When I spoke with Lisa Hurwitz on March 18, 2022, I started off with my own childhood memory of first visiting the fabled Horn and Hardart automat. Memories like that are what make up her nostalgic documentary, THE AUTOMAT, which delves into the history and culture of that magical way of vending food to delighted customers via coin-operated windows in the elegantly appointed walls of the equally elegantly appointed venues in New York and Philadelphia. Memories of those days are threaded through the film, with, among others, Mel Brooks, waxing rhapsodic about what it was like to get a cup of coffee there, Brooks also wrote the doc’s theme song, which he croons backed by a full orchestra over the closing credits.
Hurwitz, alas, was just a baby when Horn & Hardart closed its last location in 1991, but became fascinated by this unique business model after discovering cafeterias when she started college. It’s the first thing we discussed before moving on to how she snagged so many people, including Colin Powell and Ruth Bader Ginsberg in addition to the ci-mentioned Brooks, into appearing. Brooks bookends the film, while also giving the first-time feature filmmaker invaluable advice about how to proceed. All of which she uses.
We went on to discuss how progressive the Horn & Hardart business model was when the company was founded over a century ago; the synchronicity of coffee in its history and its legacy; how Mel Brooks came to write the doc’s film’s theme song; excellence versus profit; Tom Hanks’ startling confession; and her favorite kind of memento.
We finished up with the importance of bringing joy; taking advice and shaping a film; and where we can find recipes from Horn and Hardart’s glory days. NB: The authors of The Automat (the book) that Hurwitz mentions are Lorraine B. Diehl and Marianne Hardart.