only in the memories of those who experienced them and in the pop culture depicting them.
Hurwitz’s film is crisp, informative, and entertaining, perfectly blending the memories her subject shared and the realities of the time. And in best quick service manner, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It clocks in at just shy of an hour and twenty minutes, which is enough time to get a couple of really good cups of coffee, and maybe a slice of that chocolate pudding pie.
I was more than delighted to learn that the automat was a real thing, and I’m sorry as hell that I grew up too late to enjoy them at their height.
Check out The Automat today.