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Documentary about long gone chain of Automat Restaurants is fun and sweet-Will be Screened at Winnipeg International Film Festival Sun May 22 at 9 p.m.

The film will be shown as a Drive-in Film in The Asper Jewish Community Centre parking lot, weather permitting. Otherwise, it will be screened inside at the Berney Theatre.

by Jane Enkin April 28, 2022

 

Come see this film to vicariously enjoy delicious nostalgia.  It’s as sweet as lemon meringue pie. There are many fun interviews, some with celebrities, some with people with decades long connections to the long-gone chain of Automat restaurants. Many of the interviewees revel in their childhood memories of eating at the Automat.

 

A Horn and Hardart Automat featured rows of little windows, each displaying a sandwich, a hot food item, or a pastry. Customers pressed a button, inserted a nickel or two, and the window popped open for them to help themselves.  Adding to the feeling of magic was the design of the restaurants. They were huge, high-ceilinged rooms, elegant, with lots of marble and brass. Coffee poured from dolphin-shaped spigots into waiting cups. The food was delicious and fresh.

 

The fabulous Mel Brooks has a lot to say in the film, funny and wise. His description of the way coffee was served is a delight. He loved the Automat as a kid. Brooks and his comedy partner, Carl Reiner, (in separate interviews), tease each other and compare favourite meals. “Coconut custard pie. How could anybody come up with that?”, Brooks muses. “God made that.”

 

The Automat includes wonderful archival photos, stills and film clips, including real life footage, scenes from Hollywood movies, and 60s TV commercials.

 

The film goes over the history of the chain, telling us about the first owners, their ideas and their ideals. From a single restaurant, Horn and Hardart expanded to a huge number of outlets, all of them in Philadelphia and Manhattan. We hear about the excellent labour relations at the restaurants. They were democratic institutions, attracting a wide range of clientele –  class, wealth, race all didn’t matter. Many interviewees, including Colin Powell, (who served as the American Secretary of State) spoke about the diversity and welcome they experienced. “An African-American could go and feel dignified.” 

 

New members of the labour force contributed to the rise of these affordable restaurants. Immigrants enjoyed the quintessential American experience. The thousands of women who took on stenography jobs in downtown locations appreciated the inexpensive, quick meals they could get at the Automat. 

 

The documentary becomes a bit sombre as the demise of the restaurants is described. Many reasons are given, and the sadness of the people providing the history comes through. The last Horn and Hardart Automat, at 42nd and 3rd in Manhattan, closed in 1991.

 

Fortunately, the documentary ends with more nods to nostalgia – the magic feeling, the great food, the elegance and beauty of the marble and brass. And the coffee. Especially the coffee.

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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