The late and lamented automat occupies something of a time warp to those that recognize the word. Maybe “time bubble” is more appropriate.
Perhaps a French phrase or lengthy German word that translates along the lines of “something from the past that is always in the future yet never arrives…” A Decopunk or Retrofuturism limbo. Hugh Ferriss and Norman Bel Geddes never die there.
Sky Captain must certainly have an automat in it, where Jude Law might rendezvous with Angelina Jolie. Maybe in an unseen directors cut? The Shadow or LA Confidential must feature an automat in a scene!
Alas, it seems that automats are missing from many films set in the High Automat Period (approximately 1920–1970).
Documenting the Automat
To rectify this great injustice, liberating the automat from the prison of our ambered memories is Lisa Hurwitz and her part documentary, part paean, The Automat.
It’s a fun look back at the ever-so-shiny cafeteria-diner hybrid, that seemed to be open 24 hours a day in big cities for all those behatted men and well-coiffed women to get a quick (and inexpensive) snack or meal; or just coffee. Oh, and actors/artists/writers hung out there, waiting for inspiration or fame.
The Automat is loaded with (now) elder New Yorkers, vets of Broadway and movies, who ate at automats and recall them warmly. Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Elliot Gould, and non-entertainment celebrities, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Colin Powell appear.
In fact, CBS Sunday Morning has a clip of Mel Brooks and a song that he composed for the film, “At the Automat.”
If all these important tastemakers loved them why did they fail? You’ll just have to watch the documentary to find that out.
Those Who Loved Them
Many of the interviewees remember fondly their fellow diners, seated first-come/first-served egalitarian-style. Others recall certain foods or the chicory-laced coffee.
Besides the interviews, there is archival footage along with pictures of famous folk, such as celebrities returning from a night on Broadway, dressed to the nines, as they used to say.
Several descendants of the Horn and Hardart families, the owners of the eponymous chain that owned most American automats, provide information as well.
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Though they initially appeared at the turn of the 20th century, automats looked “futuristic” with many embodying brightly lit, clean, polished metal, Art Deco and Streamline designs, with the standout detail being a bank of small windowed boxes, each offering a food treasure inside. A nickel or two was all that was needed to open the window and remove the dish. And if one stuck around and watched, a replacement item would “automatically” appear in the window momentarily. It was magic…
There was no wait staff to interface with though there was a cashier to provide nickels. Truth be told, there was a handful of people behind the windows pulling the strings in a “Wizard of Oz”-way.
Not surprisingly, automats delighted children. Not only was the whole operation cool, if you were tall enough, and lucky enough, your parents might give you some coins and let you go to the windows and serve yourself.
Sadly, the automat became passé and the last of the classic Horn & Hardart Automats closed in 1991. By that time they were mostly using vending machines rather than the freshly prepared food in the past.
If only Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” had featured an automat rather than a diner, things might have been different for the automat!
Making “The Automat”
Hurwitz initially launched a Kickstarter to fund the film, collecting over $55,000. She had actually authored a doctoral dissertation on the subject 20 years ago, and, ironically, she never ate at an automat.
She is currently on tour promoting the film with screenings in select cities through October. Here is her schedule, along with openings.
Check out this WNYC interview with Hurwitz, discussing the film and the cultural significance of automats. As a bonus, listeners shared their own automat memories.
If you want to go beyond the documentary, YouTube has a handy collection of automat-set and historical videos.
Saving the best for last, check out this automat scene from That Touch of Mink with Doris Day and Audrey Meadows: